The most common criticism of my blog (which has 60,000 subscribers) is that I write controversial headlines just to get traffic. I usually ignore this criticism because it’s so ignorant. But today I’m going to tell you why writing controversial headlines just to be controversial is totally stupid.

There is no formula for a wildly popular post.

Look, if I knew how to write a controversial headline that would get a ton of traffic then I’d be writing them every day. But really I’d be retired, living in Bermuda, not even writing headlines.

The most successful posts are posts that people email to their friends. Every day, whatever number of subscribers a blog has, that’s how many people read the blog post. The only way you get more readers is if people start telling their friends about the post.

So, let’s do a case study. Here’s the most grabbing headline I can think of: “Martians Take over Google and do Forced Abortions.” It hits on a popular tech company, a popular political topic, and it caters to the freak-show fringe that spends all day online commenting about supernatural events. But you know what? A post with this headline would fail. Because the content can’t support it, so no one would forward it to their friends.

The John Tierney, writing in the New York Times, reports a study about what online content people forward to their friends. The stuff people forward is stuff that inspires them. People like to be inspired to think in new, positive ways that help them to sort out their life and see things differently. People want to better understand themselves and the world around them. Successful posts do this.

It’s difficult to do. The first thing is that you need to really say something, beyond a headline. The second thing is that you need to say something the person hasn’t heard before. In general, if you are saying something someone has not heard before, it’s going to be controversial. Because it’s new.

So here’s a test I do for myself: If I am not a little nervous to post what I’m writing, then I’m probably not saying anything new. It’s fun to be nervous. It’s fun to be maybe wrong. That is not being controversial. That is being engaged and curious and committed to conversation to the point that you’ll put yourself on the line. That’s the gift a good blogger gives to readers, and that’s what makes a good post appear to be controversial.

But here’s something to consider: The most controversial thing a blogger could do, really, is post something that the reader already knows. Because it’s a total waste of time for the reader. Also, it’s controversial for the writer to be so dishonest with herself that she is willing to sit in a room and type stuff that is not even interesting to her. If the content does not scare the author, it’s just plain boring.

You can say that I just post stuff to be controversial. But you try it. Try to think of a topic that is genuinely controversial, that you can write about in a way that makes people want to forward it to their friends.

It’s very, very hard. And when I am able to do it, I am shocked. I try every day, but I succeed in a big way only about 10% of the time.

Hey, did you notice the title of my post? Did you know that I get 1000 readers a day from people typing in “Tim Ferriss Scam” and getting sent to my blog? Here’s the post: 5 Time Management Tricks I Learned From Years of Hating Tim Ferriss.

He just came out with a new book. It’s just as slimy as the first book. The reason is that Tim has no soul. He thinks life is a game, and he is going to be the winner every time, and we want to know how to do it.

The problem is that Tim makes the rules. He’s like a four-year-old playing Candyland and making sure that he gets the Gingerbread man, and the candy cane, and the sort-of-melty ice cream at the end.

So for the Four-Hour-Work-Week the rule is that it’s only work if you hate what you’re doing. So Tim only does stuff he hates four hours a week. He can do this because he has no relationships, so he doesn’t have to accommodate anyone else in his life. It’s amazing, actually, that he even has to “work” for four hours given that he runs his life like a four-year-old.

Now, with the diet book, Tim tells us how we can take out all the emotional and mental health benefits of fitness and understanding your own body. (That’s him up there in the photo, in an ice bath, which increases his metabolism.) But look. I have a better plan. You can get plastic surgery, and you can take Creatine, and you can use diuretics, and you will get the physical fitness results Tim promises in LESS than four hours a week. I should write a book.

But you know why I am not doing that? Because you want to be inspired. And so do I. If I spend four hours a week at the gym, I want to know how it improves what I really care about: my mental health, my personal relationships, my ability to feel inspired on a daily basis.

But, do you know the most inspired part of this post? My headline is not controversial, but I’ll get a lot of traffic, because I rank almost as high in Google for Tim Ferriss as Tim Ferriss does.

121 replies
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  1. Phil
    Phil says:

    I am a regular reader of both Penelope’s and Tim’s blogs. I take the good stuff and am smart enough to discard to bulls4it. History is littered with brilliant, inspirational characters who weren’t very sympathetic.

    We’re all flawed beings, Penelope. Deal with it. I don’t think anyone out there thinks he’s Jesus. He’s a marketer, for God’s sake! We get it!

  2. Kim Anami
    Kim Anami says:

    Question: Could someone please enlighten me on The 15-Minute Female Orgasm? I’ve read the free chapter on it and I’m still not clear–is it a guarantee to get women to clitoral orgasm in less than 15 minutes or is it to give them an orgasm that lasts 15 minutes?

  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    First time reader and I gotta say that, though Penelope may make some valid points, she comes off as a bitter hypocritical hater. For example, she blasts Ferriss for scamming her into wasting time on him but then she goes and does the same thing with her blog posts. Okay, so Ferriss may be a jerk but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some interesting suggestions. I have no intention of taking ice baths to promote quality sleep but at least the guy is working hard at thinking outside the box to provide suggestions for solving common problems rather than tearing down the work of others.

    I am not a fan of Tim Ferriss the person but within a few readings of his posts I’ve already gained a couple new ideas of how to change things up to improve my routines. Thats more than I can say after spending equal time on Penelope’s site – maybe she should focus more on her own ideas than Ferriss’s.

  4. John
    John says:

    Penelope doesn’t just write controversial headlines for traffic. The articles beneath them are deliberately provocative too.

  5. Summer
    Summer says:

    Tim’s book is shit because when you take shortcuts to fitness the rebound looks and feels like shit. (when you take shortcuts in LIFE, you pay for that.) That’s the point, and what is offensive about people who disconnect from their bodies, their work weeks and their lives in order to function in the world instead of working to find a connection and a way to tune into their surroundings so that they might tap into the mind/body strength they possess already.

    Tim’s theory of “hacking” and “cheating” his way through life makes him a role model for sales people, sure. Marketers and sales people. The kind of people who used to draw circles in hotel banquet rooms and tell you that all you needed was “six people just like YOU!” because you deserve to RELAX and HAVE FUN with your time and not do ALL THIS WORK. Because LIFE SHOULD NOT BE HARD- it’s like those diet people telling us that being healthy should not be hard, or work. Whatever.

    • Dzanemorris
      Dzanemorris says:

      I hope nobody mistakes me for a Ferriss-ee, but I will say what he talks about in his book isn’t gimicky or “shortcuts” to fitness in the sense you’re suggesting here, Summer. It’s about diet and exercise, albeit tweaked, and I’m not sure what more ‘connected’ form of taking care of yourself you’re suggesting would be preferable to that.

      The sex chapters, on the other hand, are fully icky and worthless.

  6. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    “If I spend four hours a week at the gym, I want to know how it improves what I really care about: my mental health, my personal relationships, my ability to feel inspired on a daily basis.”

    Well, I find it hard to take your criticism seriously when I consider previous posts in which you talk about other priorities you have, such as “Do whatever you require to lose weight”, consider plastic surgery to remain attractive to the other sex, etc.

  7. Dave A
    Dave A says:

    Your post actually makes me want to go check out Tim’s site again–how’s that for the dynamics of controversy? If you had written a positive post about some great inspiration to you–unlikely I’d click on it.

    So I scanned the description of his book. What a joke. Increasingly, I find myself laughing at things that I assume are intended to be humor–but people actually take this stuff seriously? I hope he includes a chapter on how to effectively use the “Shake Weight” in an exercise routine.

  8. Jessi
    Jessi says:

    Hilarious! I just downloaded a preview of his book and it’s total garbage. I was hoping you’d comment on it. Does he pay people to write the positive reviews? They read like infomercials.

  9. geekette
    geekette says:

    What is really the most obnoxious experience is when you get an unsolicited e-mail (a.k.a. spam) from a fan of Tim Ferris. They usually start off with, "I don’t need anyone full time right now so I can’t pay very much…". What, like I care?

  10. Treacle
    Treacle says:

    This makes so much sense to me.

    One of my most controversial posts this year was “Why Doesn’t the Lingerie Industry Like Women of Color?” and I agonized for months over whether or not to write it.

    It not only turned out to be my most popular post of the year, my readers want *more* like it.

    I don’t know the first thing about Tim Ferriss, but I’ll keep in mind that if I’m not at least a little bit scared when I’m writing, I’m probably not writing good enough stuff.

  11. Lee
    Lee says:

    It’s interesting how the men and women line up on this one. Talk about self centered. You must have bee in Love with Tim at some point?

  12. David Roberts
    David Roberts says:

    I am not a huge Tim Ferriss fan, but I read his book and thought it had some very god concepts. I will say one thing though. In my 43 years on this planet, I have played by the rules, been a “team player”, and been very loyal. This has not gotten me very far professionally. My father always said that “nice guys finish last.” It is so cliche’, but maybe cliche’s are cliche’s for a reason.

  13. Jeremy Lee James
    Jeremy Lee James says:


    I’ve read your blog for a long, long time. I’m also a fan of Tim Ferris. I really don’t understand your hate.

    I met Tim, in person, in Managua, where he was practicing what he preaches in THE FOUR HOUR WORK WEEK: combining a mini-vacation with research for THE FOUR HOUR BODY. I found him to be extremely humble and friendly–even with a nobody like me. He showed genuine interest in me as a person, and asked me several insightful questions about my web business. I’m sure it won’t change your opinion of him, but for what it’s worth, Tim Ferris is a class act.

    Happy New Year! Here’s To Less Hate in 2011,

    Jeremy Lee James

  14. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    I have been reading your blog for years and using the advice from it as much as possible in my business life. At 28, I have attended grad school in a different country, traveled through europe for four years, worked in Edinburgh, London, and Greece, andheld some of the most fascinating jobs. I made travel my priority and every step of the way you offered great advice.

    I read another website religiously as well,although more fun how fun and silly it is, and one day she started directing us to Tim Ferris. I read it a few times. It was interesting, but I couldn’t figure out how to make any of his advice work for me. I’m back in the states now with a few extra pounds, and so when I saw I could pre-order a book on how to lose weight in 4 hours a week, I thought about it, I really did. But then I realized that since nothing on his blog was even remotely helpful, how could his book be any better?

    I know that I return to your blog over and over again. Every time I am aiming for a new job, I open up your links to resume and cover letter writing and re-study interview tactics. I ALWAYS get a call back from at least 50% of the people I contact and an in person interview from 30%. I nail every interview these days and have my pick of jobs. Sure, I am not applying to be a CEO, but I am applying for jobs I really love and want. Whether you are controversial or not, you are pretty much the best thing that happened to me professionally.

  15. Alfredo Mesen
    Alfredo Mesen says:

    uhm, is the link to his book an amazon affiliate link? I’d be curious to know how many people buy his book because of a link found on a post that’s hating the guy.

  16. emma
    emma says:

    Had to laugh at how many people you get visiting your site by typing Tim Ferriss Scam – I did that about 30 mins ago! Am really enjoying the rest of the blog so far & have added it to my rss reader :)

  17. Doug Ransom
    Doug Ransom says:

    I too had concerns about Tim’s character when I read the 4 hour work week (I skimmed it and gave it away as fast as I could). I am curious to read the four hour body and have a hold on the ebook version at the library since I am not sure I want to send funds to the author’s way – maybe if its a really good book and I want my own copy. I rarely read book from the library, generally prefer to purchase and keep or toss.

  18. imelda
    imelda says:

    Penelope, every time I start to wonder about your authenticity, I remember how much you hate Tim Ferriss. And that reassures me.

    The guy is pure sleaze.

  19. Izzy
    Izzy says:

    AHAAA!! What a great way to spend some time on a slow Friday at the office. I have never heard of Tim Ferriss, and coulnd’t give a rat’s ass to find out more. I am sure all those folks who have promoted him in their comments as providing usable info, nice guy, blah blah are genuine, but sorry, I DID follow the link to his new book and really….I won’t pay money for it. I can already achieve an orgasm and hope I don’t need some guy telling me how to get my partner to do it. I am sure the book contains alot more than that, but I am not interested in reading it. Actually I just love reading your stuff Pen and thinking about it. I don’t need more and more info – I think we are actually overwhelmed with info on the web, but your stuff I never tire of. Thanks also to @Summer…LOL!!

  20. Mike
    Mike says:

    The subtext of Tim’s “test subjects” comment is to brag that he’s slept with a lot of women. And I’ve observed that when a man has slept with a lot of women – into the “bragging numbers” – and when those high numbers are actually true, to obtain those numbers has meant a high percentage of those women with whom he’s slept have been ugly. Which, to me, ain’t no accomplishment. This is true even of a very handsome, very charming, very affluent Italian man I know (exceeding Tim in at least the first to categories, and maybe even the third) . He’s had his share of beauties. But those aren’t all he’s had. It’s true of all men of that ilk that I’ve observed: to rack up those high numbers, a lot of the women are invariably ugly. Which deserves no “two thumbs up” I dare argue.

  21. Antone Broccoli
    Antone Broccoli says:

    By advocating quick methods for everything, Tim discourages learning the basic skills that need to be developed to truly master anything. Sure he’s popular, because the whole concept is popular- shortcuts and barely any effort. We all think that’s what we want, but it’s not what really works or what brings true satisfaction.

  22. me
    me says:

    His book was getting a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon – I can see why – it was nothing but quickly recyled blog posts and quack remedies – at one point about 30% of the reviews were negative. Guess what happened this weekend? Over 200 5 star vanilla reviews. It was obviously from Ferriss gaming the system. I used to think he was just a fast talking hustler now I think he is an outright fraud going down the ‘james arthur ray’ path.

  23. Lisa Earle McLeod
    Lisa Earle McLeod says:

    It strikes me that diet advice from a young man with the metabolism of an athlete is probably not going to be that helpful for a middle-aged writer who has to fix food for two teenagers everyday.

    BTW, I meant me, not you

  24. Serra
    Serra says:

    Penelope, it is so funny reading this blog entry because I first found your site when I was googling Timothy Ferriss… I stayed and read through more of your captivating words. And I forwarded some of the links to my friends because the content could specifically help them. Thank you for your fantastic writing – it makes me come back (and a flashy title NEVER does).

  25. Sara Bliss
    Sara Bliss says:

    I thought I was the only one who thought Tim Ferris was arrogant. Did you see his interview with the Mixergy founder? Tim was giving the interviewer shit the entire time. Hw presents himself as a bully.

  26. Al
    Al says:

    Get the June, 2011 ELLE MAGAZINE and read the Tim Ferriss profile by Maggie Bullock on p. 194. Not only does she interview him, she tries his 4 HOUR BODY diet and admits to bursting into tears when the diet proves to be failing utterly.

  27. Eric Wentworth
    Eric Wentworth says:

    Whenever I see another person (frequently people who should know better)touting the snake oil that Tim Ferriss promotes I automatically think less highly of that person. It’s amazing how many people are gullible enough to buy into his self-promoting crap. But all you have to do is look at some of the other idiotic things Americans do (like elect fringe whackos to Congress) and you realize that most people simply aren’t all that bright.

    Secretly I think I must envy his ability to obtain fame and fortune by fooling all these types. It’s just that even with the disdain I feel for people who don’t think for themselves I doubt I could ever stoop to the level of an obvious sociopath.

    For bloggers and others who need to bump up their numbers however, Tim Ferriss is a god-send. He always delivers the goods. He’s the guy a lot of people love to hate.

  28. Rmelgar9
    Rmelgar9 says:

    Dear Penelope,

    first i would like to congratulate you , because this is the second time today that i end up here, with no -first intention, you can certainly attract attention and that is good! I do feel that focusing on discrediting someone puts you on a “disconnected” position, how can someone who considers relationships so important not realize how silly this post look? Or are you just fishing attention, what if you work together with good old Tim, after all i googled him not you…
    I certainly admire your writing skills, at least you did’t outsourced it, or did you?

    Ps: i’ve lost an inch of waist this past week, following his advices , and this way of writing was the sandwich thing he taught on his 4h ww book hehe..

  29. lisa
    lisa says:

    Penelope, AMAZING post. Tim Ferriss is such a crook. I can’t believe people buy his crap and load of lies. It’s really disgusting. There’s nothing sincere about him. I wish someone did a real investigation into WHO is actually writing those reviews for his books. There is NO WAY hundreds of REAL people wrote positive reviews the very first day the book went live on the site. It’s clear he has personal assistants all over the world writing his reviews. I feel like it’s A BIG LIE and it’s not fair to the average bloke who doesn’t know that he’s gaming the system. My theory is that Tim is over compensating for something. Maybe short-guy syndrome?? Considering he’s quite short, maybe he just wishes he was taller. And more handsome.

  30. Frank
    Frank says:

    Tim Ferriss is a sociopath, psychopath, asshole and liar. Kind of like if Barnum had been a dick.

    The fact that he is so successful in this day and age makes me question humanity.

    Kudos to you for calling him out on his shit. None of his BS checks out.

    Wishful thinking.

    • Rolf
      Rolf says:

      Actually most of his writings checks out very well. Both his exercise and diet writings works in real life and science supports it.

      I have not tried the 4HWW stuff, but it is pretty logic.

      Instead of arguing with negatives I see this blog as a crash in belief systems and personalities. Tim Ferris is very goal driven, logical and extrovert. This seems to clash with those who believe the world is not built of logical small systems making larger systems.
      The issue is not with Tim Ferris, his writings and life but the agression he triggers with those who see the world differently and who value emotions and soft values more than tangible targets.

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