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#128 A.J. Jacobs

128 Jacobs Headshot.jpg

A.J. Jacobs has been on my wish list of guests for ages.

From The Know-It-All to The Year of Living Biblically, I have loved reading along through his lifestyle experiments that took on challenges I wish I was dedicated enough to undertake: reading the entire encyclopedia? Following all the rules in the Bible for a year even as a non-religious person? He has incredible guts to both start and finish these projects.

So when I heard about Thanks A Thousand, his latest book and a project that sought to thank everyone who was involved with the production of his morning cup of coffee, I was determined to have him on. I had myself set up for my own quest to convince him, but it turns out he was delighted to come on as soon as I asked. This conversation was a great joy, as we looked at all the small design masterpieces there are in the world around us, just how many people collaborate on the creation of a book, and how much better it makes your life to thank the people you meet every day. I couldn't be happier to share this with you.

Topics Discussed:

  • A.J.’s latest works including The Year of Living Biblically and Thanks A Thousand

  • How to handle feedback

  • Note taking and why you shouldn’t sweat your first draft

  • How to create and organize a team project

  • Why it takes a village to get your book on the shelves

Discussed in Episode 128 with A.J. Jacobs

  • Using a book/writing as a way to conduct an experiment in your life.

  • Erin Jourdan, ep. 19 on “Stunt Journalism”

  • “Sometimes I get people who say they read it in the bathroom.”
    On realizing a compliment is a compliment

  • A book idea that is also a project.

  • Sharing the impact of both the writing and the project on your family.

  • The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

  • “I was exasperated but proud.”
    On his wife’s reaction to The Year of Living Biblically

  • “You’re only reading the 1% I think are somewhat decent.”
    On realizing most ideas are terrible.

  • “If I’m interested in a topic, I sort of take it to the extreme.”

  • Taking one idea he’s interested in, then wholly immersing in it.

  • “I don’t encourage others to do this unless you have your own book contract.”
    On knowing this kind of journalism isn’t for everyone.

  • How writing changes the process of simply diving into something you’re interested in. There’s a meta-aspect to it, where you’re observing yourself being immersed.

  • The importance of copious note taking.

  • “I hate the actual writing part of it.”
    On writing as solitary confinement.

  • Speaking has immediate feedback. Writing, you’ve no idea. Feedback comes a year & half later.

  • “I’m a writer who hates writing.”
    On knowing the fact that even if drafting is hard, you can still be a writer.

  • Just start typing. Get your fingers moving. The first 20 minutes might be about the pigeon on the window ledge but it’s okay to know you’ll throw this part out.

  • “Sometimes you’re typing along a sentence and you’ll take a left turn.”
    On surprising yourself when writing.

  • “If you can surprise yourself, then imagine what you can do to the reader.”

  • Making non-fiction as creative & surprising as fiction.

  • Using spreadsheets to organize a project.

  • “I went six degrees of gratitude.” On finding 1,000 people to thank for his morning cup of coffee.

  • “Every person that I thanked would spawn 5 other people that I could thank.” On gratitude

  • Working title of the book was “Thank You, All.”

  • 1,000 became a nice structural element. Plus it’s alliterative.

  • He preferred “Thanks a Thousand” as the title and did some actual market research to test both titles via an internet survey.

  • Digression on coffee preparation.

  • “My one strength is curiosity.”

  • “The idea of a sole author is just not realistic.” On that fact that it takes a village to get a book on the shelves.

  • He thanked over 1,000 people in the acknowledgments.

  • This book came out simultaneously with a TED Talk.

  • He pitched 5 ideas to TED. This is the one they picked.

  • TED Talks are now a huge machine & they work with you to get your talk down pat.

  • When he watches an author’s TED Talk, he frequently thinks, ‘ah, now I don’t have to buy the book!’ In his talk, he tried to make it clear that his talk was only the tip of the iceberg - buy the book!

  • “There are all these hidden masterpieces around us.” On saying if you take a minute to look around, you’ll find some.

  • “That’s the kind of thing I want to try to notice.”

  • Being able to find & appreciate all the little bits of wonder in the world. And be grateful for them.

  • We are built to notice the 3-4 things that go wrong, rather than the things that go right.

  • Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature

  • Spend a few minutes every day just coming up with ideas, turn off media and grab pen & paper. Spend time doing random brainstorming. Could be book ideas, could just be random ideas.

  • “If I come up with 100 ideas, I know that most of them are not workable.” On the numbers game of writing a book

  • If two weeks from now he keeps returning to an idea, then maybe it’s a keeper.

    • It’s got to be something you’re passionate about.

    • Being commercially viable isn’t enough.

    • It has to have a bigger message.

  • “Perfection is the enemy.” On just getting it out there, and then you can improve it. 

    This episode sponsored by listeners like you via the Secret Library Podcast Patreon