My guest today, AJ Jacobs, is a man who’s in the puzzle business. He can help you solve puzzles. He can help you live a more meaningful, happier, healthier life by cultivating something he calls the puzzle mindset. His most recent book is called The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from crosswords to jigsaw puzzles to the meaning of life. AJ sees his life as a series of experiments in which he immerses himself in a project or lifestyle, for better or for worse. And then he writes about what he’s learned. The puzzler helps us to live with more curiosity, and more flexibility.
In this interview, AJ joins me to talk about how we can become more curious and less furious. We talk a lot about riddles, questions, puzzles, and new ways of looking at things in our lives that can help us not be so frustrated by them. We also talk about his work before The Puzzler. When he was a guest on this show back in 2019, he had written a book called Thanks A Thousand, in which he wanted to thank, and he embarked on a quest to thank every person who had a hand in making his morning cup of coffee, from the barista to the roaster to the truck driver to the warehouse operators to the grower.
“Curiosity is the only thing that can save the human species.”
Bonus Riddle From the Interview:
What is greater than God, but worse than the devil? Poor men have it, and rich men need it. Dead men eat it, but if you eat it, you will die.
Watch the full interview to find the answer!
This week on the School for Good Living Podcast:
Connect With The Guest:
AJ Jacobs [00:00:00] Which is don’t get furious, get curious. And that is the puzzle mindset. So whether it’s, you know, literal puzzles, little personal puzzles about your marriage or work, or the big societal puzzles. That mindset, I think of deep curiosity and willingness to change and creativity, and ingenuity. All these are part of the puzzle of puzzle or mindset.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:27] Hi, I’m brilliant, your host for this show. I know that I’m incredibly blessed as the son of self-made billionaires. I’ve seen the high price some people pay for success, and I’ve learned that money really can’t buy happiness. But I’ve also had the good fortune to learn directly from many of the world’s leading teachers. If you are ready to be, do, have, and give more. This podcast is for you.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:50] What if you had no problems? What if you had instead puzzles? Well, my guest today, AJ Jacobs, is a man who’s in the puzzle business. He can help you solve puzzles. He can help you live a more meaningful, happier, healthier life by cultivating something he calls the puzzle mindset. He talks about it in this interview and in his most recent book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever. From crosswords to jigsaw puzzles to the meaning of life. AJ, as his Wikipedia page explains, sees his life as a series of experiments in which he immerses himself in a project or lifestyle, for better or for worse. And then he writes about what he’s learned. We talked about his work before The Puzzler. When he was a guest on this show back in 2019, he had written a book called Thanks A Thousand, in which he wanted to thank, and he embarked on a quest to thank every person who had a hand in making his morning cup of coffee, a possibility from the barista to the roaster to the truck driver to the warehouse operators to the grower. Of course, it’s a fascinating and fun book that helps us to live with more gratitude. The puzzler helps us to live with more curiosity, and more flexibility. I love this book, it’s full of riddles, it’s full of questions. It’s full of puzzles, and new ways of looking at things in our lives that can help us not be so frustrated by them. But as he describes, as AJ talks about in this interview, to become more curious and less furious. AJ has given four TEDTalks that has been viewed more than 10 million times. He contributes to The New York Times and is a commentator for NPR. He’s also an editor at large at Esquire magazine and a columnist for Mental Floss. You can learn more about AJ at AJJacobs.com. You can learn about this book at thepuzzlerbook.com, and you can find AJ on Twitter at AJ Jacobs. Okay. With that, I hope you enjoy and benefit from and find new, more exciting, and empowering ways of looking at the world. Because of his wisdom. So with that, please enjoy this conversation with my friend A.J. Jacobs. AJ Welcome back to the School for Good Living.
AJ Jacobs [00:03:09] I am so pleased to be here. Thank you for having me. Brilliant.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:12] Yes, it’s truly my pleasure. Because you’ve been a guest on the show before and I have asked you, what’s life about before? I want to start this conversation with a different question, which is, what are puzzles about?
AJ Jacobs [00:03:25] Well, to me, I am a puzzle obsessive. I am a very proud puzzler, and I always have been. And to me, they’re about the best parts of being human, which are ingenuity, creativity, curiosity, and all that good stuff. And I know other people who say that they are puzzle hesitant or puzzle phobic, but I truly believe there is a puzzle type for anyone. And I believe that life is a series of puzzles. So it actually ties back to your original question about what is life about? Life to me is a series of puzzles. And all my books are about puzzles. So the puzzle of how do we be grateful? I wrote a book about gratitude, the puzzle of what is the importance of religion if any? That was another puzzle that I tried to figure out. So I am a big fan of puzzles.
Brilliant Miller [00:04:22] Yeah, me too. Me too. And I’m reminded of something I once heard Timothy Leary say that the universe is an intelligence test.
AJ Jacobs [00:04:31] Oh, I love that.
Brilliant Miller [00:04:32] Where you might have said the universe is a puzzle.
AJ Jacobs [00:04:35] You know. Right. Well, I do love I’m sorry to interrupt, but Quincy Jones, the great musician, has a quote that I love where he says, I don’t have problems. I have puzzles, which I think is a great way to look at life because the problems are it sort of brings up the idea of their intractable, they’re horrible, but puzzles are like, all right, let’s roll up our sleeves and see if we can solve this and maybe even have a little fun and play while doing it.
Brilliant Miller [00:05:03] Yeah, I really like that. And you’ve written a book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaw Puzzle to the Meaning of Life. And in this book, which I love so much, we were talking about the recording I was sharing about how I was sharing with my mom last night, puzzles and riddles, and some of the questions that you invite. But you make a very bold claim early on that I happened to agree with. But the skeptic in me was like, Wait a minute, and here’s how I interpret that. You say I have come to the conclusion. I have come to a conclusion that might that may seem overly bold, but I’m going to try to convince you of it by the time you finish this book. The conclusion is that puzzles can save the world or at least help save the world.
AJ Jacobs [00:05:48] What do you mean by that? Well, I truly do. And perhaps it’s a little bit of rationalization for having spent thousands of hours doing puzzles over my life because I love all kinds I love crosswords and Sudoku and jigsaws, you name it. I believe that what we just mentioned, this idea of curiosity is the only thing that can save the human species and that we have to look at the world through the lens of curiosity. And that’s the way we’re going to solve the big problem, not just like little personal problems, which I think is also key. Like, you know, who should sit next to whom at a dinner party? But also the big problems like poverty and cultural wars and the environment. And the way one example I give is I have really tried to change the way I approach conversations with someone who disagrees with me on politics or whatever. So say I, I’m having a conversation. The way I used to do it was almost like a war, a debate, a war of words. I’m going to berate them and I’m going to convince them to come to my side.
Brilliant Miller [00:07:05] You want to win.
AJ Jacobs [00:07:06] What?
Brilliant Miller [00:07:07] You want to win.
AJ Jacobs [00:07:07] Who’s going to win is going to win. It is zero-sum and I rarely worked. I don’t think it ever worked. I think it just polarized both of us. I got angrier and that other person got angry. So instead I’ve tried to reframe conversations like that as a puzzle. So the puzzle is, why do I believe what I believe? Why does she believe what she believes? Why? What evidence is there for each of us what evidence could change my mind? What if it was presented to me? What is our common? What do we have that is the common ground? And where do we go from here? All of these are fascinating puzzles and it turns it into a more cooperative adventure, as opposed to a stressful battle of words. And that I find it’s not only made my life better because I’m not angry and yelling when I talk to people who I disagree with, I think it’s more productive. I’ve been able to, you know, find these. Interesting common ground and ideas. And so that is the kind of attitude when I say puzzles can save the world. That’s kind of what I’m talking about. And just one addendum, which is in some cases, literal puzzles have helped save the world. And I’m thinking of 1942, the London Telegraph newspaper ran a crossword puzzle, a very hard crossword puzzle. And they said, if you can solve this in 12 minutes or less, please get in touch with this number. And that number turned out to be the codebreaking arm of the British intelligence, the Bletchley Park. You might have heard of where they broke Alan Turing and his coworkers broke the Nazi Enigma code. So you could argue that in that case, puzzles literally saved the world. Well.
Brilliant Miller [00:09:00] You know, and how there’s so much in what you just said that thing about like getting curious and making space for another person’s belief or their perspective and so forth. What’s that saying about a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
AJ Jacobs [00:09:17] That I love that I hadn’t heard that. And I also love it because it goes along with rhyming wisdom, which I think is a fun little subgenre. I heard one yesterday from a friend. Compare leads to despair. Compare and despair, which is like if you’re always comparing, Oh, that person has more money, that person has a better life, that they, you know, that their house is more beautiful. That is not the road to happiness. Quite the opposite. Yeah, no, no doubt.
Brilliant Miller [00:09:48] And that idea of making space for someone else’s beliefs and worldview and getting curious about it, there’s I see so much value in that in my role as a coach, because if we don’t do that with others, we’re very unlikely to do that with ourselves. And as I think we all know, what’s this famous saying? Derek is the guy that did say maybe Tim Ferriss is interviewed and talks about if it’s more like flogging ourselves. If beating ourselves up was the answer to anything, we’d all already have six-pack abs and be billionaires. It’s but it’s that same mindset where we don’t allow others and we don’t get curious about why we do what we do or even why we think what we think that we do causes a lot of unhappiness. And I really love what you’re saying and even the idea of it’s a little bit philosophical, but anyone who knows me, that’s no surprise. I have a teacher who once described love as making space for others to be all the ways they are and all the ways they are not. And if we don’t have that curiosity or that willingness, our love is probably not likely to be very deep.
AJ Jacobs [00:10:54] So, yeah, that’s wonderful. I love what you’re saying and I totally agree. You have to be curious about your own beliefs. And that’s another huge virtue that I talk about in The Puzzler because to solve little puzzles like crosswords and riddles, you have to have a flexible mind. Cognitive flexibility is so huge and you can’t fall in love with your hypothesis. So on the smaller level, it’s like I remember there was a crossword I once did where the clue was this is the result of a bad trip. And it was a nine-letter word starting with F. And I was like, All right, I know the last trip. It’s a flashback. And I was so convinced I was right. But the answer was not a flashback. The answer was Face Plant of a different kind of trip. Yeah, but I was so locked in that I wasted an hour of my life because nothing was working. And I think that that’s a good metaphor for the way we should look at any belief in our life. We should. We shouldn’t have total skepticism. We should. I think science and experts play a huge role. But we should be flexible. We shouldn’t. Just because we believe something once doesn’t mean we always have to believe it. It’s okay to change your mind.
Brilliant Miller [00:12:14] Yeah, absolutely. And you even have a term in the book, I love that you gave me and other readers the way the eraser embraces the eraser.
AJ Jacobs [00:12:26] Thank you. I’m glad you like that. Or the delete key. I do. I do work more on the computer than I do, but I am a huge fan of The Eraser because there are some people who say, Oh, I do Sudoku or crosswords and pen, and that’s what real men do. And, and I just think that’s so diluted because it’s all about flexibility and being able to change your mind and probabilistic thinking. I am a huge fan of that. So, you know, nothing. Very few things. Some things happen. Very few things are on or off. Your list of life is on a dimmer. So just you know, in. Terms of whether it’s predicting the future. Just saying, you know, I think it’s it’s highly likely this will happen or there’s a 70% chance this will happen. Even in my own private life, I might take it too far because my wife will say, What time are you going to be home? Well, there’s a 60% chance of being home at five. There’s a 30% chance I’ll be home at six. But I just think it’s a very good way to start thinking. We all have to start thinking more, less black and white, and more probabilistically.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:34] Yeah, I’m with you there. Well, and I think this is probably part of a larger way of thinking, a way of being that you call the puzzle mindset to adopt a puzzling mindset. And there’s also then, of course, puzzle-solving strategies and some of these things that can become more tactical. And maybe we’ve covered it pretty well already. But when you talk about the puzzle mindset, what do you mean? Is there anything you would add to what we’ve already discussed?
AJ Jacobs [00:14:01] Well, it’s a lot about that idea of being curious, of being flexible. I actually speak of rhyming wisdom, I love this phrase that I got from a child psychologist, but I believe it applies not just to parenting, but every aspect which is don’t get furious, get curious. And that is the puzzle mindset. So whether it’s, you know, literal puzzles or little personal puzzles about your marriage or work or the big societal puzzles, that mindset, I think of deep curiosity and willingness to change and creativity, ingenuity. All these are part of the puzzle of puzzle or mindset. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:42] There’s a French thinker I once read who said, To understand all is to forgive all, and the idea that if we’re willing to go beyond what we see or what we think we see and ask questions or consider from another point of view, maybe we’d be a little more forgiving.
AJ Jacobs [00:15:01] That is that’s a fascinating point. And I do think forgiveness is a hugely underrated value. And today, I think I’ve seen in my lifetime a big dip in forgiveness. And I think it’s a problem. And a friend of mine who is an Episcopalian minister now Lutheran, sorry, you might want to have her on at some point. Nadia Bolz-Weber Have you ever heard of her? No, she’s fantastic. She’s like a highly tattooed Lutheran. I think she’s a bishop now. But anyway, she’s writing a book about forgiveness and how important it is because it seems like an unforgiving society we’re in now. And I think she told me someone told me a great quote by Nelson Mandela, which is I, I mean, I hope I won’t butcher it, but something like resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that it hurts your enemies, which I think is so true. Like, forgiveness is not just good for the other person. It’s good for you. Like, you will be happier if you’re more forgiving.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:11] Yeah, that’s. I certainly think so. And I once heard Gandhi had said we won’t be punished for our unforgiveness, will be punished by it.
AJ Jacobs [00:16:20] And I think, oh, right.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:21] You know exactly what you’re saying there. But this book I love and I realize, you know, that maybe this is not exactly an example of apathy, but I do love it if you’ll talk about that as a phenomenon. But what I was going to say before that is about how, you know, in your book, it’s a book of puzzles, it’s a book of questions and riddles and problems and things like that. And it’s and maybe that’s all it is. But as we’re discussing, I love it, there really are life lessons or ways of being that we can look at. And one I want to talk about is also humility. So I’m just going to plant that seed and we’ll come back to it. But we also talk about this term. Again, you introduced me to apathy. What is it? How can puzzles help us see it and why might we be wise to be wary of it in our own way?
AJ Jacobs [00:17:06] Well, this I learned during research from a friend of mine who’s a psychologist, and it is a hugely important concept that’s become even more important recently with social media. And the empathy here is the phenomenon of seeing a pattern where none exists and four instances of people who see the Virgin Mary’s face in a piece of French toast. That is an example of epiphany. I mean, maybe it’s there. I’m just a.
Brilliant Miller [00:17:38] Little I’ve got a kernel of popcorn, by the way, that kept we put it in our little curio cabinet. I’m telling you, it looks exactly like a teddy bear. It’s so funny, but it’s not a religious figure. But it’s a teddy bear.
AJ Jacobs [00:17:51] Is it an omen? Are you going to join a religion of teddy bears?
Brilliant Miller [00:17:55] Maybe we need to buy more Beanie Babies or something. I’m not.
AJ Jacobs [00:17:58] Sure. So pattern finding is a double-edged sword because as humans, we are wired to find patterns. And that’s very important. You know, that’s how we knew to be scared of snakes. That’s how science works finding patterns. So patterns. Yes. If they are real, are huge. But the problem is we are too programmed to find patterns. So we find patterns where none exist. Like the French toast example. And I think we’ve seen a rise in apathy near a lot of conspiracies. There are real conspiracies out there, but a lot of them are epithelial people putting together dots that don’t go together, putting together puzzle pieces that don’t fit. So I really believe Cunanan, for instance, is one of the darkest examples of Epithelia. They’ve found all of these little random data points, and they are convinced that this proves that Tom Hanks is a cannibal, a cannibal pedophile, or whatever they believe, and no amount of evidence will dissuade them. So amplifying as I say, the best weapon against it is to keep this flexible, open mind and to be open to evidence that disproves your belief. And to me, Daniel Kahneman, the great Nobel-winning economist, talks about how he loves to be wrong, proven wrong because it’s the only way that he knows that he’s in pursuit of the truth. So that kind of mindset to me is the way we battle. EPIFANIO Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:19:38] And I know it can be uncomfortable to for us as human beings to say, I don’t know. And there’s something powerful about certainly I once heard Tony Robbins say that the greatest human need in the world is a certainty.
AJ Jacobs [00:19:53] Hmm.
Brilliant Miller [00:19:54] Like, overall, I think that’s amazing in all its various forms, whether that’s from thinking we have financial security or job security or this person will never leave me or whatever, that we’re constantly seeking security. And I can see that. And yet it’s amazing that there are people who will say, this is actually my greatest joy to be proven wrong. And when you remember and this is a little bit uncomfortable for me, but there’s something also liberating and exciting about it. So like the scientific method, let’s think. Like truths can never, at least as I understand it, write truths can never be proven. They can only be disproven.
AJ Jacobs [00:20:26] Right. Right.
Brilliant Miller [00:20:26] It’s pretty amazing.
AJ Jacobs [00:20:28] No, I mean, it is an acquired taste, this uncertainty. But I do think the world would be better if more people were able to sort of life in it. And you talk a lot in your writings and podcasts about the sort of, you know, this mindfulness. And I think that this is part of mindfulness being okay with uncertainty. And just to throw in one other great uncertainty quote and again, I’m going to butcher the exact quote, but it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell who said, the whole problem with the world is that the idiots are so sure of themselves and all this, all the smart people are so filled with doubt. And that really is that. I mean, that sums up a large part of our problem. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:21:17] No doubt. Well, talking about, you know, the puzzle of mindset and some of the qualities that we can cultivate that can help us to live more enjoyably and our relationships to work probably better than they otherwise would and things like that. The one that I mentioned just a moment ago, humility that you talk about, you even I thought was really interesting that you describe at least in one place in your book, Epistemic Humility.
AJ Jacobs [00:21:41] And I love that phrase. Right. And it’s a little pretentious. And I actually used it like eight times in my book. And my friend was like, you got to cut it down to like three or four mentions because it is just a pretentious phrase, but it’s also, I think, a very important phrase. And it just means it’s, you know, sort of a fancy way of just saying that we should be humble about what we know and just what we were talking about before, that we could be proven wrong that well, that we aren’t certain of anything, but we should keep being curious and trying to find the truth. So to me, that is the key. And I think that, yeah, the problem is social media does not reward epistemic humility. Cable TV news does not reward epistemic humility. You get ratings for saying, you know, America is on the verge of collapse and I’m 100% certain if we don’t do X, then it will you know, it’ll be the end of the world that gets rewarded because that’s, as you say, we’re kind of addicted to certainty. Yeah. So it’s developing this taste for humility and uncertainty. Well, I just wanted to, you know, I’m a fan of gratitude, so I just want to thank you because I love you. This is my second appearance, as you mentioned. And in our first one, you gave me a great riddle. And I have a chapter on riddles. And actually, I believe I had your riddle in one of the drafts, and it was cut just for space, but I still think of it often. So thank you. And if I say it, I’m probably going to get it wrong. But if you want to say it, are included in the show notes. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:23:33] Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t even remember where I heard that riddle. But it’s one that I’ve enjoyed. And I imagine it’s medieval, probably somewhere in the Middle Ages. This is what is greater than God, but worse than the devil. Poor men have it. Rich men need it. Dead men eat it. But if you eat it, you will die.
AJ Jacobs [00:23:52] It’s good. I mean, I happen to know the answer because you tell me, but. And I. I sort of got it with some hints from you, but the answer is nothing. Nothing, nothing. If you eat nothing, you will die. And yes.
Brilliant Miller [00:24:06] And one of the strategies that you talk about in your book for solving problems or puzzles about breaking things down. Mm-hmm. Right. Because of my experience, as I relate that to people and I think there are those six lines, there’s kind of two pairs. Most people will ask all these big questions. They’ll say these big things, time and space and, you know, like this. But if you just put the last thing, what is greater than God?
AJ Jacobs [00:24:30] Hmm.
Brilliant Miller [00:24:30] Interesting, but chunking it down, many people will go, oh, nothing.
AJ Jacobs [00:24:33] You know. Right, right. Oh, yeah. That is a huge, huge strategy that I use and puzzles and in life, you got to break for even writing this book was breaking down into chunks because if I tried to conceive of them as one monolithic work, then it’s just so overwhelming. And instead, just breaking it down into chunks. I’m going to have a chapter on Jigsaw is a chapter on revisiting the chapter on Mazes and then it becomes manageable.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:05] And in fact, I think I’ll probably transition us. I do want to ask you about this really elegant thing I’m sorry, I don’t have any tattoos, but if I got a tattoo, I might get this as something that the late Japanese puzzle maker, Maki Kaji, expressed to you in a beautiful and poetic way. Will you talk about what he shared with you?
AJ Jacobs [00:25:26] I love this. I went to a lecture by him and he’s called he. He died a few months ago, sadly, but he was called the godfather of Sudoku. He didn’t invent Sudoku, but he brought it to a wide audience. And he is a puzzle maker in Japan. And he summed up all puzzles with three symbols as three characters. The question mark, the arrow, an arrow pointing forward, and then the exclamation point. And he explained the question mark is when you see something and you’re baffled, the arrow is the creativity phase where you’re coming up with solutions, you’re struggling, you’re trying things out. And then the exclamation point is that aha moment that we all want. So I loved that. But then I loved it even more because he added some extra wisdom, which is that the key to puzzles and not just puzzles, the key to life is embracing the arrow that you may never get to that exclamation point in life or in the puzzle, so you have to enjoy the arrow. It’s sort of, to me, a more poetic way of saying enjoy the journey or, you know, enjoy the climb up the mountain. You may never make it to the summit, but I thought it was beautiful. So I do try to enjoy the arrow knowing we don’t always make it to the exclamation point.
Brilliant Miller [00:26:55] I think there’s actually a lot of spiritual truth in this where, you know, first I think of Gandhi. Another thing I want to read attributed to him, he said, allegedly all effort is for victory.
AJ Jacobs [00:27:12] Mm. That’s nice. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:27:13] And then, and then coaches, I don’t know if it was John Wooden or another coach who will say the score takes care of itself.
AJ Jacobs [00:27:21] It’s a good one, too.
Brilliant Miller [00:27:22] And so this idea that many spiritual teachers have talked about working while renouncing the fruits of our labor, that, you know, the moral take no thought for the things of the morrow, for the morrow will take care of itself kind of thing. And then engaging in it as cliche as it is in the journey and the process.
AJ Jacobs [00:27:37] Right.
Brilliant Miller [00:27:38] I think in that little three symbol thing, there’s so much beauty and I think truth and wisdom to be found.
AJ Jacobs [00:27:44] I agree. I was a huge fan and I love your idea of the tattoo. I agree. I don’t have any. But if I did that, I might be here. If you do it, I’ll do it. Actually, I take that back because my wife hates tattoos. I don’t mind that my wife hates them.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:00] Well, it is. That’s another truth, I think. Happy wife. Happy life.
AJ Jacobs [00:28:05] And it rhymes actually describing wisdom.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:08] Well, let me just ask I have to two more questions about the puzzler and maybe a few more will pop up. But one question is, what will it take him in order? The first one is, how do you think or how do you like? If you know, how might your life be different because you wrote this book because you invested so much time in this? How do you think it might be different or how is your life already different because you wrote this book?
AJ Jacobs [00:28:35] Well, I’m going to break it down into chunks because we talked about that. So, one, I do believe it’s made me happier. Granted, as I say, gratitude and curiosity are my two favorite drives of emotions. So it really helped with my curiosity. It helped with my outlook of being less angry and more curious. So I think psychologically it was good. Number two, the book is a combination of two of the history of puzzles and puzzles themselves. There are dozens of puzzles for you to fill out. But it’s also my adventures immersing myself in these wonderfully eccentric puzzle communities. So the Jigsaw Fanatics, I went to Spain and I competed in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship, as with my family is Team USA. And it was a disaster in one sense because we came in second alarming. We were not meant to be there. These people practice for hours every day. But it was also wonderful because I got to meet this lovely community and it was almost like the United Nations. It was all countries from all over the world, and they had this bond. So being able to a, meet all these wonderful communities and we see the importance of community, which I think you’ve talked about many times, they have a community is just important to our happiness as humans. And three, I think it actually made me a slightly better problem solver, maybe more than slightly, because I learned all of these tools of how to solve puzzles, but that can be applied to far more than puzzles. And one of them is one we talked about and, you know, breaking down into chunks or being super flexible or looking at something upside down. All of these are important tools that I’ve honed.
Brilliant Miller [00:30:35] Yeah, absolutely. And that reminds me about something I think you suggest in the book where either you said this or someone you interviewed talked about that. Perhaps part of the reason as humans were so fascinated by puzzles is that they’re kind of a practice for life.
AJ Jacobs [00:30:52] Right.
Brilliant Miller [00:30:53] And they really can help us to live better, to survive better. And not just in picking up laundry, although that’s one sometimes, or maintaining their car or whatever. But this idea also that you said Recurred is a kind of a theme among puzzle fanatics of bringing order to chaos.
AJ Jacobs [00:31:13] Yes.
Brilliant Miller [00:31:14] Will you say more about what you discovered about this? Because maybe it’s our way of just bringing some organization to our little corner of the universe. But what was your experience in or what did you discover about order and chaos in puzzles?
AJ Jacobs [00:31:27] Right. Well, just to back up to the first part of what you said that I think we are wired assume and the scientist I talk to talk about we’re wired to solve problems, and puzzles and problems are cousins because of course the first puzzle was how do we find something to eat or how do we find a mate? And it’s not just humans. It’s yeah, even slime molds can solve puzzles if you put food and I solved mazes. If you put food at the end of a maze, a slime will actually find its way. So it’s cross-species across cultures. This desire to find and. And I think that puzzles are almost the platonic ideal of a problem because you have this one solution in life. The solutions are never so neat. You’ll have like, you know, five different suboptimal solutions. And you have to figure out which one is best, which is a whole other puzzle. But in puzzles, if they’re well constructed, you only have one. And it’s that order out of the chaos that I think is built into us. It’s wired into us. And it is it’s there. You know, I think we live in a chaotic world and it seems even more chaotic than it is because of social media. And so having this one little area that you can control is very satisfying. And yeah, so I think it’s I think that that is a is a good and of the mental benefit of puzzles. I also think, though, even A, there’s a meditative benefit to some puzzles like jigsaw puzzles. I know you like meditation, so I like this idea of just it doesn’t take that much thought to do a jigsaw puzzle, but it can be so calming and relaxing.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:22] Oh, absolutely. And I love what one of the people you talked to said about a jigsaw puzzle won’t solve all your problems, but it’s a problem you can solve.
AJ Jacobs [00:33:31] Exactly. So that’s the order out of chaos thing. Right? Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:35] And then the other thing about the meditative, I didn’t know this. I was grateful to learn about labyrinths. And labyrinths can absolutely have this kind of quality when you talk about that.
AJ Jacobs [00:33:43] Oh, yeah. Well, this was fascinating because I wanted to do a chapter on mazes. So I went to the gathering of the Labyrinth Society, which is a couple of hundred people in Maryland who got together.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:57] And I can it’s like something off the office or something.
AJ Jacobs [00:34:01] Well, it was fascinating and unexpected because I got there and I explained, I’m a writer, I’m doing a book on puzzles. And they said, well, you’re in the wrong place, sir. Labyrinths are not puzzles. In fact, they’re the opposite of puzzles because a puzzle is a maze and elaborate, they learn, are totally different according to them. Mazes are you have a choice. You go to go right or left and you get lost and then you solve the labyrinth. No choice. It is just a spiral. And you had one walk in one way and walk out the other. There’s no choice. And they said that is the beauty of the labyrinth, that there it’s a walking meditation and there is no choice and it’s stress-free. And one guy told me, Labyrinth, God created Labyrinth to heal the trauma caused by mazes. So he’s quite anti-maze. I like mazes and labyrinths, but he. So anyway, this, there’s this movement of people and it combines an interesting group. You know, there’s it’s religious Christians. Some are sort of new agers, some are psychedelic fans. And they all love this walking meditation that is the labyrinth.
Brilliant Miller [00:35:22] And that idea that there’s like one path. I mean, on the one hand, that’s like that sounds dogmatic, but in another way, I love that, you know, the idea that there’s one true path for each of us to find and walk.
AJ Jacobs [00:35:36] There’s something wrong. And I. Oh, I didn’t mean to draw.
Brilliant Miller [00:35:40] I was just going to say I was surprised to learn that these weren’t like labyrinths are necessarily all tall walls, right? Some of them were where you could just see low drag.
AJ Jacobs [00:35:48] Most of them are just rocks arranged over stones in grass or even a tarp. And it’s this. And they put them up and, you know, near hospitals or rehab centers or churches. And it’s a huge thing. And you can go on the Internet and find the closest labyrinth to you. And I will say I walked a few labyrinths as part of my research, and I liked them. They were they were meditative. I felt like in I had just had a nice glass of wine or something. But some people report that it’s like scales falling from the ice like it is a mind-blowing experience. I didn’t experience that personally, but I do. What? Going back to what you said, I think there are two parts of life that are equally important. One is this freedom of choice, which is, I think, important to our happiness. But then we can get overwhelmed. And there is something to the freedom from choice, this paradox of the paradox of choice that we have too many choices. So the labyrinth is sort of addressing that part of our nature.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:52] Yeah, that’s great. So then the other last question, before I would gently transition us to an exploration of writing and creativity as it relates to the puzzler is I know we’ve covered so much already. About this. But what, if anything, haven’t we talked about related to this book that you want to talk about or you think the listener might enjoy hearing?
AJ Jacobs [00:37:16] I think one thing that I loved and I did touch on it, but just that puzzles are a uniting force and I think all shared activities are. It doesn’t have to be puzzles, but the idea of doing something together is so important. And some people think puzzles out. You know, you to sit in the corner alone and work on a crossword. But most of the puzzlers I met, it’s all about working with people or even comparing and sort of being like, you know, I did it all faster than you. And speaking of where all I saw the inventor of. And for those who don’t know, it’s a newish game, a word game where you have to guess five letters and they tell you which letters are right and wrong. And it caught on like crazy and it’s like an obsession. And now they’re about 8000 words all spin-offs. So we’re all for art, we’re all for movies. Ludo Which is naughty words. So I love and I’m a fan of wordplay, but the guy who invented it told a wonderful story that almost seems like it’s, you know, made for a screenplay, which is that there is a man who a gay man who had been ostracized by his family. They were not on speaking terms because the family was very conservative in that way. And but they all love weirdly so sort of the bond that they’ve rebuilt their relationship on. And I think that is a wonderful thought. And we need more of these combined activities in our splintered society to reform these bonds.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:56] Yeah, I’m with you there. And I do love where it is all I play. I don’t know how I missed it, but one day I missed a cycle. One day of sleeping and waking. I just got busy or something and I broke my streak. I was almost a triple digits.
AJ Jacobs [00:39:08] Wow. That’s impressive. Yeah, I’m. I forget. Occasionally, I have to say, I’m more obsessive about another puzzle called the spelling bee. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that.
Brilliant Miller [00:39:19] I have. I haven’t subscribed to the Times yet. So then they’re like, subscribe to get to the genius mode or whatever. I’m like.
AJ Jacobs [00:39:24] They are, really? And it’s a lot of $40 a year. Yeah, it’s worth it. What is your opening word on wordle?
Brilliant Miller [00:39:31] I don’t use one consistently. I will go. I will do the thing where I will look around the room and then if I see a five-letter word, I’ll use it. My wife has opening words, but I know I’m not consistent and I’ve had somewhere. I’ll get on a word. I started randomly. I’ve had three been.
AJ Jacobs [00:39:48] No way. But listen, I respect that 100%. I think we should all be doing that more, experimenting with our first word. I’m a hypocrite because I have the same first word and I don’t like it. I remember I. I feel shameful because it’s not even a good word. It’s that as. So Ari, which is a young hawk and I got it because I ran an article, then an artificial intelligence analyzed thousands of words and decided this was the best word to wear. But it’s just it doesn’t feel good. I think I I’m you you inspired me. I’m going to try to change that every day.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:25] Yeah, try to do the approach is right. Because I have gone through periods where I’ve used consistent words for a while. And by the way, I know this is obviously very common. I don’t like to use ass right away because when I get the fewer letters left, the s will often help me if I have a more letter that I can make it five. But my wife’s word right now, she loves a ghost.
AJ Jacobs [00:40:47] Mm hmm. And then the.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:48] Thing the one I’ve loved in the past is audio. Because you get three of the five vowels.
AJ Jacobs [00:40:54] Yes, yes, that is nice. But it’s. And you probably have some audio equipment near a podcast, a little.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:01] Around and look.
AJ Jacobs [00:41:02] Around and say, oh, audio.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:04] Yeah. Well, in the book you talk about your love of spelling bees and this is actually, I think, a great segway to the creativity part because I understand you do The New York Times crossword puzzle every night before you go to bed, which I didn’t know. So thank you for telling me this, that you can do it online. Of course, you can do it on. I didn’t know that.
AJ Jacobs [00:41:21] But I do prefer it just because you can a recent you know I love the eraser but the delete key is even easier than the eraser. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:29] The challenge for me, I’m doing the crossword puzzle online would be the temptation to Google, which I know it’s okay if that’s your own rule for yourself.
AJ Jacobs [00:41:37] Right?
Brilliant Miller [00:41:38] I understand you do it all. And the Times crossword puzzle before bed and in that spelling bee will sometimes wake you up at like three or four in the morning.
AJ Jacobs [00:41:47] Right. This is not healthy. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:49] So my question for you about creativity is I think it’s great to have routines and it’s great to do things that light us up and that love that we love because I believe that passion can overflow into our work. Right. How do you not allow what could? Be considered distractions, like how do you walk the line of doing what you love without it, without letting it get in the way of your work and your productivity?
AJ Jacobs [00:42:14] Oh, that’s a lovely thought. Well, I am I do try to be disciplined with you know, I’m going to whether it’s the 25 minutes, 5 minutes, the what’s that Pomodoro method. So I do try to have my little treats like the spelling bee in those 5 minutes. I will also say I love what you say about the tension between routines and total creativity. And sometimes I think they can actually cross over like there is. So for instance, in I think I might have mentioned this on our first podcast, but I still every day I have a list of things I do in the morning and one of them is to spend 15 minutes just brainstorming ideas. And they could be article ideas or book ideas, but often they’re just random. Like you, I’ll look around the room and I’ll say, Oh, outside I see a snowman. And what can I do creatively with that? How can I play with it? You know what? If it was a snow person or a snow nonbinary or, you know, it’s just like taking it and twisting it and in all different directions. And I’m 99.5% of these ideas will never see the light of day. But I love, you know, as you know, my obsession with keeping the mind flexible and supple. And and I think this is a really good exercise for that. So that’s a routine in one way that leads to, um, freedom and lack of routine in a way. Mm hmm. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:43:53] That’s awesome.
AJ Jacobs [00:43:54] You tell me about it.
Brilliant Miller [00:43:58] I understand that you were writing a different book before you wrote the puzzle that you got about three months into something. You obviously put a lot of work and a lot of thought into, and yet you were willing to I don’t know that you abandoned that. That might be too strong a word, but you ceased work on that, right? Talk about what it was like to choose a project to begin. And then for whatever reason, she was a different project kind of midflight gas.
AJ Jacobs [00:44:25] I mean, one of the lessons of the puzzle there is, as I say, pivoting is important and creating, you know, not being attached. So the book I was I got a contract to write and I spent three months on it, as you say. It’s actually, I think, a very interesting topic, and I still am interested in it. It was all about this epistemological, this, how do we know what we know? And especially in this alleged post-truth world and fake news and social media, how do I know the most basic thing? How do I know the world is round, not flat? How do I know that my wife loves me? She says she does, but I’m not 100%. I’m not in her mind. How do I know that? That The New York Times is more reliable than Fox News or Newsmax? And so I was going to dove in and try to find out how we find the truth. And, I spent three months on it, and it was fascinating, but it was also extremely stressful. I felt overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure the book would help the problem of Post-Truth because I was worried people might read it and be like, Oh yeah, it’s just a mess. I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to believe whatever I believe, which is not helpful. So I, I was miserable and my agent. So I’m very grateful to him. He said he said, well, why don’t you, instead of being miserable, try to do a book about something you love? He knew I love puzzles. And I said, okay, well, let me think about that. And luckily, not only did I love them, but I do think that they’re important. And I begged my editor and she’s like, Actually, yeah, I. I might like this better. So it was stressful before I got it approved. But and it’s, you know, a little stressful that I wasted scare quotes around that time wasted three months, but I don’t see it as a total waste. I learned a lot. And as you say, I may still go back to it in some form, just not that exact form.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:35] Well, I hadn’t realized that you actually had a contract for that book.
AJ Jacobs [00:46:39] Oh, yeah. No, it was called Fact-Checking My Life, and I still want to do something with it. It’s just because it is a super important topic. And we mentioned it earlier a lot, but I don’t know, I haven’t. For me, structure is everything. The structure is so crucial once I have a structure for a book. So my book that we talked about last time was gratitude and the structure was thanked a thousand people. And I was even able to structure it more by like. Grouping a thousand people who who help make my cup of coffee. And here’s a chapter on the transportation it requires to get coffee to, you know, the truck that drives the the beans in the boat. So there’s a whole chapter on transportation. And I was able to break it down into very manageable chunks. And and this book on fact-checking my life, I couldn’t I just couldn’t get the structure correct. Well.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:37] I just heard the premise, if I were if I imagined myself as having the assignment to write that book, I can feel like literally in my body, I can feel the anxiety, the tension, and the comfort.
AJ Jacobs [00:47:49] And I actually I.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:51] Remember Tony Robbins, you go back to him.
AJ Jacobs [00:47:54] That.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:54] He suggested one time in the seminar I attended that if we question anything, we can erode our belief in it, like literally anything. And conversely, we can generate certainty at like with at will.
AJ Jacobs [00:48:11] Right?
Brilliant Miller [00:48:12] Like what we were saying, you know, that quote from Bertrand Russell, which is amazing that I believe it is possible for us to say I believe this even in the absence of evidence, in the absence of agreement, I choose to believe. Right. I think it’s terrifying to realize that we have that freedom and ability.
AJ Jacobs [00:48:28] You know. Edit Well, both sides are very scary and dangerous I think because yeah, if you’re a radical skeptic and say no one knows anything, you know, I’m not going to listen to scientists or doctors because what do they know then? I think that’s a disaster for society. But on the other hand, if you never question anything and believe anything, someone, you know, a cable pundit says, that’s also terrible. So it’s this very tricky middle ground.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:57] Yeah, absolutely. And yet beautiful. I think that if you say, you know, and I believe this as a coach, that you have all of your own answers inside you, that the truth, your truth is available to you and every moment. But then the question is, you know, can you hear it? And how do you have to live so that you can? And then do you have the courage to follow it? And what would that mean? And and and so forth. But I’m a little afield. Let me come back to the book and your creative process because you talk about structure as being important in your own work and life. But when it comes like when it came to the puzzler, how did you chunk out like did you sit in a room alone for a while with sticky notes, or did you, you know, like just have one of these brainstorming sessions one time? Like, how did you come up with the structure? How did you have enough certainty on what your structure was to proceed with the research and the writing versus because I know this can be a kind of a trap for us as creatives, is that it’s like, well, it’s not baked enough to go actually do the research or do the drafting? Mm. But how did you firm it up enough for yourself to go do the work that became the finished book.
AJ Jacobs [00:50:09] Well that’s a good question and I think the answer is it evolved and I had to keep an open mind and say this structure is constantly changing, which it did. And, you know, I had have I had a chapter on Tan Grams, this great Chinese puzzle, but it ended up not making the book. And I think a lot of it since we as humans love stories, a lot of it was related to what kind of puzzles can I find people with the best stories like these amazing fit like say it’s I found one woman obsessed with this puzzle at the CIA and she moved across the country to be closer to it. Think that’s a good story? Because people do need they need color. They need human, you know, human drama and conflict and joy. So that played into it. And it was it was fluctuating right to the end.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:08] Talking about storytelling, would you say a little about this? I realize this might be kind of granular for some people who really are interested in writing. I think they might value this. So and I’m personally curious, but when it comes to storytelling, right, there’s the old adage of show don’t tell.
AJ Jacobs [00:51:27] Hmm.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:27] Right. But as people who are trying to recapture and convey other people’s experiences, we acknowledge we weren’t there. So it’s not up to us to be literary about the sky was this color and you know, the wind was doing this. So we’re not trained necessarily in a literary way to recreate and share the experience. But what I’m trying to go with this is how do you, as one who’s weaving stories into your work, go beyond merely telling a story and do your best to like, give it dimension, give it depth, give it interest, and not just say, well, this happened and this happened and this happened. Maybe that’s eight times, but how do you actually make it come alive?
AJ Jacobs [00:52:06] I guess that there are there are two almost opposing methods I use. One is to go very, very granular, small, and one is to go very big. So for if I’m interviewing someone who like say they were struck by lightning and they say, yeah, I was eating lunch, I would in my interview, I’d say, well, what were you having? Oh, a sandwich. What kind of sandwich with ham and cheese was it on rye? So then I get all of these nice details which are good for the reader. So you’ve got all these details, but then it can’t just be a list of details. It has to have a bigger meaning, which is how did they feel? What were they thinking? So then I’ll step back and say, Okay, so how did it feel? What did it feel like? Give me a metaphor. Like did it feel like, you know, you got a hundred cases of COVID at the same time? Did it feel like you were, you know, crushed by a falling dumpster who gave me a good metaphor? So it’s a combination of very specific details and big thoughts often and feelings often expressed with a metaphor. Mm-hmm.
Brilliant Miller [00:53:17] Right. And then how do you know? I mean, maybe this is kind of intuitive as you get into the writing, but as you map out the outline and the structure of chapters and things like that, do you how do you know where to put the stories in? Do you try to use them as interest grabbers at the opening of chapters or to prove a point or something? How do you use the story once you’ve identified it is something you want to include?
AJ Jacobs [00:53:40] Mm-hmm. I love that. Well, one of the methods of solving puzzles that I talk about is to start with the easiest part. So when you see a crossword puzzle and you have no idea what to do, find that one clue that you can actually and then build out from there. So if I have a great story, like, you know, say I have a great story about Rubik’s Cubes, this woman who like Rubik’s cubes saved her life because she had, you know, her hands were paralyzed and she was able to use the Rubik’s Cube too, you know, another one that’s like a movie to cure her illness. But so I have that and I’m like, okay, I’m starting with that. I know that’s going to be in there now. Where do I build it? How do I introduce it? How do I outgrow it? Where does it fit in? Here are five ideas I want to cover. I know that this Rubik’s Cube is really compelling and may be the most compelling part, and it may end up that it’s the opening because it grabs people, but it may end up that I open end and then lead into it. And I don’t think there’s one right answer. I think I try to remind myself, you know, there’s not one perfect way to write this chapter. There’s you know, it all depends on dozens of factors. And one person could love it this way. Another person could love it that way. So I don’t see it as like a life and death decision that this has to be here and that has to be there. But starting with what I know, for one, I shouldn’t say for sure because we. Yeah. But what I, what I know I really do want to include and then build out from there.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:26] With these stories that you include, how much do you involve the subject of the story after the fact? You provide them a little draft and say, Hey, did I capture this right? Do you ask them for a release, like a legal release? How do you just do the interview and write it and then publish it? Like, how does that all unfold usually?
AJ Jacobs [00:55:47] Well, I know a lot of nonfiction writers have different strategies. I mean, if I were writing like an exposé of the White House, of course, I wouldn’t send it to them. But I’m writing a book about the joy of puzzles, and I want to relay the truth. And so I do send them. I say I interview them, I write it up, and then I say, Here’s what I wrote. Does this look accurate to you? And weirdly, more often than not, they improve the. So it’s not a negative. They’ll actually say, well, actually, you know, I don’t have that book on my desk. I have this book and the book they provide is, is funnier and weirder than the one that I had, and spot it so often. It improves it. Not always. Sometimes they’ll say, please don’t say that. You know, it’ll get me in trouble with my boss and I’m not out to get anyone fired. So yeah, I am the type who actually sends it to him. But again, like if I were doing hard journalism, that is very frowned upon. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:00] It makes sense. And then talking about just a moment ago, you said something that reminded me I think we talked about this last time, too, about your process as you near that.
AJ Jacobs [00:57:14] Of.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:15] Having some kind of a finished draft, some kind of a draft to share that you do have a group of readers that you invite to read, to comment, to talk about if anything wasn’t clear or what they like or what they don’t like. And I think you even use a spreadsheet to track this or you have in the past.
AJ Jacobs [00:57:31] I can I’m going to get for this one. Yes, I find reader feedback incredibly helpful, and actually is one of the downsides of being a writer and why I’m jealous of you. Because, you know, when you’re interviewing people, you can kind of get immediate feedback on whether the question sparks something exciting or just makes their eyes glaze over. But I don’t get any feedback for a month, so I have to go out of my way to I’ll write a few chapters and I’ll select ten or 15 people I trust and I send it to them. But I make very specific requests because if I just said, Do you like this? They’re my friends, they’re going to say they liked it even if they didn’t. So I ask them, what? Which are the five chapters you found most interesting and which are the five you found least interesting? And then I can use that data because if, you know, 12 of them say, Well, this chapter is kind of slow, I know that’s not a fluke. That is something to work on. Now, I will say it’s worked better in the past for this book on puzzles since it consists of 20 different chapters of 20 kinds of puzzles, people just like the kind of puzzle that they like. So if, you know, the crossword lovers are like, Oh, I love the crossword chapter, this joke lovers were like, Oh, the Sudoku was my favorite. So it ended up not being all that helped this time. But in years past it has been invaluable.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:02] Yeah, you know, it reminds me, I once heard Jack Hemphill talk about his process of collecting and sharing stories. And when he wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul, he did this with a group of kind of beta readers, you might call it. And he said that he knew that most readers don’t finish a book before they talk about it to their friends. They’ll talk about it as soon as they start reading it. And so he very deliberately front end, loaded chicken soup for the soul with the most moving or the stories that his beta reader said were the best.
AJ Jacobs [00:59:31] Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:31] So people would get into it and immediately tell their friends, Oh, you’ve got to buy this book. It’s so.
AJ Jacobs [00:59:38] Smart. That’s wise. Yeah. That’s some wisdom from Jack Canfield. Absolutely.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:44] Tell me, if you will, about the difference between the art. Okay. Actually, let me pause that, because I’m super curious about you’ve actually not just written a book about puzzles. You’ve actually made a puzzle. I did this earlier. And it’s got a cash prize. Ten grand, right?
AJ Jacobs [00:59:59] Yes. I’m afraid by the time this airs, it probably won’t be available. But it’s still a great story. And you can still solve the puzzles even if you don’t get the cash prize because the finals begin and you can cut this out of one finals begin Saturday, June 4th. Okay. Probably going to be over soon. But yes, this I was very excited about because as a kid, I read this book called Masquerade and it was a British book by this artist with these weird, beautiful illustrations of people dressed up in rabbit suits and having, you know, dancing with the moon. And those illustrations contain hints to an actual buried treasure somewhere in England, a golden rabbit sculpture. And people went nuts. It caused a craze, a mania, like people were digging up yards and, you know, trespassing all over England. But I still I remember that. And so I thought when I wrote a book about puzzles, I’m like, I want to do that. I don’t want to have people dig up their neighbor’s yard because I don’t want to be sued. But I like the idea of hiding a secret puzzle in the book. So the introduction to the book actually contains a secret puzzle, which leads to a code word and the introduction is available on the Puzzler Booking.com website. The Puzzler Booking.com for free. So you don’t have to buy the book. I hope you will because I think it’s fun, but you don’t have to. And if you find the passcode, that’s where the real craziness starts, because you put the passcode into the website and it opens up to a suite of about 30 puzzles that are so I didn’t write them. These people who are some of the best puzzle makers in the world wrote these puzzles and they are bizarre and delightful and challenging and weird. And, you know, they are like, you think it’s a crossword puzzle, but then it turns out to be some other kind of puzzle. So I highly recommend people try and do it with friends though, because like I was saying, it’s a communal thing and these puzzles are sometimes so challenging. It really helps to have different points of view. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:24] That’s such a fun, such a fun concept. Once the finals are over, will you publish the code so people can just go do the three puzzles?
AJ Jacobs [01:02:33] Yes, yes, exactly. So everything will remain open. You won’t be able to win the $10,000, but you can do all the puzzles. And yes, if you go to the puzzle or BBC.com, it will give you hints to the code. If you really want to, you can just say, just give me the code, and then you can put that in and it’ll open up the puzzle.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:56] All right. That’s fun. Will you tell me about the difference between the audiobook and the printed book? And I love that you read the audio.
AJ Jacobs [01:03:05] Book as well. So if I did not.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:09] Read his or her own book speak. But you do. And then you changed the way that you do kind of the end content of each chapter.
AJ Jacobs [01:03:16] Right. The book contains tons of puzzles, both old and new, like the oldest whatever, the oldest crossword puzzle. But a lot of those puzzles are visual and it’s very hard to reproduce. We do provide a PDF that you can download when you buy the audio puzzle, but I felt I felt bad for the audio listeners that they aren’t getting this experience of solving puzzles in the middle of reading the book. So I spent and I didn’t get paid for this, so it might have been a waste of my time, but I hope not. I spent a long time coming up with collecting, curating, and creating audio puzzles. So a lot, you know, riddles are very good audio puzzles, but they’re also one sort of like name, that noise type of puzzles. And I have gotten nice feedback, although I did do one riddle that I’ve gotten probably ten emails saying there’s an alternate answer, do you want to hear it? You might have heard this riddle. What is it? It is. A bear goes one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north and comes back to the same place. What color is the bear?
Brilliant Miller [01:04:38] So I do remember that from there that there’s only one place on earth where you can follow those instructions. So the bear must be. It must be white. It must be a polar bear.
AJ Jacobs [01:04:46] How, exactly?
Brilliant Miller [01:04:48] There’s apparently an alternate answer. What’s the alternate history?
AJ Jacobs [01:04:52] Well, the alternate answer is, yeah, it was the real answer is the North Pole is on the north and the North Pole. Yeah, right. They go down in the east and the north and it’s almost like an ark. That’s the only place where you’ll end up with the same. You don’t even have to make a square, you make a triangle. Problem is, it also works at the South Pole. So I got like ten puzzlers. Like, you know, it also works and my well actually two there well actually is. Yeah, but the South Pole doesn’t have polar bears. So there you go. It’s probably not the South Pole unless you import the polar bears. It’s great.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:35] Uh, okay. So I’m just looking at the creative questions I had. We talked about outlines. We talked about how you don’t allow puzzles to get in the way of your productivity. So in your acknowledgments, you mentioned Karen and Chloe, do I have that right?
AJ Jacobs [01:05:51] Harris Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:53] They read this out loud.
AJ Jacobs [01:05:56] Right?
Brilliant Miller [01:05:56] You tell me why and what the benefit of that was.
AJ Jacobs [01:06:00] Well, that’s a good friend of mine. His name is Karen Harris and his wife, Chloe. He’s actually a podcast producer for a podcast called 80000 Hours, which is affiliated with effective altruism, which is all about how do we do good best, which is a fascinating movement. And I love it. And he’s great, but he is also super supportive. So they would read the chapters out to each other and make note of when the other person laughed. And that’s important data for me. And I will say they weren’t the only ones who read it out loud. I read it out loud a couple of times to myself because at least in my style, I like to have it a bit conversational. Now, that’s not the only writing style, I think. You know, some people write beautifully long literate sentences that are not conversational. And so this might not work for them. But for me, I like to have my book be a conversation with the reader. So reading it out loud is hugely helpful. And I bet if I read it now, I would change a thousand things if I got it out loud. It’s just you’ve got to give it up at some point. There’s no perfection. You just got to get it out there.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:11] Yeah. What’s that saying? That books are never finished for me. Published?
AJ Jacobs [01:07:14] I love that saying exactly.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:17] I’m with you. But when I heard the first gas I ever heard talk about reading a manuscript aloud was Donald Robertson, who wrote How to Think like the Roman Emperor Stoic Wisdom. And he said that he paid someone in his neighborhood to come over and read it. And of course, it took like eight or 10 hours. But hearing it, just hearing it out loud can help you become aware of things or change the pacing or the rhythm and things. So I was interested when I read that you had people.
AJ Jacobs [01:07:44] First of all, that is fascinating to have someone else read it. I have never tried that. But you’ve inspired me. I’m going to I’m all about experiments. So I’m going to say maybe that’s an even better way. If it’s someone else reading it out loud.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:58] I’d be interested. I and someone else, another guests of mine. And I know this is a little different from hearing another human do it. And I think there’s personally I think there’s value in that. But something I’ve started doing because another guest of mine said the Microsoft Word actually has a feature where it will read aloud. Wow. So I actually use that every week when I write my newsletter to just see. And that helps me. You know how hard it is to edit your own stuff. That’s right, too.
AJ Jacobs [01:08:22] Like typos and thank you. I’m gonna try that.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:27] It’s pretty cool.
AJ Jacobs [01:08:28] I love it.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:29] Well, with that we have covered I feel confident this is yeah this is an interview I’ve asked you. I’ve been thinking and looking forward to this for a few weeks, so I’ve had my list of questions and you have answered them all. So I’m confident that I only have like one or two, you know, the French call staircase where.
AJ Jacobs [01:08:50] You should have said, Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:51] On the way out, but I’m confident I only have one or two questions I wish I had asked when I’m on my way home.
AJ Jacobs [01:08:57] You know you don’t have to, which I will happily get back on. And you can.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:01] You’re amazing.
AJ Jacobs [01:09:02] Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:03] Well, I will just end with the question that, you know, as a coach, I’m actually not a fan of advice, but I don’t have a word that I think that I like better, at least in this application. So just kind of voicing that. But what advice or what encouragement? So what would you say to anybody listening who is either in the act of their in the during the arrow of their own creative project or it’s a dream they’ve been harboring for a long time that for whatever reason they haven’t really committed to? What do you say to people in that situation who are aspiring to get their own book done?
AJ Jacobs [01:09:38] Interesting. Okay. Well, first of all, it’s funny you bring up advice because I did tweet a couple of weeks ago saying I’m going to write an advice column called here’s some stuff that worked for me. It may or may not work for you. It hasn’t been tested scientifically and probably never will. But maybe you’ll find it good. Maybe it’ll be counterproductive. But here you go. It’s a little bit of a subtitles. Exactly. So I don’t think that would be a successful advice column. But, yes, my. What has worked for me is to. Be, you know, embrace, not embrace. If you can’t embrace, at least tolerate rejection and failure because it is such a part. And I as a starting writer and I was like, you know, 99.5% of things where they get rejected or now they even rejected, they wouldn’t even respond. And I am still the majority of stuff I pitch. I get rejected, even though I’ve been doing this for so long and I’ve had some level of success. It’s just that there are only so many places and there are so many great ideas that it’s hard. So just know that it’s not personal. It’s just that, you know, there’s a glut of stuff and just keep on sending it out. Being okay with rejection. And, also, even if you don’t feel it’s finished, send it to some friends and get their feedback. And because that way it’s almost like I feel if I never did that, if I waited until it was done, as we say, it’ll never happen. It’ll never be done. So even just forcing myself to send, you know, 80% written stuff with a lot of like t ks is what we use in journalism, which means to come, which means like I’m going to fill this in later, you know, paragraph K, I send that out to friends and say, sorry, it’s not completely done, but I am I in the right direction or do you think I should switch? To me, that’s very motivating right off.
Brilliant Miller [01:11:56] Okay. Well, things that have worked for you that might or might not work for you either. That’s awesome. All right. Well, again, my guest today, AJ Jacobs. His latest book, The Puzzler One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from crosswords to jigsaws to the meaning of life. AJ It’s been so fun. Thank you for making time to talk with me again.
AJ Jacobs [01:12:17] Oh, my, my pleasure. Brilliant. Now, come on, any time you want. It was. It was a delight.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:29] Hey, thanks so much for listening to this episode of The School for Good Living podcast. Before you take off, just want to extend an invitation to you. Despite living in an age where we have more comforts and conveniences than ever before, life still isn’t working for many people, whether it’s here in the developed world where we deal with depression, anxiety, loneliness, addiction, divorce, unfulfilling jobs or relationships that don’t work. Or in the developing world where so many people still don’t have access to basic things like clean water or sanitation or health care or education, or they live in conflict zones. There are a lot of people on this planet that life isn’t working very well for. If you’re one of those people, or even if your life is working, but you have the sense that it could work better. Consider signing up for the School for Good Living’s transformational coaching program. It’s something I’ve designed to help you navigate the transitions that we all go through. Whether you’ve just graduated or you’ve gone through a divorce, or you’ve gotten married, headed into retirement. Starting a business. Been married for a long time. Whatever. No matter where you are in life, this nine-month program will give you the opportunity to go deep into every area of your life, explore life’s big questions, and create answers for yourself in a community of other growth-minded individuals. And it can help you get clarity and be accountable to realize more of your unrealized potential. You can also help you find and maintain motivation. In short, is designed to help you live with greater health, happiness, and meaning so that you can be, do, have, and give more. Visit goodliving.com to learn more or to sign up today.
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