About the episode
Creating authentic work comes with a lot of dedication, and, in the most impressive cases, a commitment to staying in character. Learn how AJ Jacobs assumes the role of his subject matter and turns his personal quests into bestselling books.
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Jay: Hey, it's Jay Acunzo. And throughout this season, the first season of "I Made It," I would do this familiar thing to returning listeners and hopefully a delightful thing to people that never heard the show before. Every time I opened an episode, I would try to actually act out the concept that my voice as the narrator would simultaneously be addressing.
So, for instance, as a narrator, I might have been talking about how small differences can make all the difference in the world for a created project. While at the same time, you, the listener, would have heard me tinkering with different theme music, different tracks that I was playing with to maybe use as the official theme song of this show.
And the reason I would do that is this notion of swapping in and out little hidden things. That speaks to the larger theme of the show, a larger concept. The creative process, creating anything, big, meaningful, effective, you name it, it's all about tons of small decisions, lots of little wins, all strung together.
So when we consume anything from somebody we admire, it's really just the culmination of lots of hidden moments we don't get to see. So why don't we talk to a bunch of world-class creators and have them deconstruct a single favorite project so we actually get to put some of those micro-moments on display? The choices they made, the hidden turmoil that maybe they don't admit publicly pretty often because they wanna seem successful just like the rest of us, that was the concept behind the show.
And so every single time I opened an episode, I would do something that mimicked me making hidden decisions. I would play with what we should call the show, the microphone settings, the music we would use, and so forth. Well, right now, I'm actually playing with a hidden decision or a type of hidden decision that most people don't like to talk about. See, normally, this entire script is or this entire show rather is scripted, and you see there I just made a little mistake. I'm not gonna take that out because right now, for the first time in lots of podcast episodes in my career, I don't have a script. I'm not looking at any words right now.
If I do sound rehearsed, if I do sound clean, well, that's because I've just spent a ton of time as a public speaker on stages and as somebody who creates shows for a living. So, I'm gracious that right now my muscle memory is kicking in. I love that. Gracious, grateful, whatever, gonna leave it in.
So, I have no plan. But I think if you're listening to this show, and you've come along this whole journey with us, every single episode across Season 1, I think the message I wanted to leave you with when we started this episode was something that I could mimic by not having a plan and by stepping off the ledge and just going for it.I'm not saying you have to jump with two feet into whatever you're thinking of making, but I will say that so often, we try to gather up all the answers and information that we think we need to justify acting when, in reality, it's far better to act to find the answers we need.
So right now, I had no idea how I wanted to open this episode. I mean, I'd already played with the title of the show, the music, the microphone settings. There's only so many little things I can enact for you over an audio vehicle like a podcast. But right now I'm just kind of like riffing, right? I'm just going for it. I'm just finding what I wanna say while I'm acting. I'm creating to find my answers.
So I would encourage you, if you were inspired by this show, even if this is the first episode you've heard, don't go researching more stuff. Don't go grabbing coffee with someone you admire. Hell, don't listen to another episode of the show until you've actually made something. Then, yeah, get unstuck when you need it, get inspiration, get that kick in the butt or that lightning bolt to the chest. Act to find your answers. Don't gather up all your answers to justify acting.
And today, we talked to an incredible creator whose entire career is actually based on this theme of acting to find his answers. It's pretty perfect. See, I didn't know how I was gonna tie that together. I'm pretty excited though. Right now, I'm figuring this out as I go. Literally, I had no plan going into this, and I'm telling you right now, hand to God, now the theme makes sense to me. I've found clarity. I've hacked my way out of the jungle, and I can run in this open field.
The creator we talked to today has done something that I admire and something we should all probably emulate a little bit more, which is, he goes on quests to find answers, to figure stuff out. And you get invited along that quest with him in his books and following him online. So what does it take to be a great creator? The willingness to act. So, here's to you going for it, doing it so that, eventually, you can look back at whatever it is you're creating and say, "Hey, you see that? I made it." Woo. Okay. That was kind of nerve-wracking. I'm not gonna lie. I hope that came out all right for you.
I am, like I said, Jay Acunzo. I am the host of this show, and this is the official podcast for Podia. Podia makes tools to help creators turn their creative passion into income, into a livelihood by helping you sell courses, and digital downloads, and membership, all without having to know any coding whatsoever. And I'm super grateful for Podia for making this Season 1 happen. I'm somebody who writes books and speaks all about creativity for a living, and to partner with them has been a total dream. So, shout out to Podia. And if you haven't yet, check out podia.com.
All right. Today's creator is the amazing author, and speaker, and editor-at-large of Esquire, A.J. Jacobs. A.J. is a four-time "New York Times" bestselling author, four times. Now, according to the science and all the math that I did to figure this out, that's like really, really good. So, I really just wanna dive into this conversation that I had with A.J. And there's a little bit of a twist about 15 to 20 minutes in that I think you're gonna enjoy a little remixed version of what we usually do on this show in keeping with the way I opened today.
So, here is the episode, the season finale, featuring A.J. Jacobs. There was a quote that you said on stage once, and I was like, "That's exactly why I wanna do the show. We should talk to A.J." "When something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible, but paying attention to it can tap into a sense of wonder and enrich our lives." That hit me without needing to get any further explanation, but I wondered if you could expand on that thought for our listeners.
A.J.: Sure. Right. That came from my most recent book, which was "Thanks A Thousand," where I went around and tried to thank every single person who had even the smallest role in making my morning cup of coffee, so the barista, of course, the farmer, the guy who designed the logo...I'll wait for the cops to stop.
Jay: In true meta fashion, maybe I'll keep this moment in there so listeners who are creating things can be like, "This is what goes into it. I get it now."
A.J.: So, yeah, I thanked everyone from the farmers to the logo designers and the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. And that was one of the big lessons of the project, was just how much goes into a final project, how many people, how many decisions, how much failure, how much experimentation. So, yeah, I'm all for that.
And actually, for that book, I wanted to, on the cover, I proposed...it says, you know, "Thanks A Thousand by A.J. Jacobs." But I thought it would be interesting just to put the hundreds of other people who had a role in the book, you know, because there was the editor, and the designer, and the lumberjack who cut down the trees so that there was paper. I thought it'd be interesting to show all those people. My publisher thought that might be a tad confusing, so we never did it. But that is an interesting realization to me, that there is no... Any work of art is a group project.
Jay: One of my favorite members of that group for "Thanks A Thousand" and experiences that you articulated was when you learn how to taste coffee like a pro, with I believe his name was Ed Kaufmann? Was that...?
Jay: Ed Kaufmann. So, I immediately went to...so for my first book, I told the story of Death Wish Coffee, which is in upstate New York.
A.J.: I'm gonna read that.
Jay: Yeah. Oh, that's okay. So, the world's strongest coffee is their tagline, and they were just so great at making decisions not based on any kind of conventional wisdom or best practice. Like, the bean they use is often frowned upon by traditionalists in the coffee space, but they do still honor the craft of making coffee. They don't just pull stunts, even though their logo is pretty aggressive. It's a skull and crossbones.
And so I went to their, I guess, warehouse, you'd call it, and I was expecting them to have that kind of like brashness, almost like cavalier attitude about the craft. They're very craft-driven. And they pulled me aside, and they introduced me to this guy who...I think Ed Kauffmann probably had the same title. Was he the coffee master? Did he call himself that?
A.J.: I think the title was source. He was the chief sourcer.
Jay: Okay. Oh, got it. The coffee master sounded like what Ed did, which was like how to taste coffee, which I was blown away by because it's a lot of like slurping. You don't brew the coffee. You just kind of let it soak, and then you use a spoon and push it aside. It's like a really sloppy process, but you just appreciate it so much more because, like your quote, you get into the process that's invisible behind something, and all of a sudden, you're filled with wonder, and you appreciate it more.
A.J.: Right. And I couldn't believe, and I think this will go for any product just what goes into...when Ed or your guy tasted coffee, you know, they will spout these adjectives like, "Oh, I taste overripe peach and graham cracker." And to me, it tastes like coffee. Like, that's what I was getting. But because of Ed, I was inspired to actually really think about all of the flavors, and I'll never get to overripe peach. But I can now tell a little the acidity, and the sweetness, and the fruitiness, and it makes the experience better.
Jay: Even though, like you said, you might not get to overripe peach, I felt the same way. It was like I kind of just nodded and smiled when they said something because I was like, "Oh, yep, absolutely got that." Now that you explained it to me, of course, I have that palate now. But even though I'll never get there and maybe you'll never get there, I still feel like, even for an unrelated thing, it doesn't have to be coffee, if someone were to explain to me with this like wide-eyed wonder all the tiny parts and pieces that go into making whatever they love making, I feel like I could just sit there all day and listen to them.
There's just something about going deep into the nuances of something and like turning it over and over again. And I feel like that, to me, anyway, whenever I came across your books or the concepts you'd write about, it didn't matter if I liked the quest itself. It mattered that I got to go on a quest. Does that make sense?
A.J.: Yeah. And I love to hear that. I've come to think that almost every topic can be interesting. Yeah. I actually thought, "What if I tried to write a book about the most prototypically boring topic, accounting?" Because I'm sure that once you dive in and go deep, there are so many fascinating parts of accounting. I just don't know what they are. So, from the outside, it's pretty boring.
Jay: One of my favorite quotes that speaks to this comes from a guy by the name of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, so butchering the French there. So he's somebody who like many of us now today is kind of like a-list of things that he did. So he was a French writer, poet, journalist, and he was an early aviator in the early 1900s. And one of my favorite quotes about motivation and doing good work is what he said about if you wanna build a ship.
He said, "If you wanna build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood, and don't assign them tasks and work. But rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." I feel like accounting must have something like that. I don't know. Maybe it's like, "Look how smooth this business is running right now. So long for that, now let's talk about the brass tacks of accounting."
A.J.: Yeah. That's interesting. Although I will say I am interested in the lumber as well because that's a fascinating story. Like, who chops it down? What kind of lumber do you have to use? I agree with the quote, like, to get people interested. But once they're there, then do talk about the lumber.
Jay: Speaking of the interest in the wood, talk to me about Doug Fleming.
A.J.: Well, this I loved. He was this character I interviewed for my coffee book who designed the plastic lid over my coffee cup. And I loved talking to him because he was so passionate about this lid and so innovative. He was like the Elon Musk of coffee lids. He, like, gave it so much thought, things that I would never think about. Like, he made a larger hole in it so that the aroma could come out because he thinks aroma is such an important part of coffee and the shape of the mouth opening so that it comes out smoothly like you were drinking from a mug. He could have gone on for like a day. I cut him off after an hour. I just loved how much thought and passion goes into every little thing that we take for granted.
Jay: I used to work for a startup that published what they called gamified contents. So it was mostly contests in little mini-games, and the whole idea was to try and understand for myself who... I'm a writer, and I was leading the content team. I needed to understand game mechanics and game theory to help my job. And I stumbled across this concept that, now that I know about it, it's like the...oh, shoot, what's the role? It's like you buy the car and then you see that same car everywhere.
A.J.: Oh, yeah, I don't remember the name of the game. And I'm gonna write to that rule in the next like week three or four times like that.
Jay: Yeah, exactly. So for me, I've seen this word come up everywhere, like, the behavior explained by this word, which is telic, T-E-L-I-C, and it means done to a definite end or, in other words, a chore. And so like some people treat their job like a chore. You'll see that show up in their behavior. Some people do the opposite of telic, which is they treat it like an intrinsically motivating and rewarding approach or task or process. And even though they're not focused on the end result, the end result tends to be better because they're so intrinsically motivated. And I just love that subtle nuance.
And so this guy, Doug Fleming, to me, he's making coffee lids and probably other plastic products in his career. And even though that sounds like just design it, and print it, and be done with it, the way he explained all those nuances, even the way you related them to me just now, it sounded like he's very intrinsically motivated and rewarded by just the process of tinkering on it.
A.J.: Yeah. And it's interesting because I love that idea of, you know, it's the journey, not the destination, and you should enjoy your job. And I agree with it. I practice it. In my life, it's sort of half and half because I love parts of being a writer, the parts of the journey, and I despise other parts.
So, the parts I love, I love researching the topics, you know, interviewing the designer of a coffee lid and going to Colombia, South America to meet the farmers. That was awesome. Coming up with the ideas, that's one of my favorite things, is just brainstorming, you know, 100 books. And 99 of those ideas are gonna suck, but one of them hopefully will be good. So that part I like.
The actual sitting down alone in a room writing, that I find very unpleasant. I wish that I could enjoy that part of the journey more, and I try. I try different tricks and hacks, and some of them were more successful than others, but I don't think I'll ever love just being alone in a room.
Jay: Is it the being alone part? For me, it was because I'm such an extrovert. I work alone too, which there's some mental health issues there if you don't seek out [inaudible 00:17:20] connection, right? You talk about a lot of authors famous throughout history and some of their mental illnesses that they struggled with in retrospect, and like it's a real thing, the loneliness.
A.J.: Yeah. I mean, I thought I was an introvert. But if you are sitting alone all day for a month, you're like, "You know what? I need human contact." So, yeah, a big part of it, is just the actual being alone, also not getting feedback immediately. When I talk in public, I just love the immediate, being able to see in people's eyes or the laughter that they are interested. And with a book, you're writing it, and it's not gonna come out for a year, I find it very frustrating.
I mean, I try to send out as much as I can, as quickly as I can. So, yeah, 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?" I will sort of take the average of that and cut out the boring parts and make sure to keep the interesting parts.
Jay: I've always been confused by something that people seem to wanna talk about when they talk to successful creators. And I thought that maybe we could try to pick it apart just for a second, and it's this notion of luck versus hard work. So, I think a pretty surprising number of people want to know from those they admire whether they would attribute their success to luck or hard work.
But pretend for a moment that the person you're thinking about says luck. Would you, the listener, just go, "Okay. That's it. A.J. said the only way to be successful like him as a writer is to have a ton of luck. And I can't control the luck I have, so I'll just stop writing?" I've never fully understood the point of wondering that, you know, and I think you have to discuss luck and hard work as connected to each other. I get that because there's biases, and some people have a better starting point in life than others, but I think the only thing you can actually control in the creative craft is the hard work.
So just put your head down and have faith that good luck will come your way if you work hard. Or if it doesn't, take solace in the fact that you're doing the whole like Teddy Roosevelt thing. You're working hard at work worth doing. So that's what I've been asked before or heard before. And that's kind of my stance on the luck versus hard work thing, not as it applies to your life, but as others would say it applies to theirs. Who cares what they say led to their success because how would that actually change the work you're doing? Are you gonna give up your creative craft if they say luck or if they say hard work? So, A.J., any thoughts on this whole kind of mess of a topic?
A.J.: I do have slightly different views on luck and hard work.
Jay: Oh, please. Yeah.
A.J.: Maybe they're the same, but my feeling is that hard work and persistence are absolutely necessary. You are not gonna be successful without those, but they are not sufficient. You also do need luck, and I do believe that there were...the same week that my first bestseller came out, they were probably 50 other books that came out that were as good, maybe even better than mine. But I got some breaks. I got the person 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.
And Barack Obama, when he was being interviewed by David Letterman, talked about this. He said that "I feel that I've worked hard, and I do have talent, but that there are hundreds of other people out there who are just as talented and hard-working but who don't get the breaks." And the reason I like acknowledging that is because I think it gives you compassion, and it humbles you a little. So it's like, "Oh, that guy, if he'd just worked harder, he would have been a success. He's just lazy." So that's my thoughts on hard work. I think you need both. It's a combination.
Jay: This might be similar. Let me know if it jives with what you're saying or if it's different. But someone would ask me, "Luck or hard work?" And I would say, "Well, let's consider the circumstances." I was born when I was born where I was born Northeast U.S., white, straight male, both parents together, very nurturing people, like, upper-middle-class. Like, the door was already ajar when I was born. I didn't do anything to open that door like ever so slightly. It was ajar. And hard work for me was, "I wanna shoulder through that door swiftly." You know, truly, that, to me, was the hard work, but don't forget the door was already ajar.
A.J.: Right. I'm seeing it almost as a responsibility, like you were given these incredible breaks, so trying to do something good with your life. And a friend of mine are actually talking about this probably never get around to it, but it would be just that idea you talk about. You were born who you are, but it was just pure luck. You know, you could have been born just as easily any of the other seven billion people on earth.
So, our idea was to sort of...it was called like a life roulette. And every morning, you would spin a roulette wheel. And it would come up with any one of the others seven billion people on earth, and you would get a little paragraph describing your life. Like, if you were a mango farmer in the Philippines, what would your life...what would you do that day? What would lunch be like? What would family be like? Just to give people a sense of, you know, how lucky they are to be born in the developed world.
Jay: Totally. Okay. So, for the rest of this episode, for the listeners, here is what I wanna do. So listeners will know that throughout Season 1 of the show, we've talked to great, very successful creators that we admire about one specific project. And with you, A.J., I thought what we could do is actually zoom out since this is the season finale and try something a little bit different, which is, talk about the connection between your major projects. So not always the hidden things of one project, but the hidden things you were going through between and during major book launches.
And there's a lot of stuff obviously that goes into writing one book, but then there's also a lot of stuff happening between books, and then there's how you probably think about building your body of work, which I think we should all be more in tune with. So just to get started, tracing that trajectory with book one. That was back in 2004, and it was called "The Know-It-All." I love the subtitle, "One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." So, that leads to a very obvious question, which is, why go on that quest?
A.J.: Well, the premise of the book was I was gonna read the encyclopedia when they still had encyclopedias from A to Z and try to learn everything in the world. And part of it was motivated by my dad who always loved reading and knowledge, and he started to read the encyclopedia when I was a kid. But he only made it to the middle of the letter B, like, around boomerang or Borneo, so I thought I would try to finish what he began and remove that stain from our family history.
But I think that was an example of using your family, using what's around you as inspiration because I would never have thought of that idea by myself, but it was really something my dad did. And it was so quirky and fun that I thought, "Well, what if I tried it?" So always having one eye open as you're living through of having this other head that's looking around saying, "Hmm, could that be a project? Can I use that as material?"
Jay: Now, hold on a sec here. So, I'm not the only one in the audience who's gonna say this, "I was an English literature major. I know what goes on when you assign yourself lots of reading, A.J. You read a bunch." And then you're like, "I'm scanning. I kind of get it. I'm scanning." So like what was your actual readership process? Like, how do you consume something that big in a finite number of weeks or months, let's say, without going into what I would call Jay-in-college mode?
A.J.: Well, I will say, yeah, there was probably a good amount of Jay-in-college mode going on.
Jay: I feel better about myself, by the way. So, thank you.
A.J.: It's all how you define reading, you know. I laid my eyes on every word. But there were times I was just totally zoned out. Other times...I don't like the word to scan or skim. It has a bit of a negative connotation, but I would read efficiently at times.
Jay: You don't strike me as somebody who pulls stunts for attention. It's not like, "What could I do randomly that gets me a lot of attention?" So, what is the higher purpose behind this book? "Thanks A Thousand," I totally see the gratitude benefits and the connectivity of our society. How about this one, "The Know-It-All" book? What was the higher purpose or point you were trying to make to help us understand?
A.J.: I was trying to think about what's the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and can you get wisdom from just accumulating tons of knowledge? And I think they're different, but they are cousins. And I think I learned some big lessons. And just to give you one would be this idea of gratitude for living in the current world. You know, there's the phrase "The good old days." The good old days were not good. The good old days were horrible. They were the sexist, smelly, disease-ridden, violent, racist. They were just the worst.
So reading about all of history gave me more of an appreciation of living now when we still have incredible challenges. But I am on Steven Pinker, and I don't know if you know that writer, the Harvard psychologist who wrote "Enlightenment Now," which argues we are so much better off than we were in the past. That was a very life-affirming message.
Jay: So, I could spend all day at any of these books but so true to form with the structure of the episode. Let's talk about that little or large, I guess, nook and cranny between 2004, "Know-It-All" and then book two, 2007, "The Year of Living Biblically," which you've already referenced a couple of times. What goes on? So you write this book. It's successful. You've done the promotion. It starts to peter out. Now, what goes on in between to get you to the next book? You know, there's that old idea of like finding the muse, which I think is an excuse for not doing the work, but like you're clearly now wandering in the desert. So what's happening in your world in between those two books?
A.J.: Yeah. Like I said, I do come up with a lot of ideas. Most of them suck. I came up with tons of ideas for books, and I don't even remember them, but none of them worked. 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.
And then finally, after months of brainstorming, I hit upon this idea. And I was actually very nervous about it because the idea was, as I said, to live by all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. And religion is, you know, a third rail topic. It's very controversial, and I was like, "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." That was very stressful, and I didn't know whether to do it or not.
I finally was just like, "Screw it. I'm gonna do my best. And if people want to attack me, then that's just what's gonna happen." And I was so lucky, well, you talked about luck, but I was so blessed, to use a religious word. When the book came out, I did get some flak but mostly really positive feedback. And it was weird because of the confirmation bias in action because I would get letters from atheists saying, "Thank you for showing how crazy religion is." But I would get just as many emails from religious people saying, "Thank you for renewing my faith and showing the good parts of religion." And I was happy with that. I thought that that was an interesting reaction that people sort of looked at it through their own lens.
Jay: What was the difference you think in your approach to going on these quests? Like, what did you pick up on in the first quest that served you well in the second one? And in addition to the approach sort of the research phase, I would guess, how did your writing change or evolve in between the first two books?
A.J.: Hmm, that's a good question. Well, I think I did try to go in, not with an ax. I mean, there's a lot about religion that I still find incredibly offensive. And one of the big points of the book was, don't take the Bible literally. Yes, it does in part seem to say that homosexuality is a sin, but it also says don't wear clothes made of mixed fabrics. So there's a lot of stuff in the Bible. You know, it's okay to ignore some of it.
On the other hand, I tried to go in there really open-minded and tried to see what is it in religion that can help people and can I take anything as a more secular person from religion. That was a big part of my approach, even bigger in the Bible because it was such a controversial topic. And there's a phrase that I love, steelmanning. Do you know that phrase?
A.J.: It's the opposite of strawmanning. So, a straw man is like you represent the other guy's point of view in the worst possible way. But steelmanning is you represent the other guy's point of view as well or better than he or she would represent it. And I love the idea of steelmanning because I think it just makes the world a better place. That's the way we can move forward. And there's another phrase I love that I try to employ in my books, the Ideological Turing Test. Do you know the Turing Test, which is, you interact with something, and you have to guess whether it's a human or a robot?
A.J.: So this is the Ideological Turing Test where you state a point of view in such a way that the other person can't tell whether you're for it or against it. And I love that because I think that's the way to get through this crazy polarization that we're going through.
Jay: Can you give us an example of the Ideological Turing Test? Like, what kind of statement would you make?
A.J.: Well, for instance, when I wrote "The Year of Living Biblically, "I had a section on creationism. I went down to the creationist museum and hung out there with all of these people who believed the world was created 6,000 years ago, and Noah actually built that Ark. And they'll tell you exactly how and, you know, where Manoah went, and they got it all figured out. And I am fully on board with evolution, and I'm not a fan of creationism.
But it was interesting to try to look at the world through their point of view and see why they felt this way. And it's partly because they feel that if you come from all the same family just 5,000 years ago, it's very concrete how interrelated we all are, and it's this sense that we've gotta treat our family better. And I thought that was a lovely notion. I try to embrace that idea that we're all family without buying into this what I think is a crazy myth of creationism.
Jay: So they say that they...I don't know who they are. Let's just call them they. They say that two data points makes a trend, and so now we're through two of your books so you are now an author at this point in your life. And so, as an official Author with a capital A, you now are in the business of coming up with the next book. What does that do to a writer, to your psyche? Like, do you recall any existential dread?
I published my first and the last book in October, and so now I'm between one and two. And I don't have the second data point, but I know if I do, it only gets harder from there. Like, I'm in this bell curve that hopefully goes up into the right, both in enjoyment and results but also I know in friction to create a good book. So, what was going through your mind now that you have those first two books out in the world?
A.J.: Yeah. I wanted to get another one. The next one was actually, I thought, "What if I put out an anthology of articles," because I wrote for "Esquire" magazine, and I had done all of these articles that were sort of many experiments, so not a year of living by the Bible, but like a month where I outsourced my life to India and hired someone to do everything for me, like answer my phone, and answer my emails, and argue with my wife for me.
So she had to argue with this woman in Bangalore, India because I was outsourcing everything to her. And that was in Tim Ferriss's excerpt then in his book. But I thought, you know, "What if I collected 12 of these articles?" And interestingly, that was probably my least successful book because one thing I've learned is that these anthologies are a really hard sell. People want one big idea. So they want a book about the Bible. They want a book about health. They don't want a book about, "Hey, here's this guy talking about a bunch of different things." Unless that guy is much more successful than me [inaudible 00:36:34].
Jay: By then, did you have a process for identifying the one big idea worth pursuing because you mentioned you'd put down a lot of ideas? And I imagine you're not just writing them out. You're probably doing some kind of research or maybe even writing drafts of things or getting feedback. That seems to be a more crippling approach to writing books, especially of your style where you have to commit for a while to explore.
A.J.: No. I definitely...I mean, one thing I do is I just tell as many people as possible about the idea, and I look in their eyes and see if they light up, and see if they ask follow-up questions because sometimes they don't. Like, if they start to nod their head and move on, you're like, "Huh, maybe this is not the right idea."
And it's interesting because, in my very start of my career, I was very paranoid about telling people because I'm like, "Oh, they're gonna steal my idea and do it first." But I think that the risk of that is perhaps real but very small compared to the benefits you get from seeing people's reaction and also getting their...you know, they could be like, "Oh, you're doing a book on health. You should check out, you know, this crazy calorie restriction diet where you eat 1,000 calories a day." And I'd be like, "Oh, great." So, you get ideas from them as well.
Jay: That's a good lead in book four rather, 2012, "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection." So, the through-line here, humble quest. Why humble quest?
A.J.: Well, I was making fun of myself a little because these are such ridiculously... I say, "I'm gonna be the smartest person in the world. I'm gonna try to be the healthiest person in the world," which, of course, I know is absurd, and I'm sort of being like, you know, a Will Ferrell character who's like overly boastful. But by throwing the humble word in there, it's like, "Oh, I'm just humbly trying to be the smartest person in the world." So I like that juxtaposition.
Jay: This is your third book-specific quest. You mentioned the anthology in some of your writing, sort of, smaller quests you were going on. So by now, you've got this, I'm sure, a well-wrought process for going on these quests, or is it always like hacking through a jungle, and you're not sure where you're gonna head?
A.J.: Well, a little of both. I mean, I do try. That one took longer than I expected because there was just so much health out there. There's so much you can try that I could have spent, you know, a decade doing it, so I did have to ring myself in. And partly, it's a balance. I like to know where I'm going. When I'm writing, I have an outline that sort of vaguely says where I'm gonna end up, 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.
Jay: Did you have like heuristics in place or a process in place? I feel like when you do something creative the first time, you are forced to just feel around. And for some people, that can be really rewarding. Like, I'm someone who likes the parts and pieces on the ground. But when you do it several times as you have now with these quests, I think you can start to feel like you're manufacturing something, and I feel like there's sort of a negative connotation to that. It's like, you know, overly fabricated printed in a factory kind of thing. So, talk me through, like, are there...what are some of the helpful heuristics where you're a little bit more intentional on the quest now, and how do you keep them fresh even still?
A.J.: Yeah. That's a great question. I would say, well, one thing that's very helpful is, for me, my books, the subject matters are so completely different. So, I did one on health, one on the Bible, one on gratitude. 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. And it doesn't feel like you're just phoning it in because there are huge advantages to having some heuristics to help you. Otherwise, you'd be overwhelmed.
So, yeah, I picked up some...the first book I did, I kept two diaries basically. One was a journal about what was going on in my life. So, every time I drove my wife crazy by inserting another random fact into conversation, you know, I'd put that in one journal.
And then in the other journal, I just wrote the weirdest, most interesting facts from the encyclopedia, whether that was, you know, a civil war spy who eloped with...you know, she was a southerner who eloped with a northerner or opossums have 13 nipples. That was in there. I would like to get it out of my brain but I can't. Having those two, I kept that structure now. I still keep notes of what's happening in my life and also what's happening directly in the project research.
Jay: I'd like to say that audio is actually a visual medium because every word you say, you're creating...so the listener's creating and constructing some kind of visual. So, on behalf of every listener everywhere, I'd like to thank you for the visual of opossum with 13 nipples. That's good.
A.J.: Well, it's in a circular pattern if they really wanna visualize that.
Jay: Okay. Let's talk about the next book. So book four, 2017. It's all relative adventures up and down the world's family tree. I know you latched on to something. Some research has actually been going on where people are trying to create the world family tree. I'm curious. The five-year period was longer between books three and four. Was it more difficult to get the next one out at that point, or did you have other projects come your way?
I feel like one of the things you probably face, A.J., is with success and visibility comes more inbound requests for your time and trying to balance. It's easy to write a book if no one's asking you for your time. You have all the time in the world. So, how do you sort of vet opportunities after writing several successful books and also, like, block off deep work time so you could write the next one?
A.J.: Hmm, that's a great question. Yeah. Because I do love the giving talks part of my job because it is certainly more efficient way to make money, and I do like interacting. But at a certain point, you do have to think, you know, when I gotta write this book. 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, so you, me, Barack Obama, Nicolas Cage, everyone on earth.
And, as part of that, I decided it would be fun to try to throw the world's largest family reunion and actually get thousands of people to come to New York and have a big... So I thought that would be fun. It turned out to be fun in some ways and completely nightmarish in others. But it was surreal. I'd say 10 months, I was an event planner instead of a writer, and I was way over my head. So, that delayed my book quite a bit.
Jay: When you think about the books at this point, there's a loose theme, maybe intentionally or unintentionally. I'm not sure if I'm applying this retroactively to your work, but maybe you could comment on this. It's like if you set aside the anthology, book one was about mind, becoming the smartest person. Book two was about spirit, living according to the Bible. Book three was about body and bodily perfection. Was that an intentional arc? And either way, where did the idea for the fourth book come out because it's all relative? It seems to be a slight step away from that, or do you see connectivity between all those books?
A.J.: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. Actually, I talked a lot about how those first three books were a trilogy of mind, body, and spirit. But I will tell you, that was totally fabricated after the fact. It just happened, and I said, "Oh, look at this. I meant to do this." So, there was a little bit of, you know, rationalization, but it made for an easier marketing to say, "Oh, this is part of a trilogy."
And then this other one, I guess the connection between all four is, weirdly, connectivity. The more I go through life and research things, it's just amazing how everything is connected. So, in the encyclopedia, you know, you could see how some random historical event is connected to some weird biological fact and same with the Bible and with health. You know, health, it's not just that you have to eat right and exercise. It's like every part of your life, you know, how you sleep, and how you stress out, and how you go to the bathroom. They all play a part. And then for the book on the family, that was the theme, connectivity. We're all one big family for better or worse.
Jay: That brings us to "Thanks A Thousand, " which I know we led off talking a little bit about. But I'm curious at this point, if you were to look back over this arc we just traced, how are you most different as a writer?
A.J.: Good question. One big difference's I don't curse nearly as much. I have one swear word in "Thanks A Thousand," because it was a quote. But yeah, I got all these angry emails from people saying, "Why do you have to curse in your books?" And I was like, "You know what? I don't. I don't really have to curse." I enjoy cursing in real life, but I almost think it's a crash a bit in writing. Like, it is an easy way to get a laugh. So, I try to cut back. So that's one. It's a little more family-friendly.
And number two, let's see. How else have I changed? I mean, I think I took more cheap shots when I was a younger writer like, you know, making fun of a loser celebrity, which was fun, and I don't begrudge other people doing it. But I guess as I got older and began to realize someday I'm gonna be a has-been if I'm not already, and someone will just do a cheap shot at me, like, why not just try and, you know, use a little more brainpower and come up with something a little more clever than a cheap shot at a loser celebrity? And I was gonna name some loser celebrities as examples, but then I would be kind of like negating my own form.
Jay: If you had to describe why others should approach their learning processes, writing-creating processes as quests big or small in like a sentence or two, why would you recommend that that is the right approach to learn, explore, or create?
A.J.: Well, I wouldn't say it's right for everyone. It certainly has worked for me. And I do think, not just in writing, but in all creativity, in all life, the more experimental you are, the better because I think we have a tendency to do it the same, and we carve these ruts, like what scientists call them, neural ruts, neural pathways that get us thinking the same way. And 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, I think the more variety you can have in your life, the better it is for creativity and I think for happiness.
Jay: We usually end with a quote from some historical figure we admire as read by our amazing guests. But today, to end the entire season, I just really wanted to read you that quote from A.J. one more time because it started this awesome journey that we're on together with this show. "When something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible, but paying attention to it can tap into a sense of wonder and enrich our lives."
Jay: Thanks for listening. If you like this show, A, thank you. That's amazing because I made this show, and to have anybody like your work is incredible. So, thank you for listening. And on behalf of the whole team at Podia, I wanna thank everybody who came along for this journey, whether this was your first episode or you've consumed every single
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So if that's interesting to you, please head to your show notes, click the link to subscribe to that newsletter, and Podia is gonna welcome you with a few free goodies right away. All right. I can't say this loudly or proudly enough, but this season of episodes, Season 1 of "I made It," that's what I've been making lately, but here's to whatever you're making right now. Keep going, and let us know how we can help. I'll talk to you, I promise, really, really soon. See you.