Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with self-experimenter extraordinaire A.J. Jacobs. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO:
You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED:
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, [speaking foreign language] my friends. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of “The Tim Ferriss Show,” where it’s my job to deconstruct world-class performers, whether they are from the world of chess, entertainment, sports, military, or, in this case, generalized human guinea pig-ness. And that means my guest is a comrade-in-arms of sorts in this wacky world of self-experimentation, A.J. Jacobs – one of my favorite people out there. @AJJacobs on Twitter and elsewhere is the author of four New York Times bestsellers and he chronicles all sorts of shenanigans. His books include The Know-It-All, which is about his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and learn every single thing in the world.
And, in case you haven’t picked this up yet, he is a hilarious, hilarious human being. The Year of Living Biblically, about his quest to follow all of the rules of the Bible as literally as possible – fantastic, fantastic book. Drop Dead Healthy, about his quest to become the healthiest person alive in which, with many ill-advised and, sometimes, well-advised experiments. I was involved as one of said advisors.
The Guinea Pig Diaries, a collection of various mishaps but also insightful quests like outsourcing his entire life in radical honesty. It’s All Relative, which is coming out in 2017 – so that is to be read – about a quest to connect all humanity in one family tree. He is also the host of the new podcast “Twice Removed” by Gimlet Media – of course, they are the blockbuster factory. The podcast, that is “Twice Removed,” is about finding connections. A.J. takes a celebrity guest and, at the end of each episode, introduces them to a surprise cousin they didn’t know they had so it could be one of their heroes, an old friend, a teacher, etc., etc. A.J. and I talk about a lot in this episode. We talk about some of his habits and what he’s learned from many of these experiments. We talk about his creative process, his writing process, certain tipping points in his life, how he learned to love marketing as an author who disdained it for a very, very, very long time, and a lot more.
We cover a lot of ground and I think you will have a blast. That’s my hope. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed chatting with A.J.. So, without further ado, as I always say, please enjoy my wide-ranging conversation with A.J. Jacobs.
A.J., good sir, welcome to the show.
A.J. Jacobs: Thank you, Tim. I’m delighted to be here.
Tim Ferriss: And I thought we could start, maybe, at the beginning. How did we meet? I remember specifically where I was sitting when we had our first conversation, but how did I reach out to you? Was it through the website?
A.J. Jacobs: It was. Great. Yes, it was either an email… But then we talked on the phone soon after and you said, “I’m a first-time writer. I’m writing a book.” At that point, it was called Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit.
Tim Ferriss: For Fun and Profit.
A.J. Jacobs: And you said you had read an article I had written where I outsourced my life to India – so hired a team of people in Bangalore to do everything for me like answer my email and argue with my wife. And you said that you were writing a book about a similar topic of trying to find ways to hack work and could you talk to me about it and could you reprint that in your book? And I was like, “Well, this guy, he’s writing a book about drug dealing. I don’t know. Should I trust him?” And I’m like, “You know, what the hell?” So, it came out and then the best part was, a year later, I had forgotten about it and I got a call from you and you’re like, “My book’s coming out in case you want to check it out and it’s No. 1 on Amazon.”
And I’m like, “You mean No. 1 in 20-Something Career Advice?” You’re like, “No, No. 1 on Amazon.” I’m like, “You are a genius. How the hell did you do that – a first-time writer?” So, now, yeah, you are my mentor in publishing. You called me for advice and now, a year later, I needed to call you for advice.
Tim Ferriss: Well, this is my chance to ask for more advice.
A.J. Jacobs: A-ha.
Tim Ferriss: Because I realized that we talked about your writing at the time – and we’re going to get into all sorts of experiments but, since we’re talking about writing, a number of people in my fan base asked about your writing process – and so we’ve talked about your writing, the subject of writing, but I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about your writing process.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about it. I think we actually did because, when you were researching how to write a book, you barely had come out –
Tim Ferriss: That’s true. I asked you a little bit about structure.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But I don’t know… At the time, I remember I was in Argentina – I was in Buenos Aires – I was sitting in a coffee shop drinking a cappuccino which was double espresso. This must have been around late 2005 or early 2006 near this place – well, it’s a large cemetery near Plaza Francia.
I remember exactly where I was sitting when we had the conversation. Could you describe for folks…? I guess there are two questions about the writing process: one is micro on, say, a daily basis, when you are writing a book, what that day looks like?
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And then there’s how do you decide what to write about? So, –
A.J. Jacobs: Which do you want to tackle first?
Tim Ferriss: Whichever you would like to tackle first.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, let me tackle the micro really quickly which would be one thing I like to do first is a little mental calisthenics before I start writing just to warm up my brain. So, I’ll brainstorm – maybe it’s about the book a bit, itself, or an article but it could just be random stuff. Like it could be, “Oh, I saw a snowman. What can we do with that? Maybe we could do a snow transgender person or a snow Neanderthal.” And 99 percent of the ideas suck, as you can tell, but the idea is just to get your creative juices flowing and –
Tim Ferriss: And you’re writing those down or you’re just doing them inside your head?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, I’m typing them down and, as I say, none of them… very few of them ever see the light of day but that’s just to get my fingers typing is another thing. I feel just the movement of my fingers on the keys gets me revved up and gets me so that I’m more comfortable typing. The other thing I like to think about is I know that the first half hour of actual writing my book, that is probably going to suck. And so I just have to accept that and be okay with throwing it out but you’ve got to do that half hour before your brain clicks in. So, that’s what I do. I do need three solid hours. Some people can do it where they can write in spurts of 20 minutes. I am not one of those people.
Tim Ferriss: I can’t do it, either.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I remember I got some very good advice a few years ago because I was getting very frustrated by the, in my mind, wasted half hour that you mentioned and someone said, “Well, you have to realize that, if you write ten pages and you only get one really good page at the very end, those nine pages are not a waste of time. You needed those nine pages to get to the tenth page.”
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: I’d prefer to have a better ratio but I’ll take it.
A.J. Jacobs: I know. Yeah, there is some warmup. Yeah. I wish it could be more like high intensity interval training – you’re in and you’re out – but it is more like stretching and…
Tim Ferriss: Do you tend to do it first thing in the morning or when do you write?
A.J. Jacobs: I do… Well, I have kids so that makes my life a pain the ass. So, I have had to train myself to write at all hours so sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm. And do you drink coffee?
A.J. Jacobs: I do drink coffee. I also, I have to say, I enjoy my white wine because –
Tim Ferriss: That’s mostly mornings?
A.J. Jacobs: I am a day drinker. I actually prefer drinking during the day. But, yeah, there are studies that show that you’re slightly more creative after, I think, one glass. After two or three glasses, then it all goes to hell but, one glass, it sort of loosens up the frontal cortex and allows you to make more connections.
Tim Ferriss: Or it convinces you that you should be more loosened up and you have the placebo effect benefit.
A.J. Jacobs: There you go.
Tim Ferriss: And you sent me over a quote – and I don’t know if this is a quote of yours or if it’s attributed to someone else – but I really enjoyed this and I think it applies to a lot of what you do, not just your writing. But here’s the quote: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Can you elaborate on that or provide us some more context for that?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. I love that quote and I think it applies to both of us. I think –
Tim Ferriss: It definitely applies to both of us.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I think a lot of what your work is… And, yeah, I wish I could say I made it up. It was the founder of Habitat for Humanity whose name escapes me right now but it was a wonderful quote. And the idea is just – it’s basic cognitive psychology – when you act in a certain way, then your brain will catch up. But, in terms of change, I find that much easier. Like I wrote a book about the Bible and living by the Bible and one of the things was you had to be more compassionate. And so I had a friend in the hospital – I hate hospitals, I hate them – so I was like, “I’m not going to visit that guy.” But then I thought, “What would a compassionate person do?” and I acted as if I were a compassionate person and I forced myself to go to the hospital to visit him.
And then, in my brain, I’m like, “Oh, you know what? I am kind of compassionate.” You sort of trick your brain. Your brain catches up. And I’ve done that and, especially, with optimism and confidence. I don’t think I’m a naturally confident person but I act as if I’m confident and, eventually, become more confident.
Tim Ferriss: So, in the realm of confidence, what embodies confidence for you? What are the ways in which you act?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, for instance, when I wrote a book about health, it was sort of my attempt at The Four-Hour Body and I was so overwhelmed because it’s such a huge topic and I was trying to be the healthiest person alive aside from Tim Ferriss. And so it’s such an undertaking because there’s so much – there’s sleep, and there’s sex, and there’s food, and exercise – so I was all stressed out but then I acted…
[Crosstalk] Every morning, I would wake up full of despair but then I would act as if I was confident.
So, I would call my publisher and say, “Okay. When we have the release party, let’s have kale martinis. What do you think of that?” So, I was acting all cocky as if this is going to come out and be a big hit. And, after two or three hours, your brain catches up and I actually felt more confident and I really find it’s so helpful.
Tim Ferriss: So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because there’s so much talk of mind over body – and so this is, I guess, a corollary to this quote – but I’ve been thinking a lot about body over mind. And this is something Tony Robbins talks a lot about – if you want to change your psychology, changing your physiology first. And it’s a lot easier, also, in the sense that, if you haven’t reasoned yourself into a position of, say, a lack of confidence – or at least you haven’t done it consciously – it’s very hard to reason your way out of it so you just have to act as if…
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I agree. And it’s in every part of my life. Like I did one experiment where I tried to be the best husband ever and I forced myself to buy a present for my wife every day – just a little trinket even if I was totally pissed at her and wanted nothing to do with her. But just that act of giving it to her, it was like, “Oh, I’m giving her a present. I must love her,” and it really changed my view. So, I am a big fan. And we’re not the only ones: I read about Teddy Roosevelt who, for a while, he was trying to be a cowboy – he was actually in, I think it was, Montana – and someone asked him, “Aren’t you terrified?” and he’s like, “Of course I’m terrified when the bull is coming at me but I just act as if I’m courageous and I become a little more courageous.”
Tim Ferriss: So, it sounds like – and I read this comparison on, I think, 99U – one piece may be method acting – although I know nothing about it, I’m just using the label – and then there’s the second component which is something that I like this phrase – and it’s capital “D,” capital “O” – Delusional Optimism. Can you elaborate on that? Because it seems like they go together.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, I am a fan of Delusional Optimism which is very similar to what we’ve been talking about. I think nothing would get done without Delusional Optimism. One example is I interviewed George Clooney, once, for Esquire – who, by the way, is as charming as you expect George Clooney to be. He gave me an unsolicited shoulder rub, shoulder massage, so that was… I’ll always have that.
But, anyways, so I asked him about what are his secrets to success and he said one philosophy he has is that he used to be a baseball player in high school and, when he got up to the plate, he wouldn’t just say to himself, “Am I going to hit a home run?” He would say, “Not only am I going to hit a homerun, but the only question is am I going to hit it over the left wall or the right wall?” And I loved that, just like… And, of course, most of the time, he didn’t. Most of the time, he struck out but it raised the percentage of times that he did hit a home run because he had that Delusional Optimism and I loved that. And you have to be careful – it can lead to terrible things. So, you have to have some – especially if you’re in an organization – you want the CEO to be Delusionally Optimistic and then you want someone else to be sort of the bean counter and be like, “I don’t know about this,” – a balance. But you really do, I think, need that Delusional Optimism to get things done.
Tim Ferriss: And, if we’re then… Rewinding a little bit and going from the micro book writing process… Actually, before we leave, the daily writing process, I’ve talked to a lot of my friends who are typically journalists out of newspapers and they drive me crazy and they make me very envious because they talk about how writer’s block doesn’t exist and they can kick out 1,500 beautiful words every few hours and they seem to be able to do it – a lot of my friends who have worked at different papers. Do you experience blocks or extended periods where you’re just stuck on projects? And, if so, what do you do to help get yourself out of those funks?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. I get blocked all the time. I actually wrote an article once on writer’s block and the way that great writers have overcome it. I remember, I think, Ben Franklin wrote in the nude.
A lot of writers wrote standing up – like Nabokov wrote standing up. There’s a German philosopher named Schiller who needed rotten apples to inspire him. So, I tried them – like Tim Ferriss, I tried them all at the same time: standing up, naked –
Tim Ferriss: With rotten apples?
A.J. Jacobs: – with rotten apples. I don’t know if that was successful but I will say one of them is similar to what I said before which is just start writing and, as long you expect that it’s going to suck, it lowers the pressure. So, a lot of times if I’m stuck, I’ll just start writing about the coffee cup, or the pigeons on the windowsill, or how my elbow itches, and just the fact of moving your fingers – like we talked about, how much your body affects your mind – moving your fingers gets you going and helps. But, yeah, it’s a problem. People who say they don’t have writer’s block; they drive me crazy, too.
Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned – this is going to jump around because that’s the style of my brain – but you mentioned –- and this is a question that came up from quite a few listeners to the podcast – The Year of Living Biblically which was one of my favorite books of yours. I really, really enjoyed it. And I’ve told you this before, but I learned more about… As someone who developed an allergy to organized religion pretty early on and, therefore, never learned much about it, it was a fantastic Trojan horse for me through the entertainment value and the humor of the book to actually learn a lot about a number of different religious traditions.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, bless you, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that “Bless you” leads me to the question which is; what are the things that have stuck with you?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, the –
Tim Ferriss: Because there’s one that stuck with me which is –
A.J. Jacobs: Really?
Tim Ferriss: Well, you talked about wearing white.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And so maybe you could explain what that means but it’s actually something that I’ve ended up doing on a fairly regular basis since I read the book.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. Me, too. Although you’re wearing dark blue now.
Tim Ferriss: I’m wearing dark blue right now because all my white stuff is filthy.
A.J. Jacobs: Alright. But imagine how much better this interview would be if you were wearing white and I was wearing white. I’m wearing white socks. Yeah, well, this book… Just to give a very quick background for those who don’t know, I grew up with no religion at all. As I say in the book, I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian so not very – no offense. But I thought one way to learn about religion would be to dive in and actually follow every rule in the Bible, so the famous ones like the Ten Commandments, but also the less famous ones like it says you can’t shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were so I just let the whole thing grow and I had this huge topiary and I got stopped at airport security so it was a crazy year. But one of the –
Tim Ferriss: The robes probably didn’t help at airport security.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, the robes, and the sandals, and the walking stick. Yeah. As you say, getting into it physically really makes a difference. And one of the rules in the Bible – and I think it’s Ecclesiastes – says that your garments should always be white. So, I took that literally and I only wore white pants, white shirts, and white robes and it was weird how it affected my mind, as you know. It made me feel lighter and more energetic. I felt like there’s just something about wearing white like, “Oh, I’m going to P. Diddy’s Hamptons party or I’m going to play Wimbledon.” It’s got positive associations. And here, in New York, people wear dark clothes all the time and I think –
Tim Ferriss: Very noir.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. It affects your mind.
Tim Ferriss: So, has that continued to be a piece or what has continued to play a part in your life from that book and from that experience?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. I do like the brighter clothes more than I used to. I would say, a lot of it, I gave up. I did shave the beard because, my wife, she wouldn’t touch me with that thing even though I kept it very clean – I moisturized, conditioned, and shampooed it. But, in terms of stuff that I have actually kept, I would say one thing that really has stuck with me is that the Bible talks about that you should be grateful all the time. It says that you should be thankful and say prayers of thanksgiving. So, when I was doing the book, I took that literally so I would be thankful for everything. So, I would press the elevator button, I’d get in the elevator, and I’d be thankful it didn’t plummet the basement.
I’d press the elevator button and I’d be thankful the doors opened and I got to my floor. So, it’s like hundreds of little, tiny things a day and it was a weird way to live – very time consuming – but also, there was something wonderful about it because it made you realize, very concretely, there are hundreds of things that go right every day that you totally take for granted and I, at least, used to focus on the three or four that went wrong and just stew on them. So, I’ve tried to keep that radical shift in perspective of being thankful for all the tiny little things that go right and it has made me happier. It’s definitely had an impact.
Tim Ferriss: So, I want you to, if you wouldn’t mind, describe for people one of my favorite stories in the book – stoning adulterers.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, yes, I was doing a lot with the Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures – and it says over and over again you have to stone adulterers.
So, I thought, “Alright, let me try to check this off the list,” so, one day, I was in Central Park and I was wearing my whole… I had my robe –
Tim Ferriss: The whole getup.
A.J. Jacobs: I had the getup, the sandals, and a man came up to me and he said, “Why are you dressed like that?” and I said, “Well, I’m trying to follow all the rules of the Bible from the Ten Commandments to stoning adulterers.” And he said, “Well, I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” and I said, “Well, that would be fantastic. Thank you for the offer.” So, I took a handful of stones out of my robe pocket – because I had been carrying them around for weeks hoping…
Tim Ferriss: Because there were no specifications in terms of the size of the stones?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. Exactly. That was the key. I showed it to him and I’m like, “They’re small stones. I can check it off the list even if they’re small stones.” And he was a very aggressive adulterer. He grabbed the stones out of my hand and then threw them at my face.
So, I thought, “An eye for an eye. I can chuck one back at him.” So, that’s how I checked it off the list. And, yeah, I didn’t continue that. There were quite a few I did not continue including, if you follow Leviticus really strictly, you can’t touch a woman when she’s menstruating because she’s impure but, if you take it really literally, a woman, if she’s menstruating, if she sits on something – a chair – that chair becomes impure. And my wife found that offensive so she sat in every chair in our apartment and I had to stand for most of the year which, as you know, is probably good for you.
Tim Ferriss: Probably good for your health.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you had a travel stool, right? You had one of those –
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: – for a sporting event?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Those were great. Yeah. They’re usually used by people who are either 83 or 600 pounds but I found it very useful.
Tim Ferriss: So, a number of folks – and we’re not going to get too deep into the audience questions right now – but we had quite a few questions about your wife and how you managed your relationship with your wife given all of these odd experiments. And did you, in some indirect or subconscious way, select someone who’d have a high tolerance for all this?
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a great question.
Tim Ferriss: Or how do you repair damage when damage is done?
A.J. Jacobs: It is interesting. First of all, she has veto power so there are… I’m sure you get this all the time, readers suggesting ideas. One suggested, “Become the greatest lover in the world and do all the positions in the Kama Sutra,” which you kind of did in The Four-Hour Body but I’ve been married for 12 years so that was not going to happen. I did pitch it to her and she’s like, “No. Not this and I have to say I was a little relieved because I don’t think I can bend my back like that anymore.
So, she has veto power and that’s Rule No. 1. And, 2.) I think she gets a lot of reader feedback about how she’s so patient. That helps so please keep sending those in.
Tim Ferriss: Positive reinforcement.
A.J. Jacobs: I will say, probably, the worst one for our marriage was… You know the life-logging movement, where you keep track –
Tim Ferriss: Record everything?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, record everything. It’s like the self-tracking – quantified self taken to the extreme. So, I had a little tiny camera, smaller than a GoPro, on my ear and I recorded every moment of my life for about three months and it was fascinating. And I think it’s a glimpse of the future. I think we are all going toward that for better or worse.
But one of the things was I was like, “70 percent of my arguments with my wife are about where she says ‘You didn’t tell me that,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did. I did tell you that.'” So, now I’m like, “You know what? Now we can rewind and we can see what we actually said. So, we had a huge argument about something – whether she had asked me to order Mexican food – something ridiculously small and trivial but it blew up and I was able… The next day, I’m like, “Okay, let’s rewind and watch the argument.” And it was so terrible for our marriage because it was like… I can’t remember, I think I might have been 60 percent right but the net was that I was 0 percent right because she was so upset and you don’t want to show someone yelling or angry. It just is not… So, I don’t recommend that as a way to navigate a marriage.
In fact, there was a Black Mirror… Do you ever watch Black Mirror?
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say. There’s a great episode – I think it was in the first or second season, the UK edition of the Black Mirror – fantastic episode.
A.J. Jacobs: It was the same exact premise.
Tim Ferriss: Very similar premise but you record through your eye, effectively.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. It was great. I love that show and that was… And, in the episode, things go horribly awry with his marriage.
Tim Ferriss: Which I think is probably also likely to happen –
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: – if that becomes a ubiquitous technology.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What did you learn from that experience, aside from not to replay the Mexican takeout debate for…?
A.J. Jacobs: I think, well, one thing I learned is to… I have hundreds of hours of material so I’ll never be able to watch it because it’s just an infinite loop but I think one is to enjoy the small moments – if you do watch it, you just realize that 90 percent of your day is…
When you’re getting my kids ready for school, if you are annoyed during that half hour because it’s a pain in the ass, that’s a half hour of your life wasted. You have to realize, “This is it. This is what most of life is,” so try to enjoy that as well as your playing laser tag or whatever because that’s very rare.
Tim Ferriss: Or serving kale martinis at your launch party?
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. That never happened. So, that was one. Also, the implications for the future are fascinating. How’s it going to affect crime? How will anyone mug someone when it’s all being uploaded immediately to the cloud? So, it will, I think, help crime but it’ll be terrible for marriages. And I feel for future adulterers and my heart goes out to them because I can’t imagine how you’re going to get away with sneaking around when everything is fully recorded.
Tim Ferriss: Well, on the flip side, it’ll clarify a lot of crimes that are not committed, where people are wrongly accused.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that’s true.
Tim Ferriss: So, you have the flip side, also.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that’s true. Yeah. And I think, also, it might make us more tolerant of people’s mistakes because we all do something… The YouTube video of people melting down and acting like idiots – everyone will have one of those. No one’s perfect so we’re all going to have our flaws right out there on display so we have to accept those in ourselves and be a little more tolerant of others. So, it’s going to be a weird future, I really believe – fascinating, but weird.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The question for me is, in all these cases, who are going to be the dominant owners of this information and controllers of the bits and bytes that represent all of these videos.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. I know.
Tim Ferriss: But I want to come back to tolerance – and I’m not sure this is a perfect segway but I’m going to force it – radical honesty. So, you wrote a piece… I believe it was titled, “I Think You’re Fat.” Am I right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. That is completely true.
Tim Ferriss: It’s about radical honesty. Could you describe for people…? And then I want to come back and I’m going to ask you about your thoughts on marriage and parenting but this ties in, I think, on some levels. So, radical honestly, could you describe –
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: – the origins of this experiment, and what you did, and where you ended up which I don’t think we’ve really talked about?
A.J. Jacobs: No. Well, and to be radically honest, thank you. You tweeted about it a few weeks ago and, as per usual, your endorsement gets me more readers in one tweet than I get from months of trying to do publicity.
Tim Ferriss: I loved the piece so it was my pleasure.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, thank you. Yeah, this piece came about because I read about this guy in Virginia, a psychologist named Brad Blanton – a fantastic character, one of the greatest interviews of my life – and he believes that you should never lie, but he goes further. He says that whatever’s on your brain should come out of your mouth – no filter – like Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar. So, it is insane. And I was like, “Well, let me try this and see what happens. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it will make my life better despite the challenges.” So, I did it and, oh my god, it was the worst month of my life in many ways. In some ways, it was wonderful, liberating, and terrific. In other ways, it was just dreadful.
And, to give you one of the dreadful ones, we would go to a restaurant and we would see friends of my wife that she hadn’t seen since college and they said, “Oh, we should all get together and have a playdate with our kids,” and I had to say what was on my brain which was, “You guys seem nice but I have no interest in ever seeing you again because I don’t have time to see my own friends.” And they would just look at me aghast and my wife, of course, was furious. And the one thing is we never did see them again so, in that way, it was effective.
Tim Ferriss: It worked out.
A.J. Jacobs: But I felt terrible and I still feel it was totally a terrible thing to say. So, there was that. It did affect me in that I still… I’m not radically honest like… Because he’s crazy. He’s like, if you see a beautiful woman on the street, you say, “Hello. I’m very attracted to you. I would like to sleep with you,” which I got, weirdly, a lot of people – 20 something guys saying they were using that as a…
Tim Ferriss: As their masterful pickup line?
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. And they said the rejection rate was 95 percent but, if you’re okay with that, then 5 percent of the women were like, “Hmm, interesting.”
Tim Ferriss: “Interesting proposition. I like the confidence/Asperger’s.”
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. But what I have kept from that is I try to do what I call “radical sustainable honesty” or “positive radical honesty” because I don’t need to tell people, “I’m staring at your mole,” because that just doesn’t help the world, I think. But, for instance, one of the things I did is, when I was doing that, I would be thinking, “You know what? I really like that boss of mine when I was 22 at the small newspaper. He had a very nice influence on me. Let me call him up and thank him.”
So, I would call him out of the blue and it was very awkward because men are not supposed to express emotions like that but I would tell him how much he meant to me. And it made me feel so much better and I hope – I think – it made him feel better. So, I feel that that’s something I’ve tried to keep. If I have a positive thought, then even if it’s embarrassing or weird, then I will say like, “I love you, man,” or that kind of thing. And I think that has made my life better.
Tim Ferriss: So, I was given a similar assignment by an ex-girlfriend a number of years ago because I was having trouble – and this is no secret to people who’ve read, certainly, a few of the chapters in Tools of Titans or in other places – that I’ve had my ups and downs in my managing of depressive periods and what not. And she said, “Well, if you’re having trouble making yourself happy, maybe you should identify one person every day you can send a short thank you to or call to give a thank you and, specifically, people from long ago or people you used to be close to or who had a huge influence on you that you are no longer close to.”
And so I started doing this and calling teachers I had in high school or childhood friends and it had a hugely uplifting impact on me.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that’s great. I love that. Did it ever go wrong? Did it ever have some…?
Tim Ferriss: No, it never went wrong and, sometimes, it wasn’t even about speaking in person so, if I got a voicemail, I would just leave a heartfelt voicemail. It never went sideways for me. And, in fact, it reinvigorated, I guess, or resurrected a few childhood friendships and now I’m back in close contact with a number of these guys I went to grade school with and used to play with on a daily basis on BMX bikes or whatever the hell… throwing dirt clods into each other’s eyes in the middle of the forest or whatever we were doing at the time. So, it’s been great. It’s been really, really great.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: How do you…? If you’ve dismissed the option of being able to say to someone, “You seem very lovely but I don’t ever want to see you again,” – which, in a sense, is fantastic because you’re able to cut down on all of these social expectations and commitments and I think a lot of people are just drowning in coffee invitations, cocktail invitations, “Let’s do this,” “Let’s do that,” – if you’re trying to practice this more moderate honesty, how do you think of handling it in a place like New York City, in particular, where you have endless options?
A.J. Jacobs: I don’t know. I need your advice on that. I am terrible at it. I will tell people the truth which is, right now, I am so overwhelmed that I don’t have time for basic hygiene and that they wouldn’t want to hang out with me, anyway, because I smell and I’ve got yellow teeth. And that is the truth so maybe that’s my best answer. But, yeah, it’s a tough one.
Tim Ferriss: The best I’ve been able to figure out – this is actually something I borrowed from… I’m not going to mention him by name because I don’t know if he’d want this to be public but he’s a very well-known billionaire tech investor in Silicon Valley who’s always been very generous with his time. And we’d met up a number of times and I’d asked him if he’d be open to grabbing dinner. And I wasn’t vague about it because I think, at this point in my life, I’ve learned, “Let’s hang out,” isn’t good enough for someone who has so many demands on their time. This was like, “I’d love to meet up to chat about this, this, and this, but only if you have time,” but we’d had dinner a number of times in the past.
And he said, “I would love to but I’m taking a meeting vacation.” And so I started applying this to everything. I’m like, “Oh, it’s brilliant,” because it’s not personalized – “I can’t do it, Tim Ferriss, because I don’t like you.” It’s, “No, I’m not doing any meetings.” He said, “I’m not doing any meetings. I’m actually doing no phone calls. I’m just responding to things via email because that’s the only way I can manage my schedule right now,” and it was so generalized that I felt totally fine with it.
So, I started applying that to anything I didn’t want to do. “I’m taking a conference call vacation. I’m taking a meeting vacation. I’m taking a fill-in-the-blank vacation.” And I also began putting that in my auto-responders so that I didn’t feel obligated to –
A.J. Jacobs: I think I’ve gotten a couple of those, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve most certainly gotten them. Everyone gets a lot of those from me.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. Who can be angry when you’re taking a vacation? Everyone needs a vacation.
Tim Ferriss: Everyone needs a vacation.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, and it is interesting, yeah, another thing that I do is – and some people don’t approve of this, you may not but – if I’m totally swamped and someone asks me out to lunch, then I say, “What would you think about a Skype lunch where we both order in food, and we have lunch, and we get to talk to each other, we get to see each other, but we don’t have to schlep, and we don’t have to waste time, we don’t have to ask the waiter for the check.” And I’d say 30 percent of people are offended but 70 percent are willing to try and I’ve found it very useful.
Tim Ferriss: Skype lunch?
A.J. Jacobs: Skype lunch.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve never tried that.
A.J. Jacobs: Skype dinner, Skype breakfast, whatever you want. And I did it once with this guy who was tech savvy and he had the background of us in a café in Paris so it was very nice.
Tim Ferriss: So, you had your own Lady and the Tramp moment – virtually. That sounds very pleasant.
A.J. Jacobs: I don’t know whether I was Lady or the Tramp.
Tim Ferriss: Or both? You could be both.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, there were a couple of bullets we, in preparation for this… Because I’m very familiar with a lot of your work – I’ve read, I think, all of your books up to this point and –
A.J. Jacobs: Got you.
Tim Ferriss: And so you sent a number of bullets I didn’t expect or I wasn’t familiar with so I wanted to talk about a few. And I feel like, some of these, we have maybe touched on briefly, but I wanted to revisit. Being kind to your older self – can you explain what this means?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. I learned this while doing the health book and the idea was… I think it was a Yale professor – I forget his name – but “Ego-nomics,” I think, is what he called it. And the idea was, when they do experiments and they remind people of that they are going to be around in 20 years, people make more responsible decisions like, financially, they invest more in their 401K and, also, health wise, they act more responsibly. So, I thought this was fascinating so I took it and I took just a selfie and I digitally aged it on one of those apps and so I now look like I have a skin disease but it’s me at 82.
And I printed it out and put it over my desk and that older A.J. is always looking down and saying, “Treat me well. Remember; treat me like you would treat a friend. And just don’t eat that fourth oatmeal cookie and get on that treadmill.” So, I find it very inspiring and motivating.
Tim Ferriss: And is it something that you’re able to continuously notice or do you tune it out after a while? This is a challenge that I’ve had with certain reminders. So, I have a quote, for instance, from Marcus Aurelius on my refrigerator in San Francisco and it’s about trying to regain the harmony as quickly as possible, etc., etc. It’s one of these very Marcus Aurelius-type quotes and there are a number of them around my house. But I will occasionally schedule a rotating of the quote or even location because, otherwise, it just becomes part of the scenery and I don’t notice it. So, –
A.J. Jacobs: So, I love that and I had the exact same thing. If you leave it in the same place, you’re going to forget about it. What I do is I make it part of my rotating screensaver so that –
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Okay, this makes sense.
A.J. Jacobs: – so that it pops up every couple of days and then, “Oh, yeah, I should.” But you’re totally right – we are so good at tuning things out that have been there.
Tim Ferriss: Necessarily, right? Evolutionarily, it’s like, “Alright, if there’s a piece of furniture I don’t need to have some type of acute fight or flight intensity level observation of it.”
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: “Because it’s clearly not having a direct impact on my survival.”
A.J. Jacobs: And I had that same experience with photos. I had a screensaver that was a photo of my family and I totally tuned it out after three days so I started rotating photos to remind myself, “Oh, yeah. We did do a fun thing there and it’s not all tantrums and…”
Tim Ferriss: “Tantrums and debates over Mexican food?”
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: What else have you continued to do from Drop Dead Healthy?
A.J. Jacobs: I still do love treadmill desks. I made my own – I didn’t buy the fancy one – but I do find it energizing. And I only walk one and a half, two miles per hour when I’m writing or answering emails but I find, if I’m sitting in front of a computer, I’m tempted to just rest my head on the space bar and fall asleep so you can’t do that when you’re on a treadmill. So, I do like that. And I also still like the competition. Some people are not motivated by this, but I am – getting friends and making sure that I get to 10,000 steps or my friends can mock me that they can see. There’s a leader board and that they can…
Tim Ferriss: What do you use for that right now in terms of sharing that with them?
A.J. Jacobs: I have been using… I hooked up my Fitbit to my Apple Health. It was complicated and it took…
Tim Ferriss: It took a while to figure out?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. So, I’m…
Tim Ferriss: How do you encourage your friends to mock you if you don’t get 10,000? Or are they the type of friends that don’t need much instruction in the mocking department?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I’m trying to think. I used to… It’s been a while but this great writer who wrote the Henrietta Lacks book – do you remember?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, right. Sure.
A.J. Jacobs: Anyway, she is great and also very… So, I think you just got to find the people who –
Tim Ferriss: Are most adept at mockery?
A.J. Jacobs: Are most adept at mockery. I am motivated by mockery. Some people are not.
Tim Ferriss: So, there’s a story that I’ve told quite a bit because I think that it’s very practical in a lot of ways and that there are variations of this but I’d like you to tell, probably, the more accurate version because I feel like I get details of this wrong when I retell it: blackmailing yourself.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. I was so on it. I was –
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about the KKK.
A.J. Jacobs: Alright. Let’s talk about the KKK, which I do not support, just to get that out there right up front. But I was watching many of your talks and, in a couple of them, you mentioned that – very flattering, thank you – this is an idea by that same Yale professor and his idea was that, if you want to quit something or you want to stop doing a terrible behavior, then you can blackmail yourself.
Tim Ferriss: Is this the same Yale professor who ended up later, or currently, being involved with stickkk.com.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, actually, that’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Stickkk.com, where this is built into sort of the mechanics of how the site works.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: This is where you choose the anti-charity.
A.J. Jacobs: This is the anti-charity, sort of –
Tim Ferriss: In this case, you took it to the next level.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I was – excuse me – doing the health book and I was eating all of these dried mangos because they sort of have the veneer of health because they’re fruit but, really, they’re just sugar – they’re just so much sugar.
So, I knew I had to quit so I arranged it… I said to my wife, “If I eat another dried mango, then I am instructing you now – you have to do this – you have to send a $100.00 check to the KKK.” And it was so effective it was crazy because just the thought of that check going out made me physically ill and I was able to quit cold turkey. And he talks about people smoking who use this strategy and… Yeah, have you ever tried it?
Tim Ferriss: I have tried the anti-charity. And it’s incredible – I’ve also done this with betting because I think that, for instance, if you have a betting pool of five people who have a certain goal – let’s just say that’s body recomposition.
So, they’re each getting – this is actually a real example from a friend of mine who recently lost 40 or 50 pounds – they’re each getting DEXA scans – so these scans that will indicate bodyfat percentage, and muscle mass – and so on every, let’s just call it every two weeks or something like that which is, actually, surprisingly inexpensive. It’s $30.00, $40.00. And whoever has the most successful recomposition of their body by the end would get the pot and each person, I think, was putting in $100.00 and so it was a $500.00 total but I don’t think it’s the $500.00 that gets people to lose the weight or, in this case, lose fat. I think that it is two things: the social mockery, and grab-assing, and ball-busting – in this case, it’s five guys – and it is the losing of $100.00 – it’s the loss aversion, I think, more than the prospect of gaining.
A.J. Jacobs: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is one of the many issues that I suppose I take with the “43rd Place gets a gold star,” “Everyone’s a winner,” “We should only focus on positive reinforcement,” sort of fetishizing of the patting on the head, in the US at least, where I think the stick instead of the carrot – and the shame and the humiliation – and all of these things that are thought of as negative are actually really, really useful tools if you recognize how ingrained they are as incentives in human beings. Just –
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. I find it very useful. You’ve got to be careful not to crush someone’s ego so they curl up in a fetal position.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
A.J. Jacobs: So, it’s a fine line but good natured sticks, I think – like soft maybe Nerf sticks, I think – are incredibly helpful.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is one that I may have read about but it didn’t ring a bell – a trip to Jerry Falwell’s church.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yes. Well, this is when I was writing The Bible and I sent you this in the context of just the joy of being a mentor. And I can say this because this guy – my mentee, my protégé – has far surpassed me in success. His name is Kevin Roose and he was a writer for The New York Times and The New York Magazine. Now he’s at Fusion and he’s written a couple of great books. But I met him because I was writing my book on the Bible and he was a freshman at my alma mater, Brown University, and he wrote me a very funny letter saying he wanted to be a writer. So, immediately, that’s a good lesson: just the chutzpah. I call it “strategic chutzpah” – just writing out of the blue. Instead of going through alumni relations, he just wrote me out of the blue, “I want to be a writer. I’ll work for you for free while I learn about it.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t remember this part.
A.J. Jacobs: So, that, I was already impressed. And, at the time, I was trying to follow all the rules of the Bible and the Bible actually, in the Old Testament, slavery is fine.
So, I was really struggling with, “How do I deal with that in my life?” because, obviously, slavery is not so fine and not so legal, thank god. So, I said, “The closest thing to slavery in my life is an internship so, if you can come and be my intern and let me call you my Biblical slave, then let’s do it.” So, he’s like, “I’m in.” And he was great and so proactive and then, as a thank you, I took him on one of the trips I made for that book where I was going around and trying to see how different people interpreted the Bible literally. And I took him to Jerry Falwell’s church and he was fascinated. He was like, “This is amazing. This is like an alternate universe. I live in a bubble. I want to… What if I transferred from Brown, the most liberal college in the United States, to Liberty College which is one of the most conservative?” where you can’t watch an ‘R’ rated movie. You’d get in trouble for it. Holding hands with someone of the opposite sex is like… that’s –
Tim Ferriss: Forboden.
A.J. Jacobs: Forboden. So, I was like, “That’s an interesting idea. Yeah.” And I encouraged him to write a proposal, and I helped him a bit, and hooked him up with an agent, and he did it. And he went and got the book contract, wrote a great book – which is great not just because it’s interesting but because it’s very nuanced – and he shows that these are people and there are benefits to this way of life and so he didn’t villainize them. And, anyway, I thought that that was fantastic. So, just this idea of being a mentor gives so much pleasure, I think. In one way, it’s a waste of time but, in another way, it’s just…
And it’s also, from a very practical point of view, it’s paid off. Now he’s so much smarter than me and more connected with the internet that he can help me.
Tim Ferriss: What, if we look at your toolkit and set of rules…? You have done a lot of experiments for many, many different things. If you were trying to give someone who is, say, about to get married recommendations for marriage and parenting? If you had to be, not somber, but as serious as possible, what would the real advice be?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, a couple of things come to mind. One is the cliché, “Don’t go to bed angry”? I fully disagree with that. I go to bed angry all the time and I find it so helpful because my wife gets cranky at night.
If I tried to argue it out with her, she would be furious and neither of us would get sleep and it would be a disaster. You go to sleep, you wake up the morning, and you have a fresh perspective and you can talk about it rationally. And I do that with my kids, too. We start to get in an argument and I say, “You know what? Let’s cool down and let’s think about this. I’m not forgetting about this argument but let’s reconvene in a few hours.” So, actually, I do like that – so, do go to bed angry is my first suggestion. Another one is from my wife’s stepdad who died recently, but, when we were getting married – I thought it was very good advice – he said, “You’re both going to think that you’re doing 70 percent of the work in the marriage and you’re both wrong. So, just be aware of how much the other person is doing and you’re taking for granted.”
And, for one of my experiments – the one I said where I tried to be the best husband – one of the things we did was we wrote a list of everything she does in our lives around the house and everything I do. I honestly thought it was going to be about 50/50 and it was 80 her and 20 me so it was a very humbling experience. It was, in one sense, terrible because now she realizes, too, how little I did so it’s made my life worse in one sense but it also was very revelatory and I got to see… Like the little liquid soap thing, I just figured they refilled themselves – it was like a self-cleaning oven or something – but I was like, “Oh, yeah. Someone has to do that.” So, be aware of how much the other person is doing, even if you don’t see it. It’s whatever bias it is – you’re not seeing it so you’re not aware of it.
Can I just pop that back at you and ask you what you would suggest to someone going into a relationship?
Tim Ferriss: I think this is probably above my paygrade being that I’ve not yet decided how I feel about marriage or gained much clarity related to marriage. But I think I would give the advice that Amanda Palmer, the musician, received from a mentor of hers: “For any type of conflict resolution, say less.” I think that would be the starting point – “Just say less.”
A.J. Jacobs: I like that.
Tim Ferriss: Because my inclination – and I think that much of my family is this way, certainly my brother is this way – the desire to be right sometimes overrides the pragmatic road to being effective.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: My brother and I can both get righteously indignant and that does not help with conflict resolution, it turns out. So, I would say, “Say less.” I’ve become better that that.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. There are a couple of things that come to mind, phrases. Like I’ve heard, “You can be right or you can be married but not both,” which I think is a good one. And then I asked some 80-year-old guy who had been married for 50 years what his secret is and he said, “Tooth marks on the tongue – that’s the secret to a happy marriage. Just bite your tongue. Bite it, bite it, bite it.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s funny. There’s some funny bits of advice that I’ve heard thrown around. I’m not saying this is the advice I would give but I also talked to a friend whose soon to be, who was it, it was not his direct father-in-law but he was about to get married. Literally, the day of the wedding and I think it was the grandfather from the old country – from Poland or something – grabbed him and he’s like, “Let’s go take a walk.” He took him for a walk and he said, “This is all you need to know.”
He goes, “Only professionals, only on the road.” And so I’ll let people figure that out for themselves. But, yeah, some crazy relationship advice out there.
A.J. Jacobs: Very crazy.
Tim Ferriss: Other advice I would give would be know what you need to work on and, ideally, find someone who’s really good at what you need to work on because I do think, at least for me, there’s a complementary polarity that needs to exist for a relationship to have any longevity. And it’s a complementary set of skills but those could overlap very much with attributes – just god-given or nature-given predispositions.
And then something that I don’t know if I’ve ever written about but I’ve noticed for a lot of relationships – and this goes for hetero-normative, or homosexual, it goes for anything sexual as far as I can tell, at least in many cases – that, if you were to imagine a sliding scale and you have 100 percent – and this is going to get people up in a tizzy no matter how I phrase it so I’m going to try to state it simply – 100 percent what we would consider feminine attributes on one end of the scale and then 100 percent masculine attributes at the other end of the scale, and then, in the middle, you have perfect androgyny – just a complete perfect androgyny in all respects –
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: – physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise – that, wherever you are on the slider, you will be most attracted to and have the most longevity – well, actually, I should not say longevity – you’ll be most attracted to, and perhaps most compatible with, someone who is the opposite. So, if you are, say, 70 percent male attributes or masculine attributes, 30 percent feminine attributes, then you will be most attracted to someone who’s 70 percent feminine attributes, 30 percent masculine attributes.
And that that sort of equal polarity from the center – 50/50 perfect androgyny – seems to work pretty well and that, when you find someone who generally – and this is just very abstract speculation on my part but it seems to be the case – when you see people who, say, overlap too much on one side of that spectrum, it very rarely works from what I’ve observe – very, very rarely. So, that’s not so much advice but maybe a conceptual framework for thinking about…
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that’s interesting. I was trying to apply it to my own marriage to see if I lined up and I think, actually, 70/30 is about where I am.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: Maybe 65/35 – I don’t know, different people would say lower.
Tim Ferriss: And so those are some of my passing thoughts but working on it. Yeah, this is something I’m working on a lot. I’m hoping to have a number of people on the podcast to discuss these types of questions – Esther Perel would be one and there are a handful of others.
A.J. Jacobs: Have you had Dan Savage on the show?
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t. He would be another mind to pick on this.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And he’s been recommended by quite a few listeners of mine as well. So, I was chatting with a friend of mine – and I don’t know if you’ve spent any time with Neil Strauss before?
A.J. Jacobs: I have. I love that guy.
Tim Ferriss: Alright. So, Neil, eight time New York Times Best Selling Author, he’s one of those guys who never gets writer’s block who makes me crazy but he wrote a piece recently – I think it was for Rolling Stone – and it’s something like “The Age of Fear.” But the point – I might be getting the headline wrong but – the basic premise was we’ve never lived in safer times and yet everyone is more fearful than they’ve ever been. So, for a while, you wrote a column for, I guess it was, Mental Floss.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. Can I just say one thing about Neil Strauss that I love?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s that he is so generous with his ideas and this is something I’ve come around to. He gave me two or three book ideas – I never pursued them, but they’re good book ideas. Like he had one where he said, “You should just…” – you know what, it’s kind of similar to your podcast – “You should find the best – the Michael Jordan of everything – and learn their secrets, and then write a book.” It’s kind of Tools for Titans.
Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of exactly what I did, yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s hilarious. I didn’t realize that. But I love the idea of being generous with your ideas because, when I first started my career, I was so paranoid, I wouldn’t… People would say, “Oh, what are you working on?” “Oh, I can’t tell you,” even though it was probably some lame thing that no one’s going to steal and, if they did steal it, so what – it’s all about execution.
So, this is a crazy story. I’m much older than you so, when I very first started – when I got out of college – there were still libraries and that’s where you would go to research things. And I was doing joke book on the eerie similarities between Jesus and Elvis because Elvis had said that he believed he was the second coming. And I was so paranoid that I went to two different libraries – so I went to one to get books about Elvis and one to get gooks about –
Tim Ferriss: You didn’t want anyone to put two and two together?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Isn’t that insane – the level of delusion there? Who cares? And now, I feel, telling people my ideas, that the positives outweigh the negatives – that you meet people who are interesting that can help you or expand the idea. I don’t know if you know Adam Mansbach who wrote Go, The… I don’t know, are you allowed – do you want the “bleep” on this or no? Go the F to Sleep.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no. Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we have lots of cursing on this show. It’s deliberately not Falwell-compliant. So, yes, Go the Fuck to Sleep. Brilliant.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. And he –
Tim Ferriss: Brilliant. Brilliant. Which became a huge bestseller because it got leaked, as far as I can tell, as a PDF among people in the publishing world.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, that’s so interesting.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a part of how it became a huge best seller.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that’s similar to… Because he had put it up as a Facebook update as a joke – like he said, “I’m going to write a book called Go the F to Sleep – and people are like, “You should do that.” So, the idea of sharing and being out there with your ideas, that’s been a big change in my career.
Tim Ferriss: So, just to touch on that because I think it’s really important idea, Neil Strauss does this. Although, when he is working on something, he is tremendously paranoid about it.
A.J. Jacobs: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: When he’s already committed to writing something – I’ve known Neil forever – and he still will not… He’s afraid of letting out the meme.
But I do think these are two different things – once you’ve fully committed to doing something and when you’re testing the water, I think, are two distinct phases. But I remember when I was proofreading his book, Emergency, No, 1, the only reason he let me write about it – or, rather, read it – was because he wouldn’t tell me what he was writing about – he wouldn’t tell me, he wouldn’t tell me – and I just threw out this Hail Mary and I said, “What is this? Some five flags stuff?” – which is very insider terminology for all sorts of prepper survivalist multiple passport communities. And his eyes got about the size of a dinner plate and he said, “What have you heard? What have you heard?” And then he would give me, printed out, 15 to 20 pages at a time to proofread and then I would have to give those back before I could have the next set.
A.J. Jacobs: I love it. Were they color-coded?
Tim Ferriss: They were not color coded, although, knowing Neil, I’m sure there are some type of identification numbers on them. But he is very generous with is ideas until he decides where he’s going to go all out.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And Kevin Rose, very close friend of mine, serial entrepreneur, extremely successful investor, does the same thing. And Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, one of my favorite people out there – I think he’s probably the real-world most interesting man in the world, a technology futurist who spends time with the Amish almost every year to determine how they accept and vet technology, fascinating guy – he also tries to give away or kill as many of his ideas as possible. And, if he can’t give them away, he can’t kill him, and they stick with him and him alone, then those are the ideas he considers pursuing.
A.J. Jacobs: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: So, in a way, giving ideas away is one of his filters –
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: – to determine what he should work on because he is a man of a lot of ideas. He may have 20 different project ideas.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And, the ones he can’t give away, when that group overlaps with – or, I should say, rather, when you combine the ones that he can’t give way with the ones that he can’t kill – because he can’t find flaws in them, some fatal flaw – those are the ones that he ends up pursuing.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s so interesting. I love that. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But we were talking about, earlier on, being grateful for the little things.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And then Neil came up because he wrote this Rolling Stone piece on “The Age of Fear” and how everyone’s terrified –
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: – and think the world’s going to hell in a handbasket in every possible respect but, objectively, things seem pretty good.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. And I totally believe that and there’s that great Steven Pinker book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which traces the history of violence and how we are in the safest time ever even with the horrors of the 20th century wars. And, yeah, there was a great magazine called Mental Floss – which just folded a month ago, but they still have a web presence – and I wrote a monthly column. I can’t remember… I wanted to call it “The Good Old Days Sucked” but I don’t think it ended up being called that. But the premise was we have this nostalgia –
Tim Ferriss: Wait, Modern Problems?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. Exactly. Modern Problems.
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
A.J. Jacobs: You are… See, you’re better than me.
Tim Ferriss: I just happened to read your Wikipedia more recently, I think, than you.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, so the idea was, every month, I would take a different topic and show how horrible life used to be and how grateful we should be. Not all of us – there are still people in other countries and even in our country living in horrible conditions – but, if you’re lucky enough, we live in, by far, the best times and there’s so many examples. The first one, I think, was on medicine and the one I talked about in the first paragraph, I believe, was the smoke enema, the tobacco enema, which is… You know the phrase “Blow smoke up your ass?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: That was a literal thing. It came because they would have a hose and a pump and they would shoot tobacco up your butt because they believed that it was good for your stomach and good for your health.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. This might explain something that I’ve been trying to figure out for a few years now.
A.J. Jacobs: I’m intrigued. What’s your point?
Tim Ferriss: A friend of mine sent me a photograph of the menu of a whorehouse in the early 1800’s and it was like, blow job, $2.00, whatever, this type of sex, $3.00, this type of sex, $1.00, and then it had “smoke up the ass,” $30.00.
A.J. Jacobs: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: And I was like, “Wait a second. I want to know what the smoke up the ass is about.” I was very curious because I was like, “What was the…” but maybe this was actually the medicinal option on the menu.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. It was like… That is fascinating.
Tim Ferriss: How did something so highly prized come to be associated with deceitful flattery – blowing smoke up your ass?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that is… it’s a weird segway. I don’t know what to make of that.
Tim Ferriss: Alright, so the tobacco enema, back in the day? Just be glad…?
A.J. Jacobs: So, yeah. I’m sure you can still find it. I’m sure it’s somewhere out there if you Google it. Oh, you know what else to be thankful…? If you ever are feeling down, I would Google the words, “Surgery without anesthesia” and read the first-person accounts of people who had surgery and it is just… Oh my god, it is just…
Tim Ferriss: That does not sound appealing or pleasant in the least.
A.J. Jacobs: No, it was crazy. Yeah, this one woman wrote one and it was just… I couldn’t sleep for days. So, even when I’m going to the hospital for a procedure, I’m like, “Alright, at least we’ve got anesthesia.” So, it has made my life better, this idea.
Tim Ferriss: And, yeah, people out there, you can definitely find Neil’s piece on this as well which I think it’s a good recalibration.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I remember something was really bothering me –maybe I ran across something about ISIS drowning people in cages or burning people alive – both of which are horrible, horrible, horrible things. And I was having a conversation with someone I won’t mention but very, very famous and successful technologist and he said, “Well,” he’s like, “All terrible but thank god we’re not in the Middle Ages.” He’s like, “Broadly speaking, humanity would be much worse off than we are now with these edge cases.”
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. And, on that theme, you can also Google “Louis C.K. on Conan,” I think something like; “Everything is great and everyone’s miserable,” which is –
Tim Ferriss: Alright, so as long as we’re doing standup… I was not going to mention this but I will because I think it’s so hilarious. Living in San Francisco, I get overdosed on San Francisco sometimes. And there may be a place for this so, people out there who are aficionados, try not to freak out and just laugh at yourselves or laugh at this because I think it’s pretty funny. Patton Oswald is one of my favorite comedians –
A.J. Jacobs: Great.
Tim Ferriss: – has this piece where he opens, in effect, saying, “If one of my Whole Foods friends lectures me one more time on homebirths, I’m going to punch all the soy in the planet.” And he goes on to talk about – and I’m not going to do it justice – but he’s like, “You know what women were dreaming about on the frontier when they were squatting on the mud in a shack giving birth? Hospitals. These amazing sterile environments where you didn’t have to worry about the wolverine sneaking in and stealing the afterbirth.” And I want people to listen to it because I think it’s so good.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s easy to romanticize –
A.J. Jacobs: It is so…
Tim Ferriss: – the good old days when, in fact, the good old days were very frequently –
A.J. Jacobs: Terrible.
Tim Ferriss: – terrible. The terrible old days.
A.J. Jacobs: And, actually, that brings to mind, when I was researching the Bible, there’s a line in the Bible where God says, “Because of Eve eating the apple, women have pain in childbirth.”
And when anesthesia for childbirth was first introduced, there were some super religious people who were like, “Oh no, we can have that. Women have to suffer.” And so, thank god… My wife, she was like, “Give me that drug. Give me it. Give it to me now.” There was no chance she was going to do it naturally.
Tim Ferriss: How do you choose your projects? These are big projects – book projects – and very time consuming. And maybe this is a way to edge into it, but what are some of the ideas that you came close to doing that you ended up not doing?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, well, there was the Kama Sutra which my wife put the kibosh on.
Tim Ferriss: Vetoed?
A.J. Jacobs: I think the answer, maybe not the most surprising, but I have to be totally passionate about it because it can’t just be something that I think will be popular – it has to be something that I am super excited about.
Because, like you, I commit to these things and maybe not to the level of Tim Ferriss, but I go in hard.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you do. You do.
A.J. Jacobs: I try to be Tim Ferriss. You’re my… I am the less successful, less famous Tim Ferriss.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, stop it already. How many best sellers have you had? Four? You’re ahead of me, pal.
A.J. Jacobs: Not in terms of quantity. But, yeah, I would say there’s that and, if it makes me laugh… I once talked to a Daily Show writer about his writing process and he said one of the most important things to him was that he could surprise himself while he was writing and I loved that idea – just being able to surprise yourself.
And I feel that same way about big ideas. You have to… when you come up with the idea, you’ve got to be like, “Oh, man. I love that idea.” You amuse yourself.
Tim Ferriss: Or just going, “Huh,” like, “Hmm.” When that happens, I try to become better at that because I’ve noticed… BJ Novak, who’s a fantastic writer –
A.J. Jacobs: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: – and excellent, of course, actor and everything else – producer, well-known for The Office and many other things – but he and Scott Adams as well – creator of Dilbert – really pay a lot of attention to the kinesthetic body response to what they’re writing. And so I’ve tried to really hone in on paying more attention to that as I’m writing, or drafting, or brainstorming, or anything and making a note of that.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s so interesting you say that because I’ve never thought about this, but, when I’m writing and I’m writing something that I think might be funny, I can tell there’s sort of a little ping in the back of my head like a little dopamine rush.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: And, yeah, I do try to pay attention to that. That’s so interesting. I never verbalized it. And then just the idea… I do love, like I think you do, taking an idea and just pushing it to its logical extreme – just a reductio ad absurdum. So, when I first read about outsourcing, I was like, “Well, this is cool. How can I push this to the extreme? How can I outsource every single thing in the world?” and that’s how I came up with the idea for those folks.
Tim Ferriss: The beauty of reductio ad absurdum – also underestimated, I think – its power and its humor. So, you were saying, “I have to be really excited about it. I have to, on some level, maybe find it funny,” why genealogy?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, this came –
Tim Ferriss: It’s not something that people generally think of as knee-slapping.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s true. Well, genealogy is a… Yeah, I try not to use that world. I say, yeah, “Family History” – that sounds better – or “Connections,” or…
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
A.J. Jacobs: But this came about because, a couple of years ago, I was at my desk and I got an email from a guy and he said, “You don’t know me but I’m your twelfth cousin.” And I thought, “Okay, next comes he’s going to say, ‘Please wire $10,000.00 to my Nigerian bank account.'”
But he didn’t and I looked into it more and he’s one of these group of people – they’re researchers, and scientists, and geneticists – who are building a family tree, the biggest family tree ever, the biggest possible family tree ever, of every human on earth – connecting everyone on Earth in one family tree. And I was like, “That is a bold, crazy idea. I love it.” So, that’s how I dove into it and it’s crazy. As I say, there’s two ways you do it: with DNA but one way is one the internet, almost a Wikipedia-like model where thousands, millions of people are working on the same big family tree. So, I’m on this tree which now has 100 million people.
And one of the fun things that will take up a week of your life is you can figure out how you’re related to almost anyone else. Like Barack Obama, for instance – this is true – is my fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew. So, we’re pretty close. I’m sure, when he’s out of office soon, he’ll be hanging with me. So, I loved this idea – it’s like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” but everyone is Kevin Bacon. And I became entranced and I decided this is my next book. And, for your listeners, actually, it has very practical implications because –
Tim Ferriss: We’re always practical here on “The Tim Ferriss Show.”
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. This is a tool, for I believe, for Titans or non-Titans.
But it is like the greatest social network ever – it’s like LinkedIn on steroids – because I threw an event trying to hold the biggest family reunion ever and I needed publicity so I would find a reporter or a TV producer, I would figure out how I was related to them, I would sent them an email and say, “Listen, this may sound weird but you are my seventh cousin three times removed’s husband’s son so we’re family. Would you do a favor for a cousin and write about my project?” And I’d say, maybe, 20 percent of the time, they were freaked out and like, “Stop stalking me,” but, 80 percent of the time, they were intrigued. They were like, “Really? We’re cousins? Oh, that’s so interesting,” and I got more publicity that way than anything.
Tim Ferriss: What was the subject line? Do you remember what the subject line would have been?
A.J. Jacobs: I think it was…
Tim Ferriss: “From A.J., your relative”?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, “From A.J., your distant cousin.” For my book about it, I wanted to interview George H.W. Bush because he’s got this huge family so I emailed his chief of staff and was like… And she said, “Oh, he’s not doing interviews.”
And I said, “Well, but I am a cousin,” and she’s like, “Oh, well, you’re a cousin? I guess we can make an exception,” and I was able to go down and interview him. So, for another three years this will work and then everyone will realize, “Oh, wait. Everyone’s cousins.” But I highly recommend it as a strategy for now.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve got to make it count while you can.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you decide to do a podcast?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, I am –
Tim Ferriss: Now, a number of fans of yours and mine said they loved your audiobooks.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, that’s nice.
Tim Ferriss: And I need to edit this out if this is not the right anecdote but I could swear that you told me, at some point, that you went to record your audiobook and the people at the studio – god, I want to say this was you – they said, “Well, you seem to have a cold so why don’t you come back when you don’t have a cold?”
Is this the right story?
A.J. Jacobs: No, that’s hilarious but, you know what? It might well have been. I don’t trust my memory so I have…
Tim Ferriss: Well, one of my friends, at least, who has gone in – if it’s you or somebody else – he went in to record his audiobook and he was so excited and they went on to be hugely successful and he recorded for ten minutes and the producer in the studio was like, “You know what? Let’s take a break and why don’t we have you come in in a few days when your cold is over?” And he’s like, “No, I don’t have a cold. This is just what I sound like.”
A.J. Jacobs: Love it. I know. I have an odd voice – I have an odd voice – it hasn’t hindered me too much.
Tim Ferriss: No, I’m not saying that you have an odd voice. I was bringing it up because I thought that it was from you but it…
A.J. Jacobs: Ah, well, I love it. But I will tell you, when I recorded my audiobook, I apparently had a very active stomach and so it was growling a lot and so I had to do a lot of retakes.
And I was apologizing to the producers and they said, “No, that happens with everyone,” and they, in fact, had a file of all these famous authors’ body sounds – like Susan Sontag’s farts or whatever – and I was like, “You’ve got to put that out. That would be the most awesome album: ‘Famous People’s Bodily Functions.'” But I don’t think they did. Anyway…
Tim Ferriss: So, the podcast, though? I took us off the rail.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, the podcast, I’m very excited about. It’s called “Twice Removed” and it’s sort of an interview show, mixed with hardcore history, mixed with a game show so it’s an odd mix. And the idea is we take a notable person and then we go through their family history and find the most interesting, inspirational stories and then talk about those. And then, at the end, we introduce them to a cousin they didn’t know they had so it’s sort of this surprise ending.
And it could be someone like their hero, maybe, their mentor. It could be an ex-girlfriend. It could be anyone.
Tim Ferriss: An ex-girlfriend?
A.J. Jacobs: We haven’t done that yet but…
Tim Ferriss: Current wife?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, exactly. “You are cousins with your spouse.” But, yeah, no, I… And it’s being produced by Gimlet, who did “StartUp” – which I’m sure, because you’re friends with Chris Sacca… And so, yeah, “StartUp,” which is, as you or your listeners might know, it was a podcast about starting a podcast company – very meta. So, they are doing it and they are amazing because they’re all like “This American Life” alums and so they are just so good at editing, and crafting the story, and music. And I know nothing about it so it’s been a fascinating learning experience.
And I’m learning, also, how to tell stories in an audio way which is different. So, I’ve found it’s fascinating. We’ll see how it does but I’m excited for it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, they have a really good team. Alex Blumberg, he’s also in Tools of the Titans and he’s really good at asking questions because he records really long tape and is good at listening to emotion and the stories, specifically, like you said, from interview subjects.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. And he gives me – I’m sure, since you interviewed him, you know – the silence. He’s brilliant at using the silence just waiting.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, heck yeah. Letting the silence do the work? Yeah, he’s really, really good and they’ve had a whole string of really successful shows – “Reply All,” “Mystery Show” – they’ve had a very, very consistent hit rate so…
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. They’re the best.
Tim Ferriss: So, I will be certainly checking that out.
A.J. Jacobs: And we actually had one that’s sort of related to some of the stuff you do. We had Abby Jacobson, who’s on Broad City – she’s a hilarious comedian – but one of her ancestors was this entrepreneur, a woman entrepreneur. So, we had a whole segment on female entrepreneurs through history including Betsy Ross. We all think of her just sewing the flag but, apparently, she had a team. She was a Titan.
Tim Ferriss: Titan?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Huh.
A.J. Jacobs: And same with JFK’s great-grandma who came over and opened a button shop and the Kennedys would not have existed if she hadn’t been an entrepreneur and funded her kids’ education and then they, whatever, got into liquor and that spawned the political dynasty.
Tim Ferriss: The gateway to all good things.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: So, you are, of course, going to be promoting the podcast, you’ve promoted books in the past, and you’ve done various types of PR and marketing. One of the bullets that I wanted to talk about was – and this is in your voice – but, “How I learned to love marketing.” Because a lot of authors, a lot of artists, certainly, think of marketing as sullying their hands with the dirty work of commercialism or an evil to be avoided. So, how did you learn to…?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, partly inspired by Tim Ferriss but, partly, it was I reframed marketing. I’m trying to think of it not as the sullying my art but as something that could be creative in its own right.
And part of this was I interviewed the artist, Christo – the guy who wraps islands and the gates in Central Park, a really interesting guy – and he was working on this one project for 24 years. He was trying to put up these gates in Central Park, these curtains and arches in Central Park – 10,000 orange arches. And he had to deal with city bureaucracy for 24 years so I asked him, “God, that must have been so frustrating.” And he said, “Well, yes and no,” he said, “I actually see dealing with the bureaucracy as part of my art. It’s all part of one big art project so I don’t separate it from the actual designing of the pieces.” And I was like, “That’s an interesting way to look at it.” So, I try to apply that to marketing and, instead of seeing it as this horrible pain in the ass, “What can I do that’s creative with it?”
And one of the things, when I was doing The Year of Living Biblically, for instance, I was like, “How can I section this off so I can appeal to 50 different audiences?” so I wrote a piece for a music magazine about music in the Bible. I did, for Glamour magazine, I wrote sex advice in the Bible – because there’s a good amount of sex in the Bible. And it was actually very interesting. I became a fan of this way of thinking as opposed to being… And the same thing with speeches – I used to hate giving speeches – but, like we said before, the whole “fake it until you make it,” so I forced myself to do every speech I could and, now, I just love it. Actually, I’m not a fan of sitting down in front of the keyboard but I’d much rather be onstage talking.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that’s a part of the dangerous siren song of marketing. So, when I was working on Tools of Titans, I used a program called Scrivener to put together my books – I’ve done that for the last three books – and I had a working file which was “Marketing Ideas.” And I found it was very dangerous to have that within a stone’s throw of my writing because it was always easier – or more enjoyable – for me to work on the marketing ideas and to put off the actual work of writing. So, it had marketing ideas and I modified the file name so it was “Marketing Ideas – FOCUS ON WRITING!!!” in all capital letters and three exclamation points.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s it. Now, if you had to rank the different parts of your job in terms of enjoyment that they give you, what would you say?
Tim Ferriss: So, funny enough, this last book was the first one that I’ve enjoyed writing. I love doing what I’m doing right now, which is my favorite part of writing without the writing.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: The interviewing – I love the interviewing and the researching. I do enjoy the experimentation but those sometimes go sideways, as you and I both know, so those don’t always turn out as intended or hoped. And then, probably historically, it would have been marketing and then the writing. But the writing was right there, I would say, if not at par with the marketing – maybe even ahead of it this time around – which was weird for me.
A.J. Jacobs: And what do you think that was? Was it the topic or did you discover some hack to enjoy writing?
Tim Ferriss: There were a few things. I think that, primarily, it was the enjoyment in assimilation of – this is kind of meta but – absorbing the lessons and recommendations of the people I interviewed as I was editing, and reviewing, and taking multiple passes on these chapters.
A.J. Jacobs: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: So, I was actually incorporating a lot of the…
A.J. Jacobs: What’s an example? Do you remember one?
Tim Ferriss: Sure. Oh, yeah. I ended up having a routine where, for instance, I used a barrel sauna with the exact same specs as Rick Rubin – who recommended it to me – and alternated that with cold exposure at specific times of the day, just like Wim Hof would. And, in the mornings, I would listen to, say, a guided meditation from Tara Brach and, specifically, the 2010 “Summer Smile” meditation which Maria Popova recommended to me. So, I started incorporating and then I would take, say, exogenous ketones – which are these powdered synthetic ketones – which Dominic D’Agostino had recommended to me. So, all of these bits and pieces from the actual chapters became part of my daily routine for working on the chapters which is kind of wild.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s great, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And then there’s the deeper kind of philosophical stuff. I was writing this mostly over the summer, early fall, and there were a few people in the book, like BJ Miller –who is a palliative care physician who’s helped more than 1,000 people die – and Ed Cooke – memory champion who taught, you might remember a book called Moonwalking with Einstein –
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, Ed Cook is the memory champion/coach who taught, in this case, I think it was Joshua Foer – those Foer brothers, both amazing writers.
A.J. Jacobs: Three of them – there are three.
Tim Ferriss: Three, that’s right.
A.J. Jacobs: There’s a third one.
Tim Ferriss: So, to become National Memory Champion in the US in one year. So, Ed Cooke and BJ Miller both use stargazing as a way to reduce anxiety and they both have particular ways that they go about it. So, I did that every night before going to bed. And it just went on, and on, and on so I think that the subject matter, itself, had a huge impact on the writing of the book which was unexpected, in a way.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. That is, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and the marketing, at this point for me, is fun because I try to make it fun in the sense that I very often ask myself, “How can I make the launch, itself, PR worthy?” if that makes sense.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And that forces me to do sometimes absurd things and, even if some of the absurd things are what I might consider, or people might consider, a waste of money, like doing billboards in New York City right now. I have 80 plus billboards in New York City with the answers from guests to the question “What would you put on a billboard if you could put anything on a billboard to get a message out to millions of people?” So, I got all these answers and took some of my favorites and now they’re on actual physical billboards all throughout New York City. That probably doesn’t sell a lot of books but it gives me such childlike joy to do something that absurd and to make guests happy, themselves, that even if it is a waste of money, it’s probably not a waste of money.
Meaning, in isolation, maybe it’s a waste of money but, because of the infusion of enthusiasm that it’s given me and the excitement it’s created among many of the guests and people who ended up in the book, it’s acted as fuel for a lot of other things that actually do have financial return – or at least a clear financial return.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. That is funny.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, that –
A.J. Jacobs: I had a similar experience. I’m finishing my book on the family now but, as part of it, last summer, I threw the biggest worldwide family reunion ever and that was, financially, not a great idea but it was so fun and so interesting and I hope raised the profile enough that it will pay off in the end.
But, yeah, because it was 4,000 people in New York but then there were 40 simultaneous reunions around the world and Sister Sledge came and sang “We Are Family.” One thing – this was a revelation – Sister Sledge, “We Are Family,” I’m like; “This is the perfect song.”
Tim Ferriss: The anthem.
A.J. Jacobs: This is… But it turns out one of the sisters is not talking to the other – some sort of lawsuit – so they’re family in the sense that every family is dysfunctional.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s grab a couple of fan questions and then we’ll jump into some rapid-fire questions.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: This is a question you probably get a lot. I certainly get it a lot but I’m curious how you’d answer it. This is from Constantine Inozentsev – I can’t pronounce it but it’s I-N-O-Z-E-N-T-S-E-V. Which experiment or approach turned out to be a total dud? Something that you had extremely high hopes for that completely flopped?
A.J. Jacobs: I did start off – and you probably will remember this guy’s name – but the guy who invented the idea of microexpressions where you –
Tim Ferriss: Right.
A.J. Jacobs: Where you… Paul…
Tim Ferriss: Ekman.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
A.J. Jacobs: And his idea was… He was like the show about the little eyecatcher – “You can tell who’s lying based on their facial expressions.” So, I interviewed him – great interview – and I tried it and I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know. I don’t know whether it’s a pseudoscience or whether because it’s my failure – probably the latter – but it just… And it’s fun to write about failures but not when there’s just nothing but failures. I think you need a little…
Tim Ferriss: There’s no lesson learned – just couldn’t do it.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Alright. This is from Miguel Fligere, I think it is. “Book outtakes from your year of living Biblically – was there anything that didn’t make it in that…?”
A.J. Jacobs: Ah, interesting. I did… Yes, there was. In Orlando, there’s a theme park called The Holy Land Experience, which is the Disney version of ancient Jerusalem. And so you’ve got, instead of mascots like Disneyworld, you’ve got Jesus. You’ve got this guy with robes and a beard and he’s got a little Madonna TED face-mic and he’s talking… And you’ve got these guys – lepers, that was my favorite – blind lepers begging on the street with his little microphone. And they read… But, anyway, I went there and it could have been a funny chapter in that I found it very ridiculous but it was also like shooting fish in a barrel or, I think P.J. O’Rourke said, “Shooting cows with a sawed-off shotgun.”
It was just too easy. And there are people, I’m sure, that it was meaningful to so why ruin their lives just for a cheap laugh? So, that didn’t make it.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is – these are all related, I suppose – this is from Anna LeMonte and I’ll try to simplify this a little bit or I might rephrase it after I read it. “It would be great to hear your take on whether it’s possible to completely rewire our subconscious to ignore the norms and expectations instilled by society, family, environment, etc.? Or is it a never-ending work in progress – something that you need to become aware of and focus on every single day?” So, I think part – if I can read into this – maybe what is being asked or implied is that we both do all these crazy experiments – how have you trained yourself to ignore the norms and conventions? But – and this is directed at both of us – for me, yeah, I would say the writing is just the ultimate excuse.
It’s the perfect alibi to do any absurd thing you could possibly conceive of.
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: And I just say I’m writing about it and people are like, “Oh, okay that’s fine.” But, if you were doing it seriously, right, if you didn’t have the pretext of writing about it for The Year of Living Biblically, – I’m sure plenty of people thought you were crazy anyway – but there are people who would have assumed you were completely insane who otherwise were like, “Oh, that’s so genius. Wow, what a great idea.”
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. I think that’s it. I think, if you almost see yourself as a method writer instead of a method actor and just get into character… I often do that. I’m like, “I’m going to get into character now. This is not me. This is me.” And I think that you don’t have to be a writer to do that, actually. I think the idea of experimenting on your own life, even if you’re not writing a book… I think it’s great to just try eight different toothpastes and see which works. But there is a sense where you have to commit and be like, “You know what? I’m going to force myself to do this. I’m going to take on a character and I’m going to do it.” So, that, I find very helpful.
Tim Ferriss: And I think, also – I would say this to Anna or anyone – is that, if you frame something – even if you’re not writing about it – as an experiment, like “I’m doing X for Y number of months,” you also can kind of get away with murder in the sense that, if you’re worried about trying something unusual or uncommon, you can get to, “What should I test?” by the extension to reductio ad absurdum. Right?
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. If people are outsourcing like you did, “What is the most absurd, exaggerated place I can take this? Alright, passive aggressive bickering with my wife. I’m going to have someone do that on my behalf,” or having… I actually… This might be another misattribution but I know it’s not. It’s not. This one, I think I’m getting right. You hired someone to be worried on your behalf?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. I found that extremely helpful.
Tim Ferriss: So, I thought that was… And you found it really helpful and that sounded so absurd but I remember, I think it was The Four-Hour Body, I was really stressed out about the deadline, and so I paid a virtual assistant to worry about my deadline for me. And it was such a weird form of, not necessarily self-deception, but taking advantage of a quirk of human psychology to know that someone else was on the job.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. I love that. Who was your virtual assistant? Was it an Indian or…?
Tim Ferriss: I hired someone, I think, from the Philippines.
A.J. Jacobs: Philippines? They’re good worriers, yeah. That is awesome. Well, and I also think calling it an experiment gives you permission to fail because it’s an experiment and sometimes experiments fail. So, if you do a change in your life and say, “I’m experimenting with this,” it makes it…
And it reminds me of – I’m probably going to get this wrong but – I think it was a French writer named Montaigne who came up with the word “essay” which means “to try.” So, I find that so freeing – when you write something, you’re just trying.
Tim Ferriss: Yup.
A.J. Jacobs: You’re just trying. It may work, it may not.
Tim Ferriss: And the more – this has been true for me – the more experiments you attempt and the more you try to push the absurd in certain respects, the easier it gets because you realize the penalties are generally not that severe.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: With some of the stupid stuff that I do, they end up, physically, being pretty severe and you can get very injured. Like don’t try to learn parkour in a week – it turned out to be a very bad idea for your knees.
A.J. Jacobs: I remember, I saw you recently after you had done that and you were…
Tim Ferriss: Brutal. I was not in good shape and still have injuries from that. But, generally, if you’re doing these experiments that you think you’re going to be judge very harshly for, if you’re presenting them in the right way – if you feel compelled to explain them – generally, there are very few repercussions and people are actually more supportive and interested than you would expect.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. And, also, if you get something good out of it for your own life, then it’s probably worth it unless you inflict massive pain on others like with radical honesty.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, radical honesty, that’s another one I want to explore a bit. There’s a great book called Lying by Sam Harris.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. I read that.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s a great book.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s a great book. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Very complimentary to the “I Think You’re Fat” essay. So, this is from Charlotte Chapman – most embarrassing failure at an experiment? So, aside from the microexpressions –
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: – most important failure at an experiment? “Did he give up or refined his approach?”
A.J. Jacobs: Interesting. Yeah, I think my life has been a series of embarrassments and humiliations so…
Tim Ferriss: Well, in a way, you engineer your experiments to be embarrassing.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s true. Yes, exactly. Because I’d also think that makes better copy is… And that is actually one thing that I was thinking about that I learned doing this podcast is that being humiliated on the radio actually sometimes makes for better radio so, when I’m doing interviews and I ask a question and the person is like, “God, that’s a dumb question,” that is beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: Always makes the cut.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s gold, yeah. So, I may not sound that good on the podcast but I think it’s entertaining so… But, yeah, I would say many humiliations. I don’t know if this counts – but this is the first one that comes to mind – I was working at Esquire magazine and we asked the actress, Mary-Louise Parker, to pose nude. And I was tasked with asking her. And she said, “Well, I will pose nude but only if the editor of the piece also poses nude,” and I was the editor.
So, I went to my editor-in-chief and he was like, “Alright. Do it. Take off your pants. That’s your job.” So, I had to pose nude for a very well-known celebrity photographer and it was quite humiliating, and vulnerable, and also highly insulting because he’s a big photographer so he had ten assistants – gorgeous, 20-something female assistants – and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so embarrassing,” but they could not care less. They were like… no interest in my nude form so that was tough for my ego. And then it came out and they actually published the picture and we got some subscription cancellations, I believe. So, overall, it was a dark time.
Tim Ferriss: Alright. Let’s do some rapid-fire questions which may, in fact, be misnamed but they’re short questions – the answers don’t need to be short. When you hear the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind or who comes to mind?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, this is a little schmaltzy of an answer but I would say my dad. He is a lawyer who loves his job. He literally has no hobbies because all he loves is spending time with his family and his job. So, if you can derive that much pleasure from your job, I think that’s a success. To me, there are two criteria for success: one is that you’re happy and the other is that you’re making the world a better place and I think he does both. And, also, he is definitely, in our genre, taking things to the ridiculous extreme, he writes law books and he holds the world record for the most number of footnotes is a law article – 4,280. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my god.
A.J. Jacobs: So, yeah. So, he finds something and he just goes with it.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. The apple does not fall too far from the tree on that one. I don’t ask this with everyone but I’ll ask this with you – what is something you believe that other people think is insane or that very few people would agree with you on?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I love this question and there are many, many things so let me just go over a couple of them quickly without trying to alienate too many of your listeners.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no. Alienate away.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah?
Tim Ferriss: They’re tough.
A.J. Jacobs: Alright. One is cannibalism. I’m –
Tim Ferriss: Wait, what about it? You’re a proponent?
A.J. Jacobs: I am a proponent of ethical cannibalism.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
A.J. Jacobs: I’m very interested and excited about in vitro meat, lab-grown meat – like you take a little cell from a chicken and grow a chicken breast or… So, I’m very excited about that and I think, in 10 or 20 years, it’s going to be reality and it’s going to open up… You don’t have to just eat cows or chickens. You could –
Tim Ferriss: You could have a human burger?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, a human burger. Well, I was thinking a giraffe or endangered animals but, yeah, take it to the extreme. What is the harm in eating another human – a human burger? And this is my idea for a startup – I think you’ve pulled back on angel investing so…
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: And maybe –
Tim Ferriss: There are plenty of them listening, though.
A.J. Jacobs: Alright. Someone may already be doing this but my idea is celebrity meat. So, you can…
Tim Ferriss: Eat a Brad Pitt burger?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Or eat a Clooney burger, or eat a J. Lo burger. And it can even be specific body parts like… That’s a little creepy but…
Tim Ferriss: I wonder what will end up being the Kobe beef of humans. So, if you can choose gender, race, and so on, where do we end up?
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know.
A.J. Jacobs: I don’t know so that’s what –
Tim Ferriss: All these questions just begging to be answered. So, cannibalism, okay. That’s one.
A.J. Jacobs: Another one? Like Sam Harris, I don’t believe in free will which I think is…
Some people see that as depressing but I actually find it liberating because it’s so much easier to forgive yourself for doing stupid things if you realize that you really didn’t have… there was no other –
Tim Ferriss: The die has been cast?
A.J. Jacobs: The die has been cast. And I think you’re more forgiving of other people and the stupid thing you do.
Tim Ferriss: Now, conversely, though, couldn’t you also be more forgiving or accepting of things that should not be condoned? Or is that just coming back to the lack of free will and you’re sort of…?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, my feeling is there is a difference between fatalism and determinism. So, you can believe that you don’t have free will but, of course, our decisions make a difference. If I just, for the rest of the month, just lay here on this couch, my life would fall apart. I realize that. So, I’m not saying… Our decisions make a difference – it’s just those decisions are pre-determined.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a big subject.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, and I did have… Wait, what was the other one that I did want to bring up? Shoot. Well, it’ll come back to me.
Tim Ferriss: We can come back to it. What –
A.J. Jacobs: Oh. One last one.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah? Shoot.
A.J. Jacobs: Which is multiverses. I know a lot of physicists believe in multiverses but it really hit me with this election cycle because it is so… I can see, at the convention of universes – of the multiverses – and our universe is going to be getting just a ton of crap like, “Guys, this is the universe where Donald Trump is president. Can you believe that?” And we’d be like –
Tim Ferriss: So, if the multiverse is actually a collection of kids in school and you’re saying that we’re going to be taunted?
A.J. Jacobs: I think so. I do believe that.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
A.J. Jacobs: So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking about recently.
Tim Ferriss: What book or books have you gifted the most to other people besides your own?
A.J. Jacobs: I would say – I can’t remember if you had him on or not as a guest but – Jonathan Haidt.
Tim Ferriss: I have not had him on as a guest.
A.J. Jacobs: He is a great writer.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell his last name?
A.J. Jacobs: H-A-I-D-T. And I may be confusing him with –
Tim Ferriss: He’s come up a couple times in conversation with friends recently.
A.J. Jacobs: The guy did a great TED Talk and he wrote a book called The Righteous Mind and it’s all about trying to figure out the gap between the red and blue states – Republican and Democrat – and it’s really interesting. And he likens it to almost taste buds, like Republicans have different moral taste buds than Democrats and…
Tim Ferriss: I think The Righteous Mind may have been recommended to me by a neuroscientist about a year ago – a Ph.D. in neuroscience. So, The Righteous Mind?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What purchase of $100.00 or less has most positively impacted your life in recent memory?
A.J. Jacobs: That is a good question. Well, one thing I do love is my elastic shoelaces. Do you use those?
Tim Ferriss: No. I like this idea, though. I was just fussing with shoelaces yesterday and got so fed up that I went and found a different pair of shoes that I had packed which do not have shoelaces. So, elastic shoelaces?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. So, you just replace the cloth shoelaces with these elastic… I think it’s called “Lace Lock” is the brand I use. And, yeah, shoelaces seem like such 18th century technology. It’s so crazy we still use them and, these ones, you just slip them on and they, for me at least, they’re just as tight and secure.
Tim Ferriss: They’re also not as mental institution as Velcro shoes.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: You don’t have to make the jump to Velcro. You can go in between with these.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. Yeah, Velcro, if you’re under 7 or over 80, you can get away with Velcro but, in between, it’s hard.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any particular morning rituals? Anything that is particularly important to you that is not obvious? Like, yes, you want to keep your kids alive and I’m imagining feed them in some form and fashion, but are there any other morning routines or rituals that are important to you?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, one we talked about is sort of the mental calisthenics. I find that helpful. Another you talked about in your books which is the restricting information – information diets – and I have tried, sometimes successfully, to stop reading the newspaper or any news in the morning because then I just get depressed and spiral. I find it good to read news right before I go to bed because then I get depressed and I’m able to fall asleep. So, that, for me – keeping your mind clear away from news in the morning – is crucial.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to give a TED Talk on something you are not known for – so you’ve given a lot of talks but something you are not associated with or known for whatsoever – what would it be on?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, that’s a good one. That’s a good one. Let me think. I don’t know, this might be repetitive but talking about all the ways that the past is horrible. I think that I could go on for… I know you only have 20 minutes over a TED Talk but I could go on for four hours.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything you obsess on, or over, or on the evenings or weekends? So, something, a pet obsession of yours, that you’ve not talked about?
A.J. Jacobs: Let’s see. Yes, I’m sure. I’m slightly obsessive person, as are you. So, yeah –
Tim Ferriss: Slightly is very generous, in my case, at least.
A.J. Jacobs: I’m trying to think. I would say, I guess, that I do have the fear of missing out – not on parties but on ideas. I’m always nervous that I haven’t read enough and that there’s great ideas and I’m just woefully ignorant so that’s, I guess, something.
Tim Ferriss: And then you read the newspaper before you go to bed and get depressed and, voila?
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. That’s it.
Tim Ferriss: If you think about bad advice, what is some bad advice that you hear given out often in your world? And you can define that any way you want – it could be writing, it could be…
A.J. Jacobs: I do have one. I have one that’s a pet peeve of mine which is, “Be yourself,” because what if yourself is an asshole? Like, Stalin, he was being himself. “Let Stalin be Stalin.” That guy was really being himself.
So, I think, if you think about this a little more – a little less flippantly – I think there are things that are very deep enough – if you’re gay, you’re gay, don’t try to change that – but there are aspects of our personality that we think are ingrained but that can be changed. Like I don’t think I’m a very outgoing person naturally – I think I would spend most days just indoors reading – but I force myself to be social and sort of force myself to get out there, and it’s made my life better because you interact with people and you’re happier. So, don’t just be yourself. Try to be the best parts of yourself but then take the worst parts of yourself and try to change those.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm.
A.J. Jacobs: Which I think you do, right?
Tim Ferriss: No, I agree with that. I agree with that advice and I think there’s also, “Be yourself,” implies that you’re a finished product, in a sense, too. Right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Which is where I take issue with the obsession with, “Discover yourself,” where, maybe, as a complement to that, at least – maybe even an alternative – “Create yourself,” may be, in some ways is more accurate.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Even though we think of this persistent “I” – this persistent Tim, this persistent A.J. – from the cells in our body to just about every other aspect of our being, we are constantly in flux.
A.J. Jacobs: Yup. I love that. Works in progress.
Tim Ferriss: So, I may not have time to put this up in the next few weeks but, if you could have one gigantic billboard anywhere to get a message out to millions of people – that could not be an advertisement – any short message?
A.J. Jacobs: I was thinking about this because I know you ask it. One thought that occurred to me is something like, “Life is too complicated, and subtle, and filled with grays to be summed up on a billboard so don’t pay attention to billboards,” – something meta like that. I did a piece on effective altruism. I know you interviewed –
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Will MacAskill.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. And I am a fan of that way of thinking just how lucky we are and trying to give back so maybe… Is that…?
Tim Ferriss: If you –
A.J. Jacobs: But that would be an advertisement.
Tim Ferriss: No, not necessarily. You could have, “If you make more than $68K per year, you’re in the global 1 percent.”
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, something like that. It’s interesting because you got to use guilt very… Guilt will only get you so far.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: That might get you in the door but then this feeling of empowerment of helping others, I think, is a better motivator for altruism.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I think it’s more, if you’re looking to optimize the lifetime value of a donor as opposed to a single transaction that they then resent, then, yeah, guilt is not the primary tool.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: At least it seems that way, just working with a number of non-profits myself, mostly, and educational stuff. So, I sometimes ask people what advice they would give their younger self. I’m going to pose it a different way because you have this aged photo of yourself – your 82-year-old self – in your house. What advice do you think your 82-year-old self would give your current self?
A.J. Jacobs: That is a good one. I like that twist. I think – and I try to do this – I think my 82-year-old self, hopefully, will be wiser and happier. I do think, overall, my level of happiness has risen which is nice. So, hopefully –
Tim Ferriss: Trending in the right direction?
A.J. Jacobs: So, hopefully – fingers crossed – that continues. And I guess I battle this, even today, is, “Don’t be so opinionated. Don’t have such strongly held beliefs that they can’t be changed with evidence.”
I think that this society has a weird fetish with strongly held beliefs like, “These are my deep seeded beliefs and, if you change them, you’re a flip-flopper.” And I think we’ve got to rebrand – flip-flopping is great as long as you’re doing it based on evidence and not on whims. You have the ability to and the courage to change your convictions – not just the courage of your convictions but the courage to change them. So, maybe, I would tell myself, “Work on that part of your personality.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s what makes a good scientist as well, right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, exactly. Right.
Tim Ferriss: What is one of your favorite personal failures? And what I mean by that is, specifically, a failure that led, in some way, to a later success or set the stage for a later success?
A.J. Jacobs: Right. Well, I have had many, many failures as we’ve discussed and I am a big fan of them. And rejection – that’s one of the things I try to teach my kids all the time like, “You’re going to get rejected 98 percent of the time. You’ve just got to keep going.” I don’t know if this falls into the right category but NBC, a couple of years ago, optioned my life – one of my books – and it was going to be a comedy where, every week, it was this writer did another wacky experiment and chaos ensued. And it was a total failure – it didn’t get picked up – but the lesson I learned was I actually made a conscious effort… I was like, “You know what? This may or may not get picked up but I am going to consciously enjoy this experience and get everything I can out of it.” I got to mean Donald Sutherland who played my father-in-law.
My wife was played by this woman who had much bigger boobs than she did so she loved it. And it was just a blast. And I would go into meetings and I would be like, “What if the main character,” – who was named A.J. – “what if he did this?” and they’re like, “Oh, A.J. would never do that.” And I’d be like, “Huh. Well, maybe he would.” But it was just so much fun and there’s one producer who I read a book of hers and she’s like, “Yeah, if you cannot enjoy the process, then you’re screwed because the chances of getting a movie actually made are so infinitesimal and so enjoy the process and enjoy the walk up the mountain, not just the summit.” That was a big lesson.
Tim Ferriss: If you think back, can you think of the best or one of the best investments you’ve ever made? And that could be time, energy, money. I’ll give you an example.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, Amelia Boone – three-time World’s Toughest Mudder Champion, most decorated obstacle course racer in the world, full time attorney, also, at Apple – but it was her first entrance fee for one of these races which was, I think at the time, $400.00 or $450.00 which was a stretch. It was a real expenditure for her but it opened up this entirely new career.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Had she not taken that, who knows? Can you…?
A.J. Jacobs: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: It doesn’t have to be analogous to that but…
A.J. Jacobs: Well, can I go the other way and…? I have two ideas: one is, about a month ago, I wrote an article for Esquire where I got the most expensive haircut in the world in New York City – an $800.00 haircut. And it was crazy because it was this guy, it was on Park Avenue, his name was Julien Farel, and he was very French, he said, “Haircut.” And it was a fascinating learning experience because, of course, it’s not worth $800.00. That’s insane. It’s 20 percent better than my Supercuts which cost $20.00. But, just learning he gets clients – he is booked all the time. How does he do this?
He’s got Goldman-Sachs guys who come in every week for an $800.00 haircut and it’s all about the experience. Because the actual cutting is not that different, right, but the experience – the cappuccino, and the music, and he’ll stare you deep in the eyes and talk to you about what your hair means to you and how it can change your life –
Tim Ferriss: Tough task ahead of him with me, if I go there.
A.J. Jacobs: Maybe you get a discount.
Tim Ferriss: Although the small remaining parts I have still mean a lot to me.
A.J. Jacobs: There you go. So, yeah, it was fascinating. That’s how he does it. And he’ll look at your skull for five minutes like an artist.
Tim Ferriss: Or a phrenologist.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, a phrenologist. But so he’s able to get clients by making the experience even though the price is just so ridiculous.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe it’s because the price is so ridiculous.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a good part of it, exactly. He is just… So, anyway, I thought that was a… I did not pay for it, luckily – Esquire paid for it –
Tim Ferriss: Yup.
A.J. Jacobs: So, I guess, one of my first books was about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica when they still actually printed that. So, there were 33 volumes and I read them all and that cost $1,500.00 to buy that set – which is an absurd amount for a book – but it turned out it paid off.
Tim Ferriss: So, would you say it was that book that was one of the biggest inflection points for you as a writer? If something put you on the map as a writer, was it that book, or was it an earlier piece, or a different piece?
A.J. Jacobs: No, it was definitely that – it took it to a different level. And I had written a couple of other books before but they were sort of novelty short books like one was called America Offline about this wonderful world outside of the internet where you could actually meet people face-to-face and it sold four copies.
It came out, I think – it probably sucked – but it was also ahead of its time so that probably… Both played… But I think the key was that that was the first one with real emotion and it was sort of an emotional ark and I talked about my father, I talked about the meaning of life – in a lame way, I tried – and that connected with people. I think emotion really does that and that’s one of the big lessons of this podcast that I’m doing with Gimlet is getting those emotional moments really makes a difference.
Tim Ferriss: So, let’s wrap up on a question directed, well, at you but for the audience. So, for people listening – and I’ll certainly tell them… Well, we’ll have two questions. The first one is not related to where they can find you and so on which is going to be the last question. This one is really do you have any suggestions, recommendations, parting thoughts for people listening? Something they could try or something that they can just carry with them that might be helpful or useful in some way?
A.J. Jacobs: Aside from all the brilliant stuff we talked about for the last two hours?
Tim Ferriss: It could be one that you want to underscore.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I think we both talk about this – the idea of experimenting with your life is so important because, I think, if you do the same… Routines are good in some ways because they automate things so some parts of your life should be automated but, sometimes, routines cause you to get in a rut like the neurons actually get in a neural rut. So, doing simple tricks to just shake up your life, I’ve found it incredibly enriching. I think you have?
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
A.J. Jacobs: And, as I said, it could be just trying a different toothpaste every month. There’s millions to… I used Crest for 28 years because some kid at my camp used Crest and I thought he was cool so I kept buying it. And I actually don’t like it. I don’t like it but it took me 28 years to… and I’m like, “You know what? Let me try some other stuff.”
Tim Ferriss: And, as you said also – I think this is worth repeating and I’m paraphrasing, here – but it’s often easier to act your way into thinking differently as opposed to thinking your way into acting differently.
A.J. Jacobs: Totally. Yeah. And, yeah, the quote is – which is not mine – is, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting,” and I do love that.
Tim Ferriss: A.J., it’s always fun to hang out. We’ve seen each other a little bit this trip in New York City which has been fun.
A.J. Jacobs: Great.
Tim Ferriss: And where can people find you and learn more about you on the internet, the podcast, etc.? Where can people check you out and say hi?
A.J. Jacobs: The podcast is called “Twice Removed” and it is on ITunes – Gimlet Media. And my website is AJjacobs.com, @AJJacobs on Twitter, and my book about family – not genealogy – is coming out in the fall of 2017.
Tim Ferriss: Very, very cool. A.J., thank so much for taking the time.
A.J. Jacobs: Thanks. I loved it.
Tim Ferriss: And, to everybody listening, as always, you can find the show notes, links to everything that we discussed at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast – all spelled out – fourhourworkweek.com/podcast. And, until next time, thank you.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 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.