A.J. Jacobs: Self-Experimenter Extraordinaire (#211)

AJ Jacobs

“Calling it an experiment gives you permission to fail.”

– A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs) is a kindred guinea pig of self-experimentation who chronicles his shenanigans in books that seem to keep winding up as New York Times best sellers. The Know-It-All was about his quest to learn everything in the world. In The Year of Living Biblically, he tried to follow all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. Drop Dead Healthy followed his well- (and ill-) advised experiments to become the healthiest person alive. My Life as an Experiment is about exactly what it sounds like, and It’s All Relative — which will be out in 2017 — will aim to connect all of humanity in one family tree.

A.J. is also the host of the new podcast Twice Removed, which takes a celebrity guest and introduces them to a surprise cousin they didn’t know they had. It could be one of their heroes, an old friend, a teacher, etc.

In this episode, we talk about:

  • What A.J.’s learned from his experiments
  • His creative process
  • Tipping points in his life
  • How he learned to love marketing
  • And much, much more.

I think you’ll have a blast with this one — I know I did. Please enjoy!

#211: A.J. Jacobs: Self-Experimenter Extraordinaire

Want to hear another podcast with a human guinea pig— Listen to my conversation with Morgan Spurlock. In this episode, we discuss how Morgan made his own luck, builds rapport with people and gets them to open up, gets people to care about important issues, and much more (stream below or right-click here to download):

#150: Morgan Spurlock: Inside the Mind of a Human Guinea Pig

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with A.J. Jacobs:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Twice Removed

Show Notes

  • How A.J. and I met. [06:25]
  • A.J. talks about his writing process. [08:10]
  • A.J. makes no apologies for being a day drinker. [12:05]
  • “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” – Millard Fuller [12:45]
  • How does A.J. bolster his own confidence? [14:26]
  • A.J. shares advice he got from George Clooney. [17:00]
  • How does A.J. cope with writer’s block? [19:16]
  • What experiments from The Year of Living Biblically have resulted in enduring life changes? [21:58]
  • How does A.J.’s wife deal with the life disruption surrounding his experiments? [28:20]
  • What A.J. learned from a brief foray into quantified-self life logging. [31:32]
  • A.J. once spent a month without lying as research into the Radical Honesty movement. How did that go? [34:21]
  • My own experiment with expressing gratitude to people from my past on a daily basis. [38:33]
  • On being kind to your older self. [44:01]
  • What experiments from Drop Dead Healthy have resulted in enduring life changes? [47:00]
  • Want to stop a bad behavior? Blackmail yourself. [48:44]
  • Strategic chutzpah, biblical slavery, and Jerry Falwell. [52:50]
  • What advice would A.J. give to someone entering the world of marriage and parenting? [56:16]
  • We discuss the different ways people we know are generous with ideas. [1:04:34]
  • How does A.J. choose his projects? [1:16:28]
  • How did A.J. get involved in genealogy for his current project? [1:19:43]
  • Why did A.J. decide to do a podcast? [1:23:28]
  • How did A.J. learn to love marketing? [1:29:16]
  • I explain why Tools of Titans is the first book I enjoyed writing (and how I’ve learned to love marketing). [1:32:57]
  • A.J. talks about throwing the biggest worldwide family reunion. [1:37:30]
  • Has any experiment turned out to be a total dud? [1:38:42]
  • Are there any memorable outtakes from The Year of Living Biblically that didn’t make it into the final draft? [1:39:55]
  • Never underestimate the entertainment value of well-placed humiliation. [1:46:31]
  • The first person who comes to mind when A.J. hears the word “successful.” [1:48:59]
  • On ethical cannibalism, free will, and our reality’s place in the multiverse. [1:50:12]
  • Most gifted books. [1:53:53]
  • Recent purchase of $100 or less that had a positive impact on A.J.’s life. [1:54:46]
  • A.J.’s morning (and evening) rituals. [1:55:59]
  • If A.J. could give a TED Talk on something for which he’s not well known, what would it cover? [1:56:56]
  • Bad advice commonly heard. [1:58:24]
  • What would A.J.’s billboard say? [2:00:30]
  • What advice would A.J.’s 82-year-old self give him? [2:02:05]
  • One of A.J.’s favorite failures. [2:03:43]
  • A.J. talks about expensive haircuts, encyclopedias, and his first book. [2:05:45]
  • Suggestions, recommendations, and parting thoughts. [2:10:00]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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27 Replies to “A.J. Jacobs: Self-Experimenter Extraordinaire (#211)”

  1. “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

    So loved this one!

    Fellow human guinea pigs got together to talk about life lived-as-an-experiment and everything and anything between the lines.

    AJ and the whole life as an experiment way of living is like music to my ears.

    Besides the pure joy of listening to the conversation it made me think of a few things.

    Writing as a way to “excuse” our weird experiments and feel less weird at the same time.

    I found that thinking of the purpose of anything we do, like thinking of building fitness modeling career from scratch taking lots of pictures and videos in the gym that might feel and look weird, helps to start doing anything feeling less weird, and keeps us motivated to get better and continue with the experiment, paying no attention to potential discomfort of being perceived negatively by people in our environment.

    One other thing helped me to get started with 100 daily video challenge.

    I used to think a lot about how people might judge me talking to my phone, making videos, or judge what I am saying. And then one day I thought to myself, “Well, Tim Ferriss makes videos, lots of successful people on the web do that, and are seen by other people. But to most people on the street Tim Ferriss is just some dude with a phone making video of himself. How am I different?”

    All the excuses and discomfort are in our heads. Most of the world couldn’t care less about you making videos, except for your audience for who you MUST get better.

    There were so many things mentioned I could write about for hours.

    Just one more odd thing.

    Color white and why we feel better wearing it. (Or any color that stimulates energetic centers that lack stimulation for one reason or the other)

    Color therapy is a known, although not so widely accepted in the west, type of therapy.

    Colors do have measurable physiological effects on our body and they do affect our psychology as well.

    Color white contains all colors (all wavelength of visible light) and stimulates, brings to balance our “chakras”, major energy centers aligned along our spine, that on the physical level are represented by our major endocrine glands, hence bringing balance to our endocrine system and hormonal balance. And that’s why we feel better overall wearing white. I often feel the need for different “color nutrients” depending on my physical and psychological state.

    PS I really enjoy AJ’s way of talking, not sure if it’s natural, or learned. AJ always sounds like he is smiling and he is in fact smiling most of the time (I had a pleasure to watch that during TMSIDK live recording). I find it’s one of the things, that makes listening to his voice so enjoyable and the whole interaction so much more pleasurable and productive for both parties. Something useful to adopt as a habit. We can always hear the smile. And the whole dynamic of any interaction changes.

    Thank you Tim and AJ for being yourself and sharing your life! You are changing the world! 🙂

  2. Hey Tim – I’m 2/3 through with Tools of Titans (it was my X-mas reading this year), definitely recouped way more in advice than the purchase price, thanks!

    I’ve been doing keto for a month now after hearing about it all over the place in podcast land – Joe Rogan, you and Rhonda Patrick. Do you guys ever touch on the lasting consequences/effects of staying in a keto state? Sounds like a decent number of people do it, but is there any scientific research in that area or concerns to address?

    Another question. I never got to the four hour body, but I know you’re huge in tracking everything. Do you use pen and paper for tracking or something else? My friend built an app called Gravitus that you might want to check out if you’re looking for something more modern for tracking.

    Finally – another one I would like to see talked about more is long term effects of psychadelic use. I read of “Wim Harris” or whatever pseudonym 😉 yearly regimen, thanks for sharing that. A lot of people like Joe talk about psychadelic use, but never mention much of their own personal habits, guidelines or limitations. I’m waiting for some cool podcasts/books to dive into that topic in more detail. Thanks!

  3. Hi Tim,

    I want to say thank for these podcasts. I started listen to them recently and I found them very useful and they are awesome!

    I am reaching out as I am looking for some guidance. I have a 14 years old son who loves to write. He started to write when he was 10 years old. He has been writing since. His goal is to be able to publish his own novel in the near future. Here is a short excerpt from his writing,

    Massive steel dreadnaughts and battleships, dating back to the early 20th century, laid in the water next to 21st century sailboats and jet-skis. Heavy wooden galleons, most likely from the early Napoleonic era, looked so well maintained they could easily be mistaken as replicas.

    Two figures, side by side, walked through the fog alongside the harbor’s water-facing edge. One of them, a young man, wore green cargo pants and a gray jacket. Both his eyes and hair were brown. His hair was cut relatively short. On his head was a green helmet. Over his shoulder was a fishing rod with a large hook on the end.

    The other person was a young woman. She wore a white skirt with a red-plaid shirt. Over her shirt was a white vest. Her eyes and hair were brown, too, however her hair was elbow-length. She was wearing a dark green backpack.

    “Why do I have to go on Plane-Catching duty again?” She asked the man, pouting. “It’s difficult to catch passenger airlines going at mach two!”

    The young man replied,”Vakri, I have been on Plane-Catching duty yesterday and I assure you it is no different then reeling in a ship.”

    “You say that every time!” Vakri exclaimed back. She knocked him on the head. “Hmpf. Tuvok is idiot brother.”

    “Why do you hate it so much? You were enthusiastic about it back around a hundred years ago,” Tuvok asked.

    Crossing her arms, Vakri continued pouting. “I wish humans never invented planes.”

    Tuvok rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

    They continued walking until they met a split in the road. The right path led further down the docks while the other headed for a coastal airfield.

    “I’ll see you in a few hours,” Tuvok said to Vakri, tipping his helmet.

    “Same to you,” Vakri replied, saluting.

    Tuvok headed on the path to the right. Vakri took the left path.

    I know that you have lots of experience with writing and publishing so I just want to reach out to you and ask for your advice.

    As a mother, I want to help groom him to become successful in what he is passionate in but unfortunately I am not a writer nor do I know where to guide him. I was told by teachers and friends who have read his stories that he does have a gift and talent in writing and that he how I came to believe that there might be something there.

    First, I just want to ask for you to take 10 minutes to read his story then hopefully you can give me some insight. I am looking to point him in the right direction so he can further is love of writing. Second, I am looking to see if you help him get his writing publish. Your time and help is appreciated. Thank you!

    Sincerely Yours,


  4. Loved the talk, but had to comment on the marriage portion of it – you guys are bleak! Marriage (at least for me so far – 8 years and 4 kids in), is awesome in the true sense of the word. IMHO, marriage can expand the human experience in a way no other institution can (and don’t get me started on children – talk about growth, love, transcendence, fear, truth – they make life crazy in a good way very quickly). I rarely comment on anything online but it saddens me to see so many people at best treat marriage lightly and at worst treat it with contempt. It is worth finding more truth in this area; especially to your audience that doesn’t just accept the status quo. I encourage all to continue the search!

    1. I agree that marriage and family provide the best opportunity for growth and contribution. I can’t speak for Tim but when I hear the opinions of single friends on marriage I remember my ignorance on the issue before I made the commitment to marry. People who have not been married can talk about their experience in intimate relationships. I can see why wealthy single people have a difficult time thinking about marriage, much less deciding to get married.

      I’m pretty sure I have heard Tim and many of his guests talk about committing to an endeavor of some sort, believing in it, sticking through the tough times, and learning to enjoy it. Call me out if I am recalling incorrectly. I think this aspect of life applies not only to business endeavors but also to marriage. Ask people who have been married for 10 years or so for suggestions on how to get started. Consider the costs of caring for a wife and children. Consider the benefits. Become the type of person you want to attract and decide. Believe, learn, grow, stick with it, and develop an enjoyment for the challenges and the good stuff. These actions make sense to most intelligent people I know or learn from.

      Well anyway, who cares what I think, people are getting married to their animals these days which makes it challenging to talk about this topic with any logical sense.

      1. I am 63 and my husband is 64. We’ve been married for 6 days. He liked your comment as much as I did.

    2. Oh, totally agree. I’ve been with my husband 22 years and I actually like him more now than ever. I would tell you my secret, but nobody would believe it. 😉

  5. Hey, Tim. I had an incredible idea for a new product, and I believe certain outdoors companies would be extremely interested in buying this idea. I learned to use Sketch Up specifically to make a model of my innovation, and I’m very excited to make a prototype. I ordered parts for this thing, and I’m shopping around for somewhere to have the shell 3D printed. As I understand it, I’m supposed to apply for a provisional patent before I go around pitching to anybody that might want to profit from my idea. Aside from the patent stuff, how should I go about getting a company to buy my idea? Should I run some fundraiser campaign online and hammer this idea down before heading to a company with it? Should I just keep building the idea myself, hope I sell a lot, and then see where it goes from there? If it were popular enough, I assume interested parties would approach me. Where’s the best place to start once I have plans, a prototype, and a provisional patent?



    Inverness CA

  6. Okay, now I’m going to have to stalk Alex Bloomberg and find out how to be a better podcaster. You guys talked about a podcast about podcasting, I thought it was related to Creative Media or Alex, not sure. I wonder if you could provide a link to that particular podcast? I know you did one as well that was totally amazing. Always looking for more quality info on that subject.

    As always, thanks for a great episode. Had to listen to it twice because there was so much good info. 🙂

  7. Hi Tim,

    Is it possible for you to add the recommended books that you have at the end of Tools of Titans here?

    In my opinion it is big information that should be compiled in one document.

    Thanks in advance.

  8. Tim, I have by no means read all of your stuff or heard all of your podcasts, but it seems to me that every time religion/christianity is mentioned, you give some form of the same response, “I’m not into organized religion.” I heard it again when discussing the Year of Living Biblically, and it just seemed disingenuous. In my humble opinion, a major factor in your success has been your authenticity. You allow yourself to be open and vulnerable on virtually every other topic, but seem to sidestep this one. Given your vast research and quest for knowledge, it seems that you would want to investigate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No occurrence in all of ‘ancient’ history has more supporting evidence, than Jesus rising from the dead. And, if it did happened, then there is nothing more important that has ever happened. I would like to encourage you to take some time and study the historicity of this single event, and then do with it what you will. It is too important to ignore because of your experience/perception of ‘organized religion.’

  9. A tangling duel of experimenter philosophies packed in here – such an fitting end-of-year episode! The lessons profound in their reminders to have fun with curiosity, take life less seriously and get out of our own ruts of habit.

    Favourite insights?

    1. Enjoy the small half hours. Profound advice, rarely put this way. Thanks AJ.

    2. “I’m taking a [ ]” vacation as a way to say no.

    3. The $800 haircut enjoyed by Goldman Sachsians….a reminder as to how we can set any price we like if we create the right frame and context.

    AJ’s voice always carries a teasing smile of mischief, I loved dipping in and out of this during a walk to work and back home – thank you for heralding 2017 with us chewing on….”it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting”. Roger that.

    Tim – any way to see a collage of your ToT NYC Billboards?!

  10. I believe this was the podcast in which Tim and his guests were remarking on the fact that we have this tendency to look back on the past with a rose-tinted view. As they were discussing this, they said, or nearly said, the name of a popular book that covered that exact subject: “The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!” Interesting book by Otto Beckman. [Moderator: link removed]

  11. Some unsolicited and non-professional advice:


    My Dad told me to marry my best friend (whoever that would be someday). Glad I did. When the kids are sick, the house is a mess, bills need to be paid, etc., it helps to sit across the table from your best friend and be glad that you can face it together. Passion can come and go; friendship can’t (or else!); both can be worked on.

    Marry someone committed to personal growth. Change is inevitable; the direction of change is not.


    From my experience, Dr. Laura Markham is right: whatever buttons/issues you have as a parent come from your own childhood. That’s why something that sends one parent through the roof will make another parent chuckle and move on. There is not one right way of doing things as a parent. Resolve your childhood crap- you will know how to love them and guide them from that. A great resource in childhood resolution (for me) has been Somatic Experiencing Therapy (ala Peter Levine).

    One more thing: Only take parenting advice from people who have wonderful relationships with their kids- the kind of relationship you would want with yours. Many people have tons of ideas about what will make your kid turn out one way or the other. But the bottom line is, your main sphere of influence with them is relational. Choose advisors who have the connection with their kids you aspire to have with yours.

  12. On a related note to “being kind to your older self,” I recently came across this article which discusses trusting your future self as a way to change behavior patterns: nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/to-change-your-life-learn-how-to-trust-your-future-self.html

  13. Thank you Tim. Very interesting one. After having seen you an AJ live at the podcast recording it is even more interesting to dive into AJ’s world. Definitely one of a kind experimenter. As for the love/marriage part, maybe you could take a look at it from a business point of view: find the best partner to start the best business with – your life long one. Will it always be perfect? No, but just like anything else in life or you would get bored to death. Together you can achieve, become and create more. It is a matter of finding that person that makes you feel that together you will become more. If you haven’t that makes sense not to consider staying with anyone hehe.

  14. I enjoyed the flow of this podcast. A.J. asks you some great questions and that created a conversation quite unlike your other interviews I’ve heard. I appreciated his humility and sense of humor, but most of all his intense fascination with everything. Many times he comments “how interesting!” – my favorite takeaway.

    Tim, I can’t help but think that if you were a woman, confronting the mental and physical challenge of natural childbirth would be exactly your sort of thing.

    I look forward to your podcast with Esther Perel and would love to have more interviews with women in general.

  15. One of the best post I listened. So much learning. I am an Agile Coach and learning about experiment mindset of kind of first principle thinker and in a way follower of principle of Karma – detached action (experiment but not expecting any particular results and being in flow). I loved it – so much learning – I want to build courage to do some experiments myself. Tim you are my Hero, inspiration – worth emulating but I am past that age 🙂

  16. AJ mentioned a wiki he was involved in, where users were able to connect to a broader family tree. Sounded sort of like https://www.ancestry.com/ but open source. Maybe I missed it, but didn’t see in the show notes. Any chance we can dig that up from him? Mr. Google wasn’t too helpful.

  17. Yeah… the only way cameras filming everybody would work well would be like in this short story https://hitrecord.org/records/3127271 (“See you”). Otherwise, too much power in only a few people’s hands.

    Liked the interview, it was fun and interesting as well. Different from the usual perspective.