#94 A.J. Jacobs

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A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs) joined James Altucher to talk where they get their ideas from, what it means to write a great book, and what the heck is all this talk about the world’s largest family reunion.

Jacobs is the author of four NYT Bestsellers; Drop Dead Healthy, A Year of Living BiblicallyMy Life as an Experiment,  and The Know it All. He’s on this podcast episode to mostly talk about Global Family Reunion. It’s an attempt to set the world record for the largest family reunion ever and Jacobs describes it to James as a “family reunion meets a TED Talk meets a music festival.” There was no word in the interview about what time the egg toss and three-legged race will be. Here are a few articles from this series; a NYT article, a People article from 2014, and one from 2015.

Jacobs may be on to talk about this project, and the accompanying book, but the interview covers a range the skills needed to be a writer. One of which has been cold-calling interviewees. Jacobs tells James that it’s a lot easier to get George H.W. Bush on the line when you say that it’s his cousin calling.

Not every call is successful though. “You have to be willing to be rejected.” Jacobs tells James. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) said much the same thing, telling James that asking is hard:

“There’s not an easy way, and that’s the point. If there was an easy way we’d all be happy and everybody would do it all the time and we’d be living in a fantastic society.” – Amanda Palmer

Being open to the fact that people will reject you is part and parcel for any career, especially writing.

Aside from the interviews for the Global Family Reunion, the actual planning has been a challenge. It’s “like planning the biggest wedding ever,” Jacobs tells James, “and I didn’t even plan my own wedding.” There are hundreds of volunteers helping and Jacobs thinks they’re helping because it’s a cause that resonates with them. Jacobs tells James that we share 99.9% of our DNA with each other and we need to cooperate to solve big problems. Hosting the biggest family reunion ever may be the first domino that gets the others moving.

James asks what got Jacobs started with this idea and he said it was a small moment.

“You’ve got to seize serendipity. A random thing that might seem small,  you’ve got to grab it and follow it for a while.” – A.J. Jacobs

A.J. said that someone complimented one of his books, and noted that they were third cousins. That’s interesting thought Jacobs. thatsinterestin

Something being interesting is a focal point for Jacobs, he tells James that he keeps an “interesting things list” on his computer that he revisits from time to time. But looking inward for ideas isn’t the only way to find good ones.

Jacobs tells the story that when he was starting out, the local San Francisco reporters would look to Parade magazine for a story prompt, and then write the local version of it. “Your inspiration can come from anywhere, including articles from other people” AJ says.

Or, it can come from selling the same thing, with a slight twist to many different people, each who will experience in their own way.

This American Life produced an episode about the “Hello” song. It goes something like this:

Catchy right. Well that jingle isn’t just for Maine, there’s one for Detroit, Calgary and a host of other cities. But many people who hear it, thing it’s just for their city. One interviewee says that “this is like finding out that your childhood teddy bear was owned by three other people on the weekends when you weren’t there.” The entire episode touches on similar themes to what Jacobs mentions.

James asks A.J. more about the logistics of his writing process.

  • Jacobs tells James that most often he likes to experience something, take copious notes, write some journal entries, and then go back for the larger piece.
  • Jacobs also says that his fingers need about twenty minutes to warm up with writing before anything good comes out. He needs to warm up his fingers before his brain. This sort of muscle memory, deeper connection to consciousness, is what Steven Kotler credits with curing his Lyme disease.
  • Jacobs used to read good books to “get in the mood of good writing” a practice that James regularly mentions.
  • Jacobs also says,  “I do think you’re more creative when you’re happy” and to this there is some scientific evidence.

To the last two points, there is good evidence in Thinking Fast and Slow that priming yourself to be in a good mood will lead to better work. If your body senses it’s in a safe place, your mood gives a thermostatic reading about the threat level, you tend to act more deeply in a certain way. My guess is that you can be walking down the side of a highway in a good mood, but you won’t have the same type of creativity as if you were walking through a peaceful woods.

Then comes a great quote from their exchange. Jacobs tells James that I “forced myself to pretend to like” giving interviews as a way to get good at them. He goes on to say:

 “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” A.J. Jacobs quoting Millard Fuller.

Jacobs adds “delusional optimism is a wonderful thing and sometimes it pays off.” This is almost exactly what Alex Blumberg (episode #70) told James in his interview, saying that he had to be “a little bit delusional” to start Gimlet Media. Ramit Sethi (episode #36) explains this idea from a different angle:

“If you look at someone from the outside and they have a successful business, blog, or podcast and youre like, wow, there’s no way I could do that. I felt exactly the same way…jump in anyway.” – Ramit Sethi

This is a key takeaway from all the guests. You don’t need to know how to do everything, just the next thing.

It’s also going to take a bit of luck. Jacobs says, “it’s a quantity game, keeping going until you find the ones (ideas) that stick.” Seth Godin (episode #27) told James you have to keep “getting up to bat.” Godin says he may have been lucky to sell his company to Yahoo! right before the tech bubble popped, but that’s he’s been unlucky many times too.

Toward the end of the interview James asks A.J. about what some of his crazier ideas have been. Jacobs said that someone suggested he try to become the greatest lover ever. To which someone else (his wife) said that was a terrible idea. The visual version of what Jacobs may have come up with is available as Simon Rich’s book, The Married Kamasutra  (of whom both James and Jacobs are big fans).

Then they get into the idea of what types of ideas are ideal. Jacobs says that he writes in a sort of extremism. What if you lived the bible literally? What if you were the healthiest man alive? What if you outsourced your life to India? About that last bit Jacobs wrote, “why should Fortune 500 firms have all the fun? Why can’t I join in on the biggest business trend of the new century? Why can’t I outsource my low-end tasks? Why can’t I outsource my life?”

Throughout the interview is a sense of wanting to do something more with the Global Family Reunion project. It feels like Jacobs is implicitly nudging you along like a teacher might, showing us that we’re all one big family and maybe we should act this way.

The interview ends with a slew of goofy facts, a perfect microcosm of Jacobs’ humor.

  • Did you know, the 70th cousin is about how separated you could be from another human.
  • Did you know, Jews are much more closely related, occupying the 4-35th cousins range.
  • Did you know, Iceland has an app to test if you are a cousin. “Bump phones before bodies” is their slogan.
  • Did you know, through history, 80% of marriages were to a second cousin or closer.

Thanks for reading, it really means a lot to me. I was also lucky enough to have A.J. contribute to a site I run, 27 Good Things, where he shared good things to read, watch, and use. Here’s a LinkedIn piece Jacobs wrote about Fuller. If I missed anything, let me know, @mikedariano.

Any of his books are wonderfully enjoyable. Here’s a snippet from his 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically.

On the admittedly random day of July 7, 2005, I begin my preparations. I pull out a Bible that is tucked away in the corner of my bookshelf. I don’t even remember where I got it, but it looks like the Platonic ideal of a Bible. Like a Bible they’d use in a fifties Western to stop a bullet from piercing the hero’s chest. On the front, it says “Holy Bible” in faded gold embossing. The tissue-thin pages remind me of my beloved encyclopedia. The black leather cover smells exactly like my parents’ 1976 Plymouth Valiant. It feels good, comforting.

I crack open the Bible. The title page says, ‘This Bible is presented to…’ and then, in handwritten bubble letters, the name of my ex-girlfriend. Huh. Somehow I inadvertently pilfered my ex-girlfriend’s childhood Bible. I hope inadvertently. It’s been a decade since we broke up, and I can’t remember. Regardless, that’s not a good sign. At the very least, I need to return it when I’m done.

Like I said, just go get any book by Jacobs. Okay, okay, one more, from the next page when he goes looking for a Bible and a salesman points him to a table.

He points out one Bible I might want. It’s designed to look exactly like a Seventeen magazine: An attractive (if long-sleeved) model graces the front, next to cover lines like ‘What’s Your Spiritual IQ?’ Open it up and  you’ll find sidebars such as ‘Rebecca the Control Freak.’

‘This one’s good if you’re on the subway and are too embarrassed to be seen reading the Bible,’ says Chris. ‘Because no one will ever know it’s a Bible.’ It’s an odd and poignant selling point. You know  you’re in a secular city when it’s considered more acceptable for a grown man to read a teen girl’s magazine than the Bible.

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