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I Made It: AJ Jacobs’ creative process for making bestselling books

Discover AJ Jacobs’ creative process for publishing four New York Times bestsellers, including how he brainstorms, researches, and writes his real-life quests.

February 14, 2020 by Cyn Meyer

There’s a healthy list of actors who practice staying in character on- and off-camera while filming their work. 

While it seems a bit over-dedicated to never clock out, the hard work pays off -- in salary, authenticity, and literal awards at red-carpet shows.

The work of AJ Jacobs, successful author, speaker, and editor at Esquire Magazine, is no different. 

AJ also takes his work -- and role -- very seriously. 

In fact, for each of his six published books, AJ assumed the role of his subject matter and took on a real-life quest while writing his books.

Staying in character paid off for AJ, too. He’s earned the title of New York Times Best Seller a whopping four times to date.  

We had the pleasure of sitting down with AJ in our final episode of I Made It, a podcast for action-taking creators, where he shared with us his creative process for writing his notable books.

Even if you’re not a writer or aspiring author, we’ve got something for you today. Whether you’re a creator with an online business idea or want to validate your product idea, there’s something to take away from AJ’s creative process, starting with how he brainstorms his book ideas. 

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

How AJ brainstorms book ideas

The first way AJ goes into his brainstorming process is by pulling ideas and inspiration directly from his personal life. 

This is how he came up with the topic for his first book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

He got the idea from his dad who always loved reading and seeking knowledge. AJ’s dad tried to read his way through the family’s encyclopedia collection and reached the middle of the letter B. AJ decided to “finish what he began and remove that steam from our family history.” 

And voila -- his first book idea was born, a concept AJ attributes to his dad.

“I think that was an example of using your family and using what's around you as inspiration,” he shares. “I would never have thought of that idea by myself . . . It was really something my dad did.”

Another way AJ brainstorms novel ideas (pun intended) is by thinking up as many ideas as he can and then using the process of elimination. 

For instance, when he drummed up the concept for his second book, he brainstormed with several ideas that were ultimately dropped.

“I came up with tons of ideas for books, and I don't even remember them, but none of them worked,” he divulges. “Either I rejected them, or my publisher did, or my wife put the kibosh on it because it would be too much of a nightmare.”

Even after he landed on the concept of his second book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, which was to live a life that literally followed the bible for a year, it was a struggle committing to it. 

Because of the controversial nature of the topic, AJ had a difficult time deciding whether or not to go through with it. 

“It’s very controversial,” he explains. “That was very stressful, and I didn't know whether to do it or not.”

AJ thought to himself, "Do I really want to do this? I could get flak from both sides. No one will be happy when you try to combine religion and humor." 

While it wasn’t an easy choice, in the end, AJ’s topic proved to be one that resonated with his audience.

But, he kind of knew that already, because AJ does something that every creative should -- and very often, does.

He validates his book concept before going all-in. For AJ, he does so by talking to as many people as possible about his latest book idea.

“One thing I do is I just tell as many people as possible about the idea,” he explains. “I look in their eyes and see if they light up . . . I see if they ask follow-up questions because sometimes they don't.” 

If their eyes don’t “light up,” AJ takes it as a cue to not pursue the book idea.

To keep his creativity authentic, AJ changes the subject matter from book to book, which allows him to repeat a similar creative process across books. 

“If you can take on projects creatively that are completely different subject matter, then that allows you a little more freedom to have a similar process,” AJ coaches. 

Speaking of his repeatable process, let’s dive into AJ’s next step -- conducting research.

How AJ conducts his book research

AJ conducts his book research by literally immersing himself in the subject matter. He turns each book-writing period into a new personal quest and adapts his lifestyle to focus entirely on researching and documenting his experiences for his book. 

For instance, while writing The Year of Living Biblically, AJ kept his title’s promise and committed to a full year of following the bible as literally as he could.  

Then, to log his experiences throughout his quest, AJ keeps two journals, one for his personal life and one for his project research -- a process that he continues today.

“I still keep notes of what's happening in my life and also what's happening directly in the project research,” he shares.

While it may seem intense to fully assume his roles during his book research, AJ does it for a good reason. He calls it “steelmanning,” a way to present an opposing perspective -- the one you disagree with -- better than the other side can. 

“I love the idea of steelmanning because I think it just makes the world a better place,” he muses. “That's the way we can move forward.” 

And “move forward” he does by making multiple bestselling works. Let’s dive into AJ’s full creative process.

AJ’s creative process

AJ enjoys the first two parts of his creative process the most, which we’ve already covered -- brainstorming and research. 

“Coming up with the ideas, that's one of my favorite things,” he pronounces. “Brainstorming . . . 100 books where 99 of those ideas are going to suck, but one of them hopefully will be good.”

“I love researching the topics,” AJ continues as he reminisces on researching his most recent work, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. “Interviewing the designer of a coffee lid and going to Colombia, South America to meet the farmers. That was awesome.” 

The third part of this creative process -- the actual writing -- is his least favorite because it’s isolating and comes with a delayed audience reaction. “A big part of it is just . . . being alone and not getting feedback immediately,” AJ reflects. 

“When I talk in public, I just love . . . being able to see in people's eyes or the laughter that they are interested,” he continues. “And with a book you're writing that’s not gonna come out for a year, I find it very frustrating.”

On top of that frustration, sometimes the book-writing process gets derailed simply because of the nature of the topic, as it did with his book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree

“Partly, that book took so long because the book was about this movement to create a world family tree, which would link everyone on Earth in one big family tree,” AJ explains. “So, you, me, Barack Obama, Nicolas Cage, everyone.”

As far as shaping his book, AJ starts writing with a general expectation of where he's headed, but, for the most part, his writing is largely improvised.

“When I'm writing, I have an outline that sort of vaguely says where I'm going to end up,” he shares. “But a lot of it is improv. As I'm writing, I go on these little side trails, but I do try to know where I end up.”

Before he presents his finished product, there’s one major process left to cover -- editing. 

While it’s a big project to take on, AJ’s editing process is straightforward. When editing, he simply asks his friends for feedback and takes the average of their responses as signals for where to edit. 

“I'll send it to 10 friends, and I'll ask, ‘Which parts do you find most interesting, and which parts do you find most boring?’" AJ divulges. “I’ll take the average of that, cut out the boring parts, and make sure to keep the interesting parts.”

Seems straightforward enough -- just like his outlook on hard work and luck.

How AJ views hard work and luck

When it comes to success, AJ says that “hard work and persistence are absolutely necessary.” 

“You are not going to be successful without those,” he warns. “But they are not sufficient.”

AJ believes you also need a stroke of luck to complement your hard work, which is something he (luckily) had when his most recent book came out. 

“You also need luck, and I do believe that . . . the same week that my first bestseller came out, there were probably 50 other books that came out that were as good and maybe even better than mine,” he admits. 

“But I got some breaks,” AJ gives credit. “I got the person in charge of the publicity at the publisher. I knew the person who books Good Morning America and I got on that. I think you need both.”

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And that’s not all the advice AJ has for us today. He imparts a few more words of wisdom to share.

AJ’s advice for fellow creators

AJ leaves us with pearls of wisdom, which have a theme nestled in these two words: be experimental.

Why? A few reasons. The first being, you get out of a mental rut.

“The more experimental you are, the better,” AJ advises. “I think we have a tendency to do it the same, and we carve these . . . neural ruts, neural pathways that get us thinking the same way.”

So, it’s best to work out your brain’s creativity muscle and find new ways of thinking as you pursue your business ideas.

Which will give you more variety in life and, ultimately, lead to more happiness.

“The more you can experiment -- even if it's a tiny thing in your life, like trying a new toothpaste or going to work a different way -- the better it is for creativity and for happiness,” AJ urges.

(Start by experimenting with an all-in-one platform and full support team, and give this 2-week free trial a whirl. It’ll also lead to more creativity and happiness, in our highly biased opinion.)  

If AJ hadn’t taken his own advice, he wouldn’t have contributed such great creative works -- and quests -- in written form. 

And that, I think we can all agree, would’ve been a shame.

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