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Individualism in overdrive

Improvement guru Tim Ferriss' tips value personal advantages over public good. Frank Bruni writes.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2012 21:17 IST

Having exhorted Americans toward six-pack abs and schooled them in 15-minute orgasms, the personal improvement guru Tim Ferriss has now turned his attention to travel advice. It appeared in The Times recently, and it said a lot about what's wrong with the US.

Ferriss is the self-anointed superhuman who hawks not just the possibility of perfection, as defined by gobs of dough and a godly physique, but the speediness of it. Just heed his mega-selling books and you too can attain The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, thus having quadruple or quintuple that time left over for self-adoration.

And for trips! Ferriss apparently jets around a whole bunch, a guru being only as good as his frequent-flier status, so his dominion extends to the heavens. He is master of air as well as earth. One of the tips he shared in The Times was this: If you must a check a bag, pack an unloaded starter pistol in it, so that the Transportation Security Administration will flag the piece of luggage, thus diminishing or altogether eliminating the possibility of its loss. It's extra work and fretting for them but, hey, you get peace of mind. Isn't that what counts?

To Ferriss' thinking, yes, and I fear he's not exotic in this regard. While I doubt there will be a rush on starter pistols by airline passengers - it's just too much trouble, and too bizarre - his overarching interest in gaming the system at hand is mirrored in other Americans' behavior. So is his emphasis on personal advantage over the public good, which would be undermined if every traveller did as he counselled. There'd be bedlam in airport security operations and a ludicrous number of people carrying around what could be mistaken for lethal weapons.

Selfishness run amok is a national disease. Too many people behave as if they live in a civic vacuum with no broader implications to their individual behaviour.

They game, connive, cheat. Sometimes it's small stuff: the perfectly healthy man who presents a sham doctor's note so that his 60-pound pooch can be designated a 'service dog' and, thus, accompany him into a lounge where pets aren't allowed.

Sometimes it's more consequential: perfectly healthy people bilking the government. Over the last four decades, the number of Americans drawing Social Security disability insurance has more or less tripled, by some estimates. That well outpaces population growth and reflects not just a liberalisation of the requirements to apply for such insurance but the readiness of some people who don't truly need it to finesse the criteria nonetheless.

I've known a few of them. I bet you have, too. Making a mockery of all the Americans who rightly depend on such aid, they exaggerate impairments, pressuring doctors to validate their conditions, on the theory that no harm is really done, not when they're suckling at a teat as elastic and amorphous as the federal Treasury.

But that treasury is the sum of us - of our deposits and withdrawals - and to cheat it is to cheat your neighbour. It's really that simple.

In ourselves we invest plenty. Ferriss' success speaks to that. Advocating what amounts to an epic narcissism, he has ruled the best-seller list and become rich.

Still he schemes.

Don't pay for airport parking, he advised in The Times, if the accrued tickets from leaving your car on the street won't be as expensive. Sure, you're unlawfully hogging a space someone else might make legal use of; maybe you're thwarting street sweepers, too. Not your problem. A conscience is for chumps.

First Published: Jul 17, 2012 21:15 IST