In this episode my guest is AJ Jacobs – author, journalist, lecturer, and human guinea pig. AJ has written four New York Times bestsellers, with his writing combining memoir, science, humor, and a dash of self help. His genre immersion journalism, has also been called stunt journalism, where he goes deep into a particular topic or experience and then writes about it (sometimes for years).
Jacobs also writes for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and New York Magazine. His most recent book and the one that we explore most in this interview is, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, where he endeavors to thank everyone who was involved in making his morning cup of coffee possible.
We also talk about his creative process. We talk about how he chooses the topics that he devotes years of his life to. We talk about how he finishes, how he gets books over the finish line and have them be good. I believe that you will take away at least one thing that will improve the quality of your life and help you to make a contribution to others. So please enjoy.
00:03:21 – What’s life about?
00:13:27 – Origin Story
00:28:18 – How did writing this book change your life?
00:30:25 – Expressing yourself naturally
00:35:38 – Lightning round
01:02:13 – The Creative Process
01:07:06 – Reaching the finish line
LINKS ** The School for Good Living receives commissions for purchases made through some links in this post.**
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey
TED Talk: My Journey to thank all the people responsible for my morning coffee
World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation
Walker’s Game Ear Muff
Twitter – @AJJacobs
Bryan Miller: (00:00)
A question asked, courageously answered honestly, and lived authentically can change your whole life. For me, that question was, how can I use what I have, what I love, and what I know to bless the lives of others? The School For Good Living and this podcast are one answer to that question. Hi, I’m Bryan Miller. I know that the world can work for everyone, but that it won’t until it works for you. I’ve created this to help you make the difference you were born to make. It’s a series of conversations with thought leaders who are moving humanity forward, and in each episode I explore their lives and the work they do. I also ask them to break down how they’ve gotten their books written, published, and read. This podcast is all about exploring the magic and mystery and sometimes the misery of the creative process. So if you have a mission, a message, and a motivation to share it, this podcast is for you. Welcome to The School For Good Living.
Bryan Miller: (00:57)
Hello, my friends today, my guest is AJ Jacobs author, journalist, lecturer, and human guinea pig. AJ has written four New York Times bestsellers. His writing combines memoir, science, humor, and a dash of self help. AJ has written a book called The Year of Living Biblically. This is a genre, immersion journalism, which has also been called stunt journalism, where he goes deep into a particular topic or experience and then writes about it sometimes for years, having read the entire encyclopedia Britannica, having read and lived as best he could, all of the commandments in the Bible. Having been very healthy, written book 1200 miles at a walking treadmill desk. Jacobs writes for the New York times entertainment weekly and New York magazine dental economics and has been, or maybe still is an editor at Esquire magazine. He’s appeared on Oprah at the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, the Dr Oz show, Conan and the Colbert Report. So you get, he’s a successful writer, but he’s also a fantastic human being. His most recent book and the one that we explore most in this interview is Thanks A Thousand, A Gratitude Journey where he endeavors to thank everyone who was involved in making his morning cup of coffee possible. And it’s also something you can see a TED talk that he has done. Very funny, very thought provoking in some ways. And now that I’m recording this intro, I’m not sure how I neglected to bring this up in the interview, but in some ways really kind of a Buddhist perspective. But I won’t still all of that from you. You can read the book and see what I mean, very insightful. In this, we also talk about his creative process. We talk about how he chooses the topics that he devotes years of his life too. We talk about how he finishes. It’s one thing to have a lot of ideas, but to actually get them over the finish line and have them be good. AJ talks about how he does that. And we also talk about surgery without anesthesia. So I hope that you enjoy this interview. I think you will. And I believe that you will take away at least one thing that will improve the quality of your life and help you to make a contribution to others. So please enjoy this conversation with AJ Jacobs. AJ, welcome to The School For Good Living.
AJ Jacobs: (03:21)
Thank you Bryan. It is a delight to be here.
Bryan Miller: (03:24)
AJ will you tell me please, what’s life about?
AJ Jacobs: (03:27)
I know that you start every interview, so I was prepared for this. I even wrote, I wrote a, a bad joke, but I decided not to use, which is.
Bryan Miller: (03:35)
Oh come on. You got to use it now.
AJ Jacobs: (03:37)
Well, I’ll tell it to you, but it’s in brackets as something I would not, I was going to say, Oh, it’s about 78 years if you’re an average American. So, uh, but uh, but I think it’s about, uh, to me trying to, uh, uh, get as much wellbeing as you can, achieve happiness, but not just for yourself, for others as well. And the, the good thing, uh, to me is that they are interlinked. That you can’t be really happy if you’re just focused on yourself and that is to help others.
Bryan Miller: (04:21)
Yeah. That’s somewhat of a paradox, I think, where it seems a little counterintuitive to think that the more you focus on yourself, the less happy you would be. But that’s certainly true in my experience and the people that I coach.
AJ Jacobs: (04:34)
Yeah, it is paradox. It’s a delightful paradox. Uh, but I agree it doesn’t make sense. Uh, but the more you do focus on your own happiness, you become less happy I find. And I, for I’d say the first 35 years I was very self obsessed and self focused. Maybe I still am, but uh, I’ve improved and I think that’s made me a happier person.
Bryan Miller: (05:01)
It’s interesting to me that you mentioned age 35 because that was, that exact year was a pivotal point in my life as well. What, what happened for you to change your focus at the age of 35 around that time?
AJ Jacobs: (05:14)
A constant accumulation of tiny little shards of wisdom and eventually you become a little wiser. But I never had the road to Damascus moment where I’m like, Oh, I’m a selfish bastard. Uh, I should, uh, I should start to think of other people. What about you though? I know you had an interesting, you had a talk with a rabbi, I believe, right?
Bryan Miller: (05:37)
That’s right. Yeah. I man, so the short, you know, somebody once told me, you know how you make a long story short, you don’t tell it, but since you asked, you know, for me it was a, it was a case of, I think it was, it probably wasn’t my midlife, somewhere between my quarter-life and midlife crisis of where, you know, a lot of combined in my life to where I was experiencing a lot of unhappiness and unworkability and I was ignorant enough that I didn’t recognize that I was the common denominator. Right? The problem was always out there. But between, you know, being in a job that I didn’t love my dad having died, having a son who was born 14 weeks prematurely at two pounds, spending nine months in the NICU and on top of it being in a marriage that ultimately for me wasn’t fulfilling. It was just my life crucible to where I said like, what am I doing on this planet, you know, and how many more years of this do I do I want to endure? And it was in that moment that I really was looking for answers, you know, anywhere and everywhere, and was fortunate to cross paths with, with rabbi Benny Zippel here in Salt Lake. And one conversation changed my whole life.
AJ Jacobs: (06:49)
Wow, can I just ask, what was it? I know that I can’t make a long story short, especially one about something that changed your life drastically. But what was it that was the sentence he said, was it a paragraph? What did he say that made you see the light?
Bryan Miller: (07:07)
So what it was was, well, he started by, you know, inviting me and we sat down. He’s very, very fatherly, you know, and again, this was a time after my dad had passed and when he just asked me to share, he’s, you know, like what’s going on. And I told him and he, he then invited me and he just listened and he didn’t diagnose anything. He didn’t prescribe anything, you know, in that moment. And, uh, he, he invited me to do this little thought experiment. And I sometimes use it now when I speak. So I suppose anyone listening gets a chance to, to follow along right now, but, and, and I just want to interject. I’m going to go sideways for a moment to say AJ I loved when you hosted Tim Ferriss’s podcast.
AJ Jacobs: (07:52)
Well Thank you.
Bryan Miller: (07:52)
You got to guest host and I’m feeling a little bit now, like I’m the guest on my own podcasts. So maybe you’ve got this talent.
AJ Jacobs: (07:59)
Oh, my pleasure. Will I love hearing your story. I’ve heard mine, so I don’t need to hear it again, but I’m, I’m fascinated with yours.
Bryan Miller: (08:08)
So, okay. So here’s how it goes. So I’m sitting across the desk, I mean in, in Rabbi Zippel’s office, and he’s listened to this long sad story of which I am the subject, the victim, of course, I’m the victim of my own life’s choices. And, and yet he’s kind enough to not point that out to me. Uh, and instead he just says, Bryan, I want you to try something. And I said, okay. And he said, close your eyes. Now of course, for people driving, this doesn’t work, so don’t do that. But he said, close your eyes and I want you to imagine the seven and a half billion people on earth and I want you to picture in your mind’s eye as best you can. All of the activity that’s occurring, all of these people going about their lives, people being born, people dying, you know, Time Square is bustling. Like whatever is happening is it’s all happening right now. And he said, can you picture? And I said, yeah, I can see it. You know, planes taking off and reunions happening and birthday parties, all that. And he said, okay, now that you’ve got that image in your mind, what I want you to do is picture that you are the one element missing. Like you’re, you’re absent. Can you feel the difference? Can you feel it? And I said, nope, not at all, not one bit. And he said, and I feel myself as I retell this, you know, being emotional, just re-experiencing it and remembering it. And he said, that’s your problem. He’s like, all that stuff you told me, that’s not your problem. Your problem is you can’t feel the difference that you can make here on earth. And until you find and live your purpose and you’re congruent with, with why you’re here, nothing you do will fulfill you. And, and in that moment, you know, I say this sometimes when I share that is it feels to me a little bit like that scene in Tommy Boy where you know, Dan Akroyd tells him like that scent that the horrible scent, you know? And he’s like, well, the first step is pinpointing it, but now you’ve got to get rid of it. So it’s like it didn’t help that he pointed it out when he stopped short of telling me what it was, but he said, I don’t know what it is. Only you can figure it out and you’ve got to find it and live it. And so I left that office determined to find and live my purpose. And ever since then, you know, life has been, it’s not like it’s all been sunshine and rainbows, but a constant exploration to more deeply understand and live true to that. It’s really, I guess you could say the wonderful life exercise, right?
AJ Jacobs: (10:39)
Yeah. There you go. Exactly. Exactly. Uh, and it’s, uh, it’s interesting cause I have a file that I keep, uh, called one thing and after every conversation or dinner or podcast or TV show, I try to write down one thing to remember. So that will be my one thing. And listen, if other listeners, I, I love this one thing because if you don’t remember one thing, you remember nothing. If you try to remember more than one thing, often you just get a blur. So I’m a big fan of the one thing idea. Um, and I will not be offended if, uh, any and all listeners do this and make that their one thing from this podcast instead of anything I say.
Bryan Miller: (11:29)
Well right on, that, that’s really beautiful. I, I appreciate that. I, I’m going to adopt that practice at least for a little while, see how it works in my life.
AJ Jacobs: (11:36)
Oh yeah. Give it a shot. It is amazing. Uh, I mean, what am I, I look at it every few days. Uh, I remember I was listening to a podcast about Michelangelo and the one thing I remember from that is that he did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel. The Pope kind of made him, and he was, he wrote letters to his friends about how insecure he was as a painter because he thought of himself as a sculptor and that he was doing a terrible job and this was such a disaster. And, uh, you know, he, he created one of the greatest works of Western civilization. So if he was having self doubt, I think it’s okay for us to help self doubt.
Bryan Miller: (12:23)
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so AJ, I’m going to turn the questions back to you, if that’s okay with your permission. Okay. Awesome. So now you’ve written a lot, but when I asked if you would be on, and by the way, I imagine you’ve probably estimated this in your lifetime, how many words would you estimate you have composed?
AJ Jacobs: (12:47)
That is a very good question. I think I’ve topped a million but that, but that includes emails. So, uh, uh, but I know that my books are about a hundred thousand words each if you average amount. So, and I’ve written about six or seven, so.
Bryan Miller: (13:06)
Awesome. So when I asked you if you would be a guest on this show, it was because I specifically wanted to ask you about Thanks a Thousand, your most recent book. And for anybody who doesn’t know this book, you might start with the TED talk. Um, that’s what I would recommend. Maybe you’d say something else, AJ.
AJ Jacobs: (13:26)
No, that’s great.
Bryan Miller: (13:27)
Yeah, it’s such a, it’s such a fun concept. Um, but rather than me try to articulate, let me ask you this, AJ, will you tell me with this book, Thanks a Thousand, a Gratitude Journey. Who did you write this book for and why?
AJ Jacobs: (13:43)
Uh, yeah. Well, I’m happy to tell you sort of the origin story. Uh, and it was that I knew intellectually how important gratitude is. Uh, there are all these studies about how it’s linked to happiness, to health, to better sleep, you name it. Uh, and, uh, so I, I decided to do this gratitude practice, this ritual before every meal. I would say a prayer of Thanksgiving. Uh, but the trick is I’m not very religious. So I decided instead of thanking God, because I’m agnostic, why not thank some of the people who help to make my meal a, a reality. So I would before a meal say, ah, let’s thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes and the cashier who sold these tomatoes to us. And my son, who is about 11 at the time said, you know, dad, that’s, it’s fine, but it’s also pretty lame because these people, they can’t hear you. They’re not getting anything out of it. They’re not in our apartment. If you really cared, you would go and thank him in person. And I sort of had that light bulb, like that is a lovely idea for a book. He just gave me a book idea. So he earned his supper and it turned out to be a lovely idea, major pain in the ass, but a, a lovely idea because, uh, I decided to focus on one food to make it simpler. Uh, which was coffee, which I can’t live without. And I decided to thank everyone who helped make that morning cup of coffee. I buy at this coffee shop around the corner, uh, a reality. And I took it wide. So I had to thank, it turned out to be over a thousand people, uh, because I had to thank the farmers. I went to South America and thank them. I thank the for sure. Um, I thank the barista, but there’s also the logo designer. There’s the truck driver who drove the coffee beans to the store. There’s the person who painted the yellow lines in the street so the truck wouldn’t go into traffic and smash and, uh, and prevent my coffee beans from arriving. So it was, um, once you start to think about it, there are literally thousands of people responsible for every little thing in our lives. The architects, designers, biologists, uh, people in transportation, government employees. It just goes on and on. So it took me a long time and I traveled a whole bunch, but, uh, it was overall a lovely experiment and helped me realize all the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.
Bryan Miller: (16:44)
Yeah. Which is so easy to do and, and so natural. Right?
AJ Jacobs: (16:48)
Bryan Miller: (16:50)
And one thing you said early in the book, you say, I’d estimate that in my default mode, I’m mildly to severely aggravated more than 50% of my waking hours, which I think, is it still true.
AJ Jacobs: (17:03)
I’ve gotten it down to about 40, 45%. So a, I feel that’s a big victory and I’ll keep fighting to get it lower. But I talk about in the book, we all have our, uh, our two sides, sort of the, uh, the Larry David side and the Mr. Rogers side. So the Larry David side, the cynical, pessimistic, noticing what goes wrong. And then the Mr. Rogers, which is looking on the bright side. And I, you know, I think I was born with quite a strong Larry David’s side. And I also, I like to watch the Larry, I’d rather watch the Larry David show than Mr. Rogers, but I don’t want to live it. It’s just not a fun place to be mentally. So, uh, I felt, uh, I try to get rid of this, this bias towards negativity that I think all humans are born with. It had evolutionary, uh, usage way back when, when we were on the Savannah. It was good to be paranoid. So you wouldn’t get eaten by a tiger. But now it just, uh, it just makes our life worse and causes anxiety and depression. So I’ve really been, uh, hard at work to try to get, minimize the negative bias. Uh, and again, it’s like it doesn’t come naturally. I have to do it every day. I have to do practice this every day. I have to thank people excessively. I don’t go to South America and thank them anymore, but I still try to write notes. Um, and, uh, and I still try to say at night I’ll do a ritual where when I’m falling asleep instead of, uh, counting sheep, I’ll go through the alphabet and count, say something that I’m grateful for for every letter. And it gives it a nice structure. So like, A, I’m grateful for the Apple pancakes my kids made for the weekend, or B, I’m grateful for the TV show, Barry, uh, on HBO with Henry Winkler and every letter yields something to be grateful for. So it’s those kinds of daily rituals that I feel I need to, uh, keep myself from descending back into that negative bias.
Bryan Miller: (19:35)
I think that’s really beautiful. And my wife and I adopted something a couple years ago. Along those same lines, we don’t necessarily go through the alphabet as much as we love the alphabet, but what we do is we, we take a moment before, I’m going to make a confession cause we have, we actually have a multi-part bedtime ritual. We, we like to go to bed together at the same time. And, uh, and one of the things we do, here’s the nerd, like the super learning nerd, personal growth, self-improvement junkie in me. We actually have a couples affirmation that we say together. And so, um, I’m not going to say it, I barely admit it. But after that we then go through what are we grateful for from that day. And what I’ve learned is it’s such a fun way to connect because we, even though we were together, you know, maybe at dinner or whatever, we didn’t recap our day. And by just focusing on that highlight, it’s a fun way to change our focus, get in a beautiful state, and then also just share a little bit of each other’s experience. It’s, it’s really, it is an amazing thing.
AJ Jacobs: (20:37)
That’s a lovely ritual. Yeah. I like that. Maybe I’ll try it. The problem is my wife goes to bed at 10 and I go to bed at like 1:30. So it might be, I don’t want to wake her up. That wouldn’t help.
Bryan Miller: (20:48)
Yeah. That, that would have perhaps the opposite. Yeah, well and I love, I think I came across it on LinkedIn. Of course, this book contains many strategies as well, but I think I came across something you wrote that was a list strategy one through 10 of things that we can do to experience more gratitude in our lives. One that didn’t make the list per say, not this way, although there’s maybe a version of it here. You say surgery without anesthesia. Will, you talk about that. Why do you say that and what, what do you mean by it?
AJ Jacobs: (21:27)
Yeah, that is sort of a mantra that when I am feeling particularly annoyed or depressed, I do try to say that out loud to myself, surgery without anesthesia. And basically I’m reminding myself of what life was like a hundred, 200 years ago and it was hard. Uh, you know, we have a lot of problems now and I don’t want to minimize those, but we should be incredibly grateful that we live when we do. Uh, because the good old days were not good. The good old days were terrible. They, they were just, they were disease ridden. They were smelly. They were sexist and homophobic and violent. At least if you believe Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, he writes about how we live in the least violent times.
Bryan Miller: (22:20)
Yeah. Even, even though people don’t believe it. Yeah, in that book, The Better Angels of Our Nature changed my perspective of the world for sure.
AJ Jacobs: (22:27)
Oh, lovely. Me too. I’m a fan. Um, so yeah, and, and uh, when I was researching one, one of my books, like ran across this description of first-person description of a woman who had to undergo surgery before there’s anesthesia. And it was just so horrible. I mean, these back, uh, in the 1700’s surgeons, you wouldn’t make an appointment if they would just show up at your door. They’d say, we’ll be there sometime this week because, uh, it turned out if they made an appointment, people would commit suicide before the surgery. Cause it was just so hard. Allegedly. I read it in, uh, a, uh, uh, uh, authoritative source. So allegedly, but, um, but yeah, it is, uh, it was just, it was just horrible. And again, we have huge problems now. Maybe some of the like climate change this and you know what, that is a worldwide problem but, but we shouldn’t feel helpless that the world just keeps getting worse and worse because it doesn’t, a lot of parts of the world have gotten incredibly better.
Bryan Miller: (23:37)
Yeah, absolutely. And our own ability to shift, not to dismiss or pretend they don’t exist, you know, problems and these challenges that we face individually or as a society, but the power that we have to create our own experience within, you know, the world. And this was something I was almost entirely oblivious to, you know, for those first 35 years of my life before my conversation with the Rabbi. But then what I realized is even after we, we come to an awareness, then the work begins because then it’s responsibility and choice and doing it even if we don’t feel like it or not, right. Like nobody makes us remember to say surgery without anesthesia. Every time Apple releases a new update for my, you know, for our phones or whatever. But, but we can.
AJ Jacobs: (24:26)
Right,iIt is, as you say, it’s, it’s a discipline and it is, uh, uh, that to me, uh, it’s like I’m not very good at going to the gym. I do still, I walk on my treadmill a lot. I write, I write and email on my treadmill. Um, but, uh, but I do understand the importance of, uh, rituals. And, uh, even though I don’t go to the gym, I feel I go to the mental gym a lot.
Bryan Miller: (24:55)
Yeah, no, that, that’s great. Tell me with, um, do you ever like, one of the things that I find because I do teach principles related to gratitude in the coaching that I do, uh, recognizing it is kind of like a super emotion or as you know, we’ve heard, you know, the key, the parent of like, was that Cicero, gratitude is the key, right?
AJ Jacobs: (25:18)
The primary virtue may think something like that.
Bryan Miller: (25:24)
But one thing that I’ve discovered in my research and in my experience is sometimes gratitude exists for me only as an intellectual exercise. And it doesn’t necessarily exist as an experiential. And in fact, sometimes I feel like crap when I tried to make myself be grateful because then I don’t feel grateful. And I wonder if you ever have a similar kind of experience, like there’s a difference between thinking grateful and being great, like feeling grateful. And does it ever kind of work in, in the, in the inverse for you?
AJ Jacobs: (25:58)
I do, I do know what you’re talking about. And I feel one way to battle that is to make it more outward facing. So you’re not just counting your, what you’re thankful for. You’re going out and thanking people, um, or writing thank you notes that makes it more concrete and emotional for me. So for instance, uh, I would wake up during this year, I would wake this project of thanking a thousand people. I might wake up with my default grumpy state, but I would force myself to spend a couple hours writing notes to people and calling them. And eventually the actions, uh, forced my mind too catch up. And that’s been a big theme in, in all of my books is how much your behavior affects your thoughts. And there’s a great quote that I wish I’d come up with, but I didn’t, it was the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He said, um, uh, it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. So act as if you’re grateful, act as if you’re optimistic and eventually your brain catches up.
Bryan Miller: (27:15)
Yeah, no, I love that. And I, I think about something that I once heard, you know, the spiritual teacher Osho said, I love, and he was talking about, um, he’s talking about being wise or being achieving enlightenment. And, and he said something along the lines of, at first it will seem only as if you are, you know, but with time, and it was like, that’s so, so beautiful.
AJ Jacobs: (27:41)
That is interesting. Yeah. I hadn’t heard that from, I’ve heard it. Uh, I mean, CS Lewis talks about it. And, um, so, uh, and, uh, and I know Teddy Roosevelt talked about someone at once, asked him, how, how did you, uh, how were you so brave? And he said, I’m not, I just pretend that I’m brave. Uh, and eventually I become a little more brave. So, uh, it’s a theme throughout all of these wise people. Uh, and, uh.
Bryan Miller: (28:12)
East and West confirmed on both hemispheres.
AJ Jacobs: (28:15)
There you go. It must be true. Absolutely.
Bryan Miller: (28:18)
So how did writing this book, assuming it did, how did writing this book change your life?
AJ Jacobs: (28:27)
Ah, well, it has made me happier and more grateful and, uh, but again, I have to work at it. I feel it’s always, it’s, it’s not that I can rest on my laurels, but it gave me some of the tools and habits to become more grateful. Um, and also another thing that I liked, uh, was to market the book. I decided, I, I announced I would write a thousand thank you notes to readers of my books, so they would just go on my website and fill in their name and address and maybe a little something about them. And then I would write a thank you letter to them. And just doing that was quite, again, huge pain in the ass. I didn’t realize how big a thousand letters is.
Bryan Miller: (29:16)
Uh, that’s a lot of stamps.
AJ Jacobs: (29:18)
There’s a lot of stamps. Yeah, it was not, uh, economically my best move. But it was a, it was quite lovely because I got to a, I not only got to, you know, feel like hear from people, uh, but I, I heard what parts of my books resonated with them and I got to know a little about their lives and, uh, you know, I got to see sense of humor. Like one, they, they asked me, a lot of them asked me to draw, which I’m not, not my specialty. They’d say draw a dog or a taco. I don’t know.
Bryan Miller: (29:52)
Seems pretty random.
AJ Jacobs: (29:54)
It was totally random. Uh, but I would do it, you know, I’m like, listen, that’s a, if that’ll make you happy. I, I actually, I was proud of myself. I went above and beyond and drew a dog eating a taco. So hopefully they were happy. But it’s been, yeah, it’s been great. And eh, and actually it has helped me from a selfish point of view, cause people will tweet about it or post on Instagram the letter I wrote. And so it’s sort of like, you know, eh, giving me a little boost as well.
Bryan Miller: (30:25)
That’s awesome. That’s fun. So, okay, I want to, I want to ask one more question before we shift to the enlightening lightning round, but, okay. So two questions. The first question is about humor is about your humor AJ, because part of what I love about this book is that it, it, and, and I love about your TED talk and just talking with you now is that it comes through like the book is fun. It’s interesting. It’s, it’s creative and, and I get the sense that there’s, I mean a real, obviously a personality there that’s authentic and it’s coming through on the page. But in your experience as a writer, like how much of that is you just expressing yourself naturally and how much is something that you’ve consciously cultivated?
AJ Jacobs: (31:12)
That’s a great question. And I don’t know if I have the answer. Um, partly because like, like we just discussed sort of, you act your way into a new way of thinking. So if I, if I started writing and, and trying to, uh, make it as entertaining as possible, eventually I grew into that. So I’m, but I do love it. I think that it’s a way to get across a message without being too preachy. And, uh, so I do try to make it humorous. Not everyone loves all of my, uh, my humor, but I’ll, uh, I’m happy the, some people seem to, and uh, yeah, it’s, it’s just a way like, you know, uh, a friend of mine talks about, you know, you gotta give him, uh, like popcorn and bubble gum in addition to the broccoli, uh, a little bubble gum and broccoli. That sounds like a bad combination. So I think he needs to revise that. But, uh, but yeah, and there’s lots of studies that when people are in good moods, they are more creative. They are, they are better at learning. So, um, for me, uh, and I think about this a lot, cause I, I’m involved with this philanthropic group and, uh, making people feel guilty is one way to get them to give money. But I actually don’t think it’s the most effective way and I think it shuts them down. So in terms of motivation, making people feel good, just that sort of the positive as like the carrot as opposed to the stick I think is more effective.
Bryan Miller: (32:57)
Yeah, I think you’re right. In fact, I know Tim Ferriss just put a in a quote in a recent five bullet Friday about no man has ever been shamed out of his sins or something like that.
AJ Jacobs: (33:09)
There you go.
Bryan Miller: (33:10)
Yeah, I think that’s true. So, okay, last gratitude related question for now is just this, I loved the connection that you made. I wouldn’t have made this myself, I don’t think. But you talk about, you say in the book, you can’t be grateful if your attention is scattered. Right. And you’d written an article on, I found on LinkedIn that I thought was great about what you called unitasking. I’d never heard, of course I’ve heard of, you know, multitasking. I’ve never heard of unitasking but I just wondered what your experience was there with this idea of being present or being focused on a single thing. And how that might relate to the experience of gratitude.
AJ Jacobs: (33:55)
Yeah, I think it’s absolutely key. And I do, uh, I once wrote an article on unitasking where I tried all these methods to focus as much as possible. And, uh, I think it’s a prerequisite for everything. It’s a prerequisite for, for being grateful cause you can’t notice what to be thankful for. Um, but it’s also a prerequisite for, for thinking, uh, and for relationships. And you know, once I started to pay attention to how much I multitask, it was kind of a revelation and, and doing something like even talking on the phone now I try to talk on the phone with my mom, force myself, just to talk on the phone, which, you know, I didn’t do for many years. I was looking at my email, I was cleaning up, I was doing something else. But I like if you force yourself to actually close your eyes and focus on the conversation, you know, it changes the level of the conversation. You actually can exchange ideas. It’s really remarkable. So I’ve, uh, I’ve become a fan of unitasking or monotask. I’m not sure which has caught on if either.
Bryan Miller: (35:15)
Yeah. Well you can claim claim them both. Yeah, no, I thought it was great because I, I was reading the comments of the LinkedIn article that you wrote and one of the people said, I Googled unitasking and it led me here and I was like, Holy crap. People are looking for that. Yeah. I was like.
AJ Jacobs: (35:35)
That’s, that’s fantastic. I did not that.
Bryan Miller: (35:38)
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Yeah. Yeah. So, okay. Then I want to excuse me, pardon me. No problem. Okay. I want to transition us now to the enlightening lightning round. This is a series of relatively short questions. You’re free to answer as long as you like, but I’m going to work to keep myself out of it with maybe a couple of exceptions. Okay.
AJ Jacobs: (36:04)
Bryan Miller: (36:06)
Alright, question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a?
AJ Jacobs: (36:16)
A mixed metaphor. How’s that? Cause I think I tried to go Metta because I think, uh, it’s, life is so complicated. You can’t just compare it to one thing. It’s, it is like a box of chocolate, but it’s also like a Rose. It’s got thorns and flowers. It’s also like a roller coaster ride. It’s also like a quest, so there’s no way to reduce life to one analogy. Um, by the way, my kids object to the box of chocolates thing because at least nowadays they give you the little map of what everything is. So you do know what you’re getting. So there you go. Tell the Forrest Gump that.
Bryan Miller: (37:07)
I wonder if the internet is also our life’s metaphoric box of chocolates map.
AJ Jacobs: (37:13)
Yeah. Maybe although it’s, it’s a very inaccurate map and leads us down dangerous alleys, but yeah, absolutely.
Bryan Miller: (37:22)
Okay. Question number two. What’s something at which you wish you were better?
AJ Jacobs: (37:27)
Oof, uh, that is, uh, I’d say everything. Uh, I mean my life has been a lot about trying, sort of the genre of self improvement, but also other improvement. I don’t like solely self-improvement. As I said at the beginning, self-improvement really is intertwined with other improvement, but I feel that, uh, it’s important to just keep on trying to make yourself in the world better. Um, but let me think of something specific. Uh, well, how’s this? I, um, my next book is about puzzles and riddles and problem solving and weather thinking like a puzzler can help make us better thinkers and, and citizens. So I went this past weekend, I just got back yesterday, uh, my family and I went to the International Jigsaw Puzzle Championships in Spain. We were, yes, yes sir.
Bryan Miller: (38:28)
No way. I, I want to jump in. I finished a 9,000 piece puzzle.
AJ Jacobs: (38:33)
Bryan Miller: (38:33)
And it changed my life and I’m in the middle of a 5,000 piece puzzle right now.
AJ Jacobs: (38:38)
Ooh. I want to talk about that.
Bryan Miller: (38:39)
Amazing. Anyway, so I want to, I didn’t know there was a championship though. Holy cow.
AJ Jacobs: (38:43)
Well, you would have done better than me. My, I disgraced our country. I’m afraid. I you participated. Oh yeah, no, I was a team USA, me and my family.
Bryan Miller: (38:53)
So how does it work? Walk us through it.
AJ Jacobs: (38:56)
Well, you get to there and it’s in a small town in Spain and it’s in this arena. And there are 42 countries represented from Uganda to um, Japan to Mexico and you’re giving for the team event. It’s four people on a team and you’re given four box jigsaw puzzles that have never been published before and you have to.
Bryan Miller: (39:20)
Did you have to qualify?
AJ Jacobs: (39:22)
I qualified by filling out a form and sending in no, no. Yeah, why not? But I got to say I’m representing the United States and it sounded impressive. Uh, but yeah, and then you have eight hours to finish these four puzzles that are between one and 2000 pieces. And it was remarkable because like, you know, we finished one and a half. Uh, but the like the Russian team, the Russians, and I’m not accusing them of doping or anything, they were like crazy. It was less, three and a half hours, they were finished with them all and you would watch their hands. It was like watching the double speed video. It was in real speed. They were just, and they, they specialize like each had a specialized role. One was a sorter, one was good at like the Amano color skies part. Uh, so that is, that is part of their secret and they practice, they practice like three times a week for months for this competition.
Bryan Miller: (40:26)
Unbelievable. So will you come back on this show when you, when you launched this book?
AJ Jacobs: (40:33)
I would love to and I want to hear about your puzzle experience.
Bryan Miller: (40:36)
Oh my gosh. No, I I in fact I almost showed you this at the beginning of our interview. My mom, I actually, I’m such a nerd. I have a puzzle carrier that I take my puzzles in processed places and I on a Sunday night I went to my mom’s house and I took a puzzle and I lost a piece there which she later found and she brought it back to me cause we work in the same office. I have it in my hand today. A piece I’ve been missing for months. I finally got it back today. Like so random.
AJ Jacobs: (41:03)
That is weird. And what’s the puzzle that that piece belongs to?
Bryan Miller: (41:07)
This is a, it’s one of Ravensburgers, it’s a, it’s a 1500 I believe it’s a 1500 piece. It’s an African scene. And this is a piece of the grass just below the, the zebras.
AJ Jacobs: (41:18)
Interesting. Yeah. Well they were the ones who sponsored the tournament. So these are all Ravensburger.
Bryan Miller: (41:24)
I love their puzzles.
AJ Jacobs: (41:26)
And can I ask you, you, you can edit it out if you don’t want to go on. But that, how did, tell me about finishing that 9,000 and how it changed your life.
Bryan Miller: (41:36)
Oh man. Well, what, what I thought about a lot was the, the monks who would copy manuscripts by hand for years. Right? And, and so I have this process that I followed where, and I’m always looking for a more efficient way. So I’d love to know more about how the tournament worked and what strategies people use. But what, what I did was I take all the pieces after a certain point after I get the border and then the colors. And then what I do is I sort every shape, every shape type, and there’s only, I believe, six different shape types. And then I arrange them all so that they’re in rows. So I can easily scan them. And, and with that, the discipline, like just the patients of, you know, in the perseverance, it took me 22 months to complete this puzzle, but, and I didn’t work on it every day. But having that commitment and that and, and being very routine and very methodical, it actually helped me to complete my first, um, complete manuscript where I’ve now written 108,000 word manuscript, which I don’t think I would have been able to do if I hadn’t had the experience with the puzzle.
AJ Jacobs: (42:40)
I love it. That is so interesting. And that is a strategy that some of the real champions use is, yeah, like you separate out the ones with three outies and one any and then to that and put them in a line. Exactly. So you, uh, you definitely could compete. What was the, what was the, the theme of that puzzle?
Bryan Miller: (43:06)
This was the, this was an underwater scene. So coral and fish and lots and lots of blue. It’s beautiful. I’ve actually, I glued it and it’s now framed and hanging in the, uh, in the hallway, in my basement leading to my puzzle room.
AJ Jacobs: (43:20)
I love it. Well next year you have to go. Definitely. Yeah. I’ll send you the info. Yeah, you would love it.
Bryan Miller: (43:28)
Yeah, I would and I heard you say that also includes, um, riddles, but that your, that your book includes riddles.
AJ Jacobs: (43:36)
Yeah. I’m going to have a chapter on riddles and crossword puzzles and uh, you know, I just love it. And, and the thesis is, uh, I believe the world would be better if we, if we saw everything as a puzzle to be solved as opposed to a war to be fought. Cause you know, you can sort of see, uh, and there were elements of both in our world, but, but if you, uh, if you focus too much on that it’s a war, a conflict and that people are out to get you, that might not be the most productive way. Instead seeing big problems as a puzzle. Like the climate has a puzzle. Like how can we fix this by working together as opposed to, um, yeah, seeing this, this one is the enemy and we have to defeat it.
Bryan Miller: (44:32)
Yeah. And it’s in a zero sum. Right. And, and what’s that all about? That metaphor too is it makes me think of something, uh, another guest on this show, Paul Hawkin, the climate scientist and an author, an activist, said he said that human beings are the only species that discard members of their own species. [inaudible] and he, and I love the puzzle metaphor because everything has a place, everything fits together.
AJ Jacobs: (44:56)
Hmm. That’s interesting.
Bryan Miller: (44:57)
Nope, nothing is left out. It’s like, that’s really cool.
AJ Jacobs: (45:01)
And when he said discard meaning like put him in jail or what was he referring to?
Bryan Miller: (45:05)
Yeah, talking about homelessness, talking about people who are incarcerated, you know, people just kind of forget and, and, and minimize, you know, marginalized.
AJ Jacobs: (45:16)
Yeah, that’s very interesting.
Bryan Miller: (45:17)
And I think it came up in a discussion of, I don’t remember, it was capitalism or we were asking about, anyway, this AJ, this, I’m so, okay, I want to ask how I want to ask you about a riddle. And this is not how the, the enlightening lightning round normally goes, I promise. But that one answer was like, Holy crap. Okay. So before we get back on track, I just want to ask, have you, what is your favorite riddle so far?
AJ Jacobs: (45:44)
That is a great question. Uh, and I wish I had a better answer. Uh, I remember, you know what, give me a second. Maybe you can edit this out, but let me go on my computer to my riddle section. Cause there are some very interesting ones. Uh, the first one of the first riddles was by Samson in the Bible and it was actually, I thought a very unfair riddle. You know, there are fair riddles and they’re unfair riddles. Uh, uh, all right, let me give you, well there’s the classic one, the riddle of the Sphinx. Uh, that’s fine, but uh, there’s gotta be one that’s better. How about, well this was interesting. This was like a riddle from, uh, from the middle ages. So this shows that people had dirty minds even back centuries ago. Cause this is a, you’re ready. It goes, I am a wonderful help to women. The hope of something to come. I harm no to citizen except my slayer. Rooted I stand on a high bed. I am shaggy below sometimes the beautiful peasant’s daughter and eager, armed, proud woman grabs my body, rushes my red skin, holds me hard, claims my head. The curly haired woman who catches me fast will feel our meeting her I will be wet. So it sounds quite dirty. It sounds like you know, uh, a penis. Is that what they’re making you think? But the answer is an onion. So yeah, it’s got like the, uh, the curly roots and you grab it and uh, and then your eye will be wet from crying.
Bryan Miller: (47:43)
Oh my goodness.
AJ Jacobs: (47:44)
So, uh, I did like that. Yeah. We, we did not invent raunchy humor.
Bryan Miller: (47:49)
How have I never heard that riddle before?
AJ Jacobs: (47:54)
It’s not one that rolls off the tongue.
Bryan Miller: (47:56)
No. You know, I’m wondering if you’ve found this one. I don’t know who, who you know, originated it, but this riddle of what is greater than God and worse than the devil is poor men have it. Rich men need it. Dead men eat it. But if you eat it, you will die.
AJ Jacobs: (48:14)
I love those both. But what is it?
Bryan Miller: (48:18)
Aye. Aye. You really want me just to tell you?
AJ Jacobs: (48:20)
All right. We’ll say it again.
Bryan Miller: (48:21)
Okay. So, okay. So what is greater than God? Yeah. And worse than the devil. Yeah. Poor men have it. Rich men need it. Dead men eat it. But if you eat it, you will die.
AJ Jacobs: (48:38)
I don’t know. I was going to say something like time, but that doesn’t work for all of them. Um, then I was going to go meta and say something about the words cause uh, you know, maybe they’re greater than theirs. They’re more letters than God. But no, I’m gonna. I would, I need to know.
Bryan Miller: (48:59)
I’ll give you a clue if you want. Okay, sure. So I heard you say you’re agnostic, but I think this can still work. But in this is, this is representative of solving complex problems sometimes, right? Like you break it down into its parts and take them one at a time. So starting at the beginning, what is greater than God?
AJ Jacobs: (49:17)
Greater than God. Many gods.
Bryan Miller: (49:21)
Okay. That’s a valid answer.
AJ Jacobs: (49:25)
The universe now. Well, no, I guess nothing. Nothing is greater than that. There it is. Right.
Bryan Miller: (49:32)
And then it meets the other five conditions. Isn’t that fun?
AJ Jacobs: (49:34)
That is good. I like that a lot. Ah, okay. I’m going to include that. Thank you.
Bryan Miller: (49:40)
Awesome. Yeah, and I love that. I love that riddle. So, okay, very cool. Well that I’m, geeze , AJ, I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun doing a podcast.
AJ Jacobs: (49:50)
While I’m having a lovely time too.
Bryan Miller: (49:52)
Well thank you. Okay. So I’m gonna keep us moving through the lightning round if that’s okay with you.
AJ Jacobs: (49:57)
Bryan Miller: (49:58)
Okay. Question number three. If you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a tee shirt with a slogan on it or a phrase or a saying or a quote or equip, what would the shirt say?
AJ Jacobs: (50:09)
That’s an interesting one. I would say, well, it’s the tee shirt that I wore yesterday, I think, and it’s called, uh, it’s a group that I belong to called Effective Altruism. And it’s a picture of a, uh, the logo is a light bulb with a heart, sort of the wiring inside is a heart cause it’s the idea to combine compassion and rationality. So it’s a group that tries to figure out how best to, um, if we’re going to help the world, how can we do that most efficiently given our resources? So, uh, it, it’s a lovely organization and, uh, I dunno, have you heard of effective altruism at all?
Bryan Miller: (50:57)
No, no, I’m not familiar.
AJ Jacobs: (50:59)
Uh, will and there’s another, uh, affiliated group called GiveWell, which, uh, ranks charities and they really do like return on investment. They really try to figure out which, so anyway, I’m a big fan of that, so if I’m going to wear stuff, I might, uh, uh, advertise my little tribe.
Bryan Miller: (51:20)
Awesome. Well, thank you for that. Okay. Question number four. What book other than one of your own, have you gifted or recommended most often?
AJ Jacobs: (51:32)
Well, we do give this one book as a baby book too where you can order it and it spells out the name of the baby and you know, so, uh, it would have a, a Z for zebra, a zebra if there’s a Z in the name and an aardvark if there’s an A and a, since everyone loves their own name, that has been a very successful gift.
Bryan Miller: (51:58)
Awesome. What if people want to find it and maybe give that gift to their loved ones as well? How can they do it? What’s it called? Do you know?
AJ Jacobs: (52:06)
I can’t remember it, but it’s, I think it’s on the site, Red Envelope.
Bryan Miller: (52:10)
Red Envelope. Okay, cool. And the alphabet is emerging as a theme in [inaudible] in the sand. Okay. All right. Question number five. So you travel a ton. What’s one travel hack, meaning something you do or something you take with you when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
AJ Jacobs: (52:28)
Uh, another excellent question. I would say, um, I don’t mind travel. I used to mind it, but now that they let you look at your phone during takeoff, like I have 400 books on Kindle but that I’m dying to read, which is an obscene amount, but I just can’t resist when I see a good book. Um, I can’t resist buying it. So, uh, so to me that is just the biggest hack is put. Oh, and the second hack is I used to have these, um, noise canceling headphones, uh, which are great, but they cost $300 and I kept losing it and I just couldn’t afford it anymore. So I have these headphones now and I can send you the link if you want to include in the show notes or something, but they are $9 and 85 cents. No, we’re not, they’re not electric, but they do a great job of muffling the sound. So I just pop those on and I read my book and uh, it’s not so bad.
Bryan Miller: (53:35)
Wow. That, that sounds great. I, I would like to, to include that link if you’d be willing to send it.
AJ Jacobs: (53:41)
Of course it’s Walkers Ear Phones, but I’ll send you the link.
Bryan Miller: (53:44)
Okay. I and I can find it too, so you don’t need to worry about it. But thank you for that. Of course. All right. Number six. What’s one thing you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age well?
AJ Jacobs: (53:57)
Hmm, that is a good question. I guess I have, um, well I’ve stopped trying to focus on the negative. So that’s one thing. Uh, I have stopped. Uh, well one thing is I used to feel, I, I love crossword puzzles so I did them every night and I used to feel guilty about it cause I’m like, you know, I should be helping my kids, I should be doing the dishes. But I feel it’s okay when I finally gave myself permission to do the crossword puzzle and feel okay about it. Cause you do, it’s important for self care, it’s important to be healthy. Uh, you know, take vacations. It makes you a better person. It makes you more efficient in the long run. So giving myself, not beating myself up for doing the crossword puzzle. And now, weirdly, it’s my job since I’m writing a book about puzzles. So now I definitely don’t feel guilty.
Bryan Miller: (55:03)
Nah, that’s great. And as I’ve read, um, also helps stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia and other things.
AJ Jacobs: (55:09)
Exactly. And there’s like, and there’s some evidence who knows if it’s true, but I like a, I like to ya, it makes you feel better regardless.
Bryan Miller: (55:17)
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
AJ Jacobs: (55:23)
I wish every American knew how to distinguish between truth and fiction. And I include myself in that because it’s a very difficult task. But one we really need to, uh, master because I think we are in a crisis right now, this post-truth crisis and we need to get training and what’s, what’s an authoritative source? Do we in science how, um, you know who to believe out of your lier’s and bullshit artists. So, uh, it’s, it’s hard, but it’s so important.
Bryan Miller: (56:03)
Okay. And, and I just want to explore this with you to AJ. I think it’s pretty remarkable that we live in a day and age where if you look at an image or you hear something, you can’t know, like it’s almost an implicit assumption that it, it’s been doctored or enhanced, modified some way, like we school kids grow up knowing you can, you don’t trust what you see. You don’t trust what you hear, you know?
AJ Jacobs: (56:30)
Oh yeah, it is. It’s amazing and, and frustrating and terrifying. And yeah, the, the deep fake video I think is a, is going to be a problem. Uh, so it’s a huge challenge and I don’t know what the answer is. I think it’ll probably be technological. We’ll just have to have technology that detects deep fakes better than the deep fake makers make them. Uh, and also on the idea of seeing the positive as well as the negative. Uh, I mean, I think the fake videos could be really, you know, there are some parts that’ll be amazing about them. Like, you know, you can go to a movie and uh, you know, you can, you could have a movie where you and your, uh, and your spouse are the main characters and they use video from you to, like, uh, they, they turn, yeah. Instead of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you can watch yourself go through these adventures on the screen. So they’re, they’re going to be some cool applications to it. But, uh, but then there are disturbing ones as well.
Bryan Miller: (57:43)
Yeah, I agree. And at the same time, I mean, this is my own hypothesis and who knows. Musk could be right. We could all be inside a simulation. But you know, I think, I tend to think that this is actually a design, like this is a feature of the universe and that we’re creating these technologies that are helping bring to our awareness, you know, things that we weren’t previously aware of. And perhaps the answers really are to be found inside of us. And this unreliability on these external sources is, you know, just part of what’s a way sign or a pointer to look within you. Dummy.
AJ Jacobs: (58:23)
That’s a really interesting idea because I think in, in, it’s certainly true that we, you know, our senses deceive us a lot, but, uh, now that has gone into hyperdrive so it’s not a new problem in that sense. You’re absolutely right.
Bryan Miller: (58:39)
Yeah. The thing that I read that blew my mind about this, and I won’t go on too long because I know our time is short, but when I started reading about certain, like even governments and not even talking about, you know, Russian interfering in American politics, but that there are certain ethnic groups in governments, in places in the world that are using social media to stoke violence by posting fake, you know, reports of rapes and assaults and the insight groups to mob action. I was like, no way. That is crazy.
AJ Jacobs: (59:09)
It is a huge problem. And it also touches on another problem I’m obsessed with, which is tribalism. And uh, and that was the subject of one of my other projects where I, to show that we’re all one big family and that tribalism is a misguided idea.
Bryan Miller: (59:26)
Yeah. I love that. That we were chatting just briefly before we started recording about that idea and, and you kept, you explored that in, in your book, it’s all relative adventures up and down the world’s family tree.
AJ Jacobs: (59:39)
Yeah, exactly. Trying to create a family tree of the entire human race, which is happening. So people are doing it. Uh, I’m not doing it alone. God, that would be a lot. But it is a fascinating project.
Bryan Miller: (59:52)
and I’m so glad to see the internet being used for good and not just for evil.
AJ Jacobs: (59:57)
That’s exactly right. It is. Yeah. It’s a tool.
Bryan Miller: (01:00:03)
Okay. So before we transition to the final section of the interview, I want to make sure to ask you or share this with you here and ask you, um, how readers or listeners can connect with you, learn more about you. Um, what would you have them do if people like what they’ve heard, they want to know more, where would you steer them?
AJ Jacobs: (01:00:25)
Well, I would steer them to the aforementioned internet, which can be used for good or evil. So hopefully this would be a good use of it, which is a, I have a website, AJ Jacobs.com. Um, and feel free to check it out or my Twitter is @AJJacobs and uh, yeah, I would, if you’re interested, uh, I would love to hear from you and uh, and if you want to thank you note, send me a note and I’ll, I can write you a thank you note.
Bryan Miller: (01:00:53)
Awesome. I read, I read, maybe you read this too, while Disney, he would give a, he would give signed photographs if people would send him a self addressed stamped envelope. But if they asked him for an autograph, he would say, I won’t give it to you now, but if you mail me I will. Because he knew so few people actually would.
AJ Jacobs: (01:01:12)
Very smart of him.
Bryan Miller: (01:01:13)
Yeah. It’s interesting. Um, okay. The other thing I wanted to say in, in this part of the interview to make sure that I don’t just try to squeeze it in at the very, very end, is that as a demonstration of my gratitude to you for sharing your experience and things you’ve learned and your time with me and everyone listening, I’ve gone on kiva.org and made a micro loan of $100 to an entrepreneur, a woman entrepreneur in Ecuador who will use this money to help buy bread, cheese, milk, kitchen utensils to help improve the quality of her life and her family and people in her community. So just wanted to,
AJ Jacobs: (01:01:51)
Wonderful, I love that. Thank you for that. And I’m a big fan of Kiva. I think they do a fantastic job.
Bryan Miller: (01:01:58)
Yeah, I agree. I agree. Okay. So the last few questions that I want to ask you about here are about creativity, writing and marketing. Oh, where should we start?
AJ Jacobs: (01:02:12)
You tell me.
Bryan Miller: (01:02:13)
Okay. Let me ask you, what is the most difficult part of the creative process for you and how do you deal with it?
AJ Jacobs: (01:02:24)
Uh, that’s a good question. Maybe I’ll answer it by saying, my favorite part, uh, is coming up with the ideas and because I just love that and I have a very specific ritual. Uh, I know some people are good at coming up with ideas in the shower or while driving, but for me, I actually try to take 15 minutes, carve it out of my day and say like, you know, at 3:30, I’m going to spend 15 minutes just brainstorming ideas. And they could be book ideas or magazine articles or, or they could just be random. Like I might take a phenomena like I might take, what can I do with snow men that’s creative. Maybe that I could make a snow non binary gender person. Or maybe I could, instead of a snowman with a pipe, I could give him a, you know, a jewel, uh, and just these random brain stream of consciousness. Now the copout is 99% of these ideas are going to suck, uh, like the ones you just heard. But there is always that 1%. Uh, and I do believe strongly that creativity is a numbers game. That it’s all about coming up with a ton of stuff and a small portion of that stuff is going to be good and resonate and you figure out which part, which those are and you execute on them. So to me, I guess that answers both. That is my favorite part and toughest part is coming up with ideas
Bryan Miller: (01:04:04)
And you do that every single day.
AJ Jacobs: (01:04:07)
Well I try, I try regularly. That’s a good way to put it. Um, but yeah, no I try, I try it cause I think it’s so useful and helpful.
Bryan Miller: (01:04:17)
Well, and what’s remarkable to me to hear you say that because a lot of people have ideas and ideas are probably the easy part, but the execution and the completion, translating those ideas into reality is where so many of us stumble. But you’ve done an extraordinary job of actually not only getting the books done but writing great books that people enjoy reading and um, that succeed. It seems to me at least, um, commercially as well. I mean I understand you have four New York Times bestsellers so far.
AJ Jacobs: (01:04:47)
Yeah. So far, knock on wood, and I think it’s a lot is what you said earlier about breaking it down into small portions. So when I write a book, often I’ll try to visualize it as just a series of chapters. And because if you just think of it as a book and then, uh, at least I get overwhelmed. So I just say, you know what, I’m gonna write like these 14 articles and that around a common theme and then I can go back and weave them together to make them more tightly knit. But seeing them as many tasks instead of one big task is, it’s just so much more, uh, uh, less intimidating.
Bryan Miller: (01:05:36)
Yeah. That’s the, uh, the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. Right.
AJ Jacobs: (01:05:41)
Bryan Miller: (01:05:42)
Yes. So how do you, so you have all these ideas, you’re very creative. How do you ultimately evaluate which projects you will commit to and what criteria do you use to choose?
AJ Jacobs: (01:05:54)
Yeah, that I think is one of the key questions. And I have a few tests I use. One is I used to be very paranoid and not tell people what my ideas are for fear that they would get stolen, which I think was a bit of a self, aggrandizing a thought and also ignored the benefits of telling people which are many, they might make improvements, they might suggest tweaks to your idea and perhaps most important, you can see how enthusiastic they are. So you, you know, I tell people an idea and I can, you can tell when their face lights up or you can tell when they’re just pretending to be interested. So that telling, telling people, uh, as much as possible or even putting it on Facebook, those, uh, I think are very effective. And also it’s just an inner gauge. Like if I’m, if I’m excited about it, not just the day I come up with it, cause that could be deceiving, but a week later, two weeks later, then I’m like, well maybe I am on. So sort of being aware of your own level of passion.
Bryan Miller: (01:07:06)
Yeah. That, that sounds, that sounds wise. Um, I mean some people like myself have, we either don’t know what our passions are or we have many passions or they’re short lived. But how do you sustain this assumes that you do, but how do you sustain the motivation required to reach the finish line?
AJ Jacobs: (01:07:27)
Those are, that’s a great question. And uh, there are a couple of strategies that come to mind. One is announcing let what you’re doing too and maybe being as public about it as possible. Cause I do think humiliation is a, is a good a motivator. So like if I say I’m writing a book about this and then I never write it, people really what happened or you know, then I’m gonna lose five pounds. Just making it public I think is, is helpful. Uh, I also tried, uh, I find it very motivating. The idea that the, and this again maybe self grandizing, but that my books might help people. So for the gratitude, for instance, you know, I’m like, you know, this is actually a message that helped me and it could help the people who read this book. So I’m not just doing it for myself. I’m actually a, you know, this is like a, a social good I’m doing and I’m trying to make the world better and that can be very motivating. Uh, so I guess those are two that I use.
Bryan Miller: (01:08:46)
I love that. And in fact, in my research, my reading, um, recently I came across this distinction. I love this right in line with what you’ve said. Um, this teacher Neisser [inaudible] says he distinguishes between activity and work saying activity is merely for oneself where work is for the whole. And so this idea that when you’re working and it’s greater than just you, then it has a different quality and perhaps ability to help you stay with it and see it through.
AJ Jacobs: (01:09:15)
Yeah, I love that.
Bryan Miller: (01:09:16)
That’s great. So, okay, tell me if you will, about the role that luck has played in your success and about the letter you addressed to agent at ICM.
AJ Jacobs: (01:09:29)
Yeah, this was a point I made in my gratitude book that I thank my lucky stars. I believe that I am an incredibly lucky, I’ve been lucky and where I’ve been born in a developed nation to parents who, uh, who are loving and, uh, I’ve been lucky in that, um, you know, am I books? I do think they’re good, but there are people I hard to say, but I’d say they like, you know, every week the week my first book came out, there were probably 10 books that came out that were as good, if not better than mine, that just sold like 10 copies. Uh, and a lot of that has to do with luck. Uh, just being at the right place at the right time. The fact that, you know, a producer at, uh, at Good Morning America was in a good mood when they received my book and like, Oh, this could make a fun segment. And then I got on TV and uh, the same with, uh, my, my, my very first book was like a random novelty humor, short humor book about, uh, Elvis Presley. And, uh, I sent it out. I sent the proposal out to dozens of agents I know, connections and it happened to land on the desk of uh, an Elvis fan who thought that it would be a fun book. And if it had landed on the desk of if this guy had happened to have been a Bruce Springsteen fan instead of an Elvis fan, you know, I might be doing something totally different for a living.
Bryan Miller: (01:11:03)
That’s amazing. That’s totally amazing. What have you learned about successfully pitching books?
AJ Jacobs: (01:11:09)
Hmm. Um, I would say a few things. One is trying to think of it from the perspective of the reader. So you know, you may be fascinated with something, but you got to ask how is this going to help the reader’s life? And that cause that’s the what the editor is going to ask before they buy your manuscript. You know, how, who is this for? How is it going to help them? Uh, so that’s one, uh, part of it. Another part is like starting strong. You want, if you send, write a book proposal, like make that first paragraph so, uh, grabbing and hard to resist that the editor has to keep reading cause they get so many submissions that if you don’t grab them in the first few sentences, then they’re just gonna move on to the next.
Bryan Miller: (01:12:09)
And by the way, is that in the manuscript or in, because I know many, um, many publishing houses want some kind of either a cover letter or they have their own questions they want you to respond to. Are you, are you just saying from whatever the first thing they read is, or the first part of the work itself?
AJ Jacobs: (01:12:28)
I’d say both. I would say both. I mean, at least for nonfiction, I don’t know fiction as well. In nonfiction you sort of have a cover letter saying here, here’s where my book is about. Um, you know, let me introduce myself. Then you have an outline of a proposal. Sometimes people send the whole book, but I would say in both that cover letter and in the outline, a proposal make the starts of it as compelling as possible.
Bryan Miller: (01:13:00)
And then when it comes to, to marketing, um, I know for many people, uh, many aspiring authors, you know, marketing is something someone else will take care of someday, you know? And exactly. And I’ve also learned that, you know, it seems to be pretty sound advice for people who are commercially successful, which as we know is a single digit percentage of all writers that marketing is something you’ve gotta be thinking of from the moment you start thinking of the book itself.
AJ Jacobs: (01:13:31)
Absolutely. And I, uh, I have had to change my mind over the years about marketing. Cause just what, what you said, that’s the way I felt in the beginning. Oh, let someone else do it. But now I’m like, if I don’t do it, a lot of it’s not going to get done. So I’ve had to reframe it as what I, I tried to think of it as a, um, as a creative endeavor. You know, a lot of people think, Oh, marketing, that’s so boring and that’s business life. But instead apply your creativity as an artist to the marketing and think in creative ways. I remember I wrote a book about the Bible law following all the rules of the Bible. And, uh, I used like, I want to, I don’t want just a book publications to write about this. I want to get it out everywhere. So I had a friend who worked at Glamour magazine and then I was like, well, what if I wrote about sex advice from the Bible for Glamour? Cause they are some racy parts in the Bible. And she’s like, yeah, that could be funny. So I wrote that and you know, that had at the time, reach 5 million people. So think of, uh, think of your marketing as being creative, not as a chore.
Bryan Miller: (01:14:43)
Yeah, no, that, that makes sense. Okay, so last, last thing on that topic and then, and then we’ll go ahead and wrap up. Um, when it comes to, to marketing a book, I mean, it’s one thing to have these, these ideas, you know, in these intentions, right? It’s another to, to make them, you know, cohesive to select quality ones. Because as it’s been said before, you know, we can do just about anything, but we can’t do everything, you know, that kind of thing. Do you, do you create a marketing plan for your books or do you just take like a few ideas and see those through or how do you, how do you approach that?
AJ Jacobs: (01:15:24)
I probably should be more organized than I am, but I’m relatively organized in that I write down, um, I basically do a bunch of those 15 minute brainstorming sessions. So I will come up with one session, might be devoted to what are all the different outlets that all the different magazines or websites or TV shows that I could go on that might have some interests. So, you know, for the Bible it was the traditional like Fresh Air on NPR. But also you want to think of the more unusual ones. Like I said, Glamour or I wrote for a music magazine about the history of biblical music. Uh, so that’s one session devote to all the different, um, uh, all the different places you could pitch to. Uh, I did another brainstorming session on what are like the 10 big ideas in my book that, uh, they could, well, what are the 10, the sort of self help ideas, uh, what are another session might be on one, or what are the news hooks? What is it, how does it relate to the world? Uh, you know, like maybe the Bible talked about adultery and we have a, uh, uh, a president who, uh, who has committed adultery. So is that a news hook? So all sorts of different ways, uh, uh, of different brainstorming sessions. Um, and then you’ve got all these lists and you can start filling them out. And I’m not as good spreadsheets as my wife. Uh, but if I were good, I would use those.
Bryan Miller: (01:17:15)
Well, you, you’re doing something right. So whatever you’re doing, keep it up. It’s working.
AJ Jacobs: (01:17:21)
Thank you Bryan. And, uh, I love talking to you.
Bryan Miller: (01:17:25)
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