A.J. Jacobs — How to Be Less Furious and More Curious (#588)

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“Getting caught in a mental rut is the enemy of coming up with good solutions.”

— A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs) is a bestselling author, journalist, and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers, including The Year of Living Biblically (for which he followed all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible) and Thanks a Thousand (for which he went around the world and thanked every person who had even the smallest role in making his morning cup of coffee possible). He has given four TED talks with a combined 10M+ views. He contributes to NPR and The New York Times and wrote the article “My Outsourced Life,” which was featured in The 4-Hour Workweek. He was once the answer to one down in The New York Times crossword puzzle. You can find my 2016 interview with A.J. at tim.blog/aj

His new book is The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

Please enjoy!

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#588: A.J. Jacobs — How to Be Less Furious and More Curious

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

Want to hear the last time A.J. was on the show? Have a listen to our conversation here, in which we discussed radical honesty, a worldwide family reunion, strategic chutzpah, ethical cannibalism, personal advice from George Clooney, biblical slavery, the lingering lessons of ephemeral self-experimentation, and much more.

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

SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE

  • Connect with A.J. Jacobs:

Personal Website | The Puzzler Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

SHOW NOTES

  • Why have A.J.’s kids lately deigned to show him a modicum of respect? [06:20]
  • For most of his books, A.J. has a number of friends read the draft and offer suggestions for edits — what to cut and what to keep. Why was this usually sound strategy a bust for The Puzzler? [07:15]
  • Why did A.J. abandon his next planned book midway and pivot to writing The Puzzler? [08:54]
  • Is A.J. more of a George Plimpton or a Nellie Bly? [11:18]
  • Why puzzles are worthwhile and not, as I once believed, frivolous time-wasters, and what happened when A.J. discovered he was a clue in the world-famous New York Times‘ crossword puzzle. [14:42]
  • How does one compete in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship? For that matter, how does someone who doesn’t really even like jigsaw puzzles wind up representing their whole country in one? What did A.J. and his hastily assembled Team USA learn about jigsaw diplomacy and strategy when they unwittingly became participants in this annual event? [17:25]
  • What would “the Ironman triathlon for nerds” look like? A.J. reckons it would be something like an MIT puzzlehunt. [23:25]
  • “Don’t get furious. Get curious.” Every problem or disagreement is just a puzzle in search of a solution. [24:08]
  • A.J.’s writing process is strong on structure and outlining, but he likes to allow room for surprises. One of these surprises while penning The Puzzler: a decades-unsolved CIA puzzle sculpture called Kryptos. [28:41]
  • On puzzle trolls, fabulous prizes, and what you can win if you solve one of A.J.’s designated puzzles in The Puzzler. [32:38]
  • What makes a good puzzler (and why does A.J. consider himself a better puzzle solver than puzzle creator)? As an aside: A.J. shares the origin of the phrase “Think outside the box.” [33:50]
  • Transferable ways we can apply our puzzle-solving skills to other areas, with examples from a preteen Gauss, British crosswords, tormenting jigsaw puzzles, and reverse-thought riddles. [38:39]
  • What puzzles does A.J. consider to give the most bang for their buck? It all depends on what you’re hoping to retain from the act of doing them, but Japanese puzzle boxes take things to a whole new level. [51:04]
  • The shadow side of puzzles that drive people mad: the Monty Hall problem, the Sleeping Beauty problem, and a puzzle A.J. commissioned that can’t be solved within the lifespan of the universe. [54:41]
  • If researching and writing Thanks a Thousand imparted A.J. with a lifelong appreciation for gratitude, what residual takeaways from writing The Puzzler does A.J. predict will remain with him for years to come? [1:00:26]
  • In what puzzle-oriented subculture would A.J. feel most at home? [1:03:08]
  • Obsessed with puzzles? Beware the perils of apophenia. [1:05:16]
  • According to A.J., the hardest corn maze in the world is run by a sadist in Vermont. What has this sadist learned about human nature during the time he’s spent observing people trying to escape from this maze? [1:07:40]
  • On puzzle creation epicenters, Garry Kasparov, and how chess puzzles differ from chess games. [1:10:10]
  • How do puzzles pertain to the meaning of life? [1:15:06]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:17:34]

MORE A.J. JACOBS QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

“Little puzzles like crosswords and logic or secret codes, they’re just ways to help you come up with strategies to solve the big problems in life. So little puzzles help you with the big puzzles.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“I did not love jigsaws until this project. And now I have tremendous respect for jigsaws, which is all about flexible thinking.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“Gratitude and curiosity to me are two amazing forces.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“If I’m talking to someone from the opposite side of the political spectrum, instead of seeing it as a debate, a war of words, I try to see it as a puzzle that we can try to solve together. What do we really believe? What [are] our real differences and how can we overcome them? Is there any evidence I can present to him or her to make her change her mind? How do we solve this puzzle?”
— A.J. Jacobs

“You have to be a little sadistic to be a great puzzler, and I don’t have it in me. So I stick with the masochism of doing puzzles.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“Getting caught in a mental rut is the enemy of coming up with good solutions.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“Another big theme of puzzles, I think, is don’t trust your gut. I am very wary of my gut. I feel my gut is an idiot, especially when it comes to matters of probability.”
— A.J. Jacobs

“Part of the meaning of life is the search for the meaning of life.”
— A.J. Jacobs

PEOPLE MENTIONED

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5 Replies to “A.J. Jacobs — How to Be Less Furious and More Curious (#588)”

  1. Check this New Zealand song out Tim. I think you’ll love it and their other music
    Mud and Stardust by Fly my pretties

  2. Oh dear, Tim! I love your podcast and listen to it all the time, but today is the first day in awhile that I listened carefully to your podcast’s opening credit music. Please, Please, PLEASE consider changing it. It features voices of high performers, but the only female-sounding voice is hushed and bedroom-y. UGH! I love your podcast, but for the sake of all your listeners who are women or who interact with women, PLEASE UPDATE THIS!!!!

    1. The gender of the voices of the intro music leaves that deep an impression on you? Are you vying for a Shallowness Award? I don’t desire to be “uncool”, but I find your comment infantile.

  3. This off the current topic, but anyway:

    I just read the chapter in Tool of Titans relating to suicide.

    Why not name the arsehole advisor, as well as the other Princeton officials who accused you of lying? I don’t mean name them at that time, but after you acquired an enormous following? Destroy the likelihood that that person will ever be an advisor to anyone again, or will be put in a position of responsibility over others. Those officials have a duty of care and such egregious misbehaviour should be corrected. And it’s not even a matter of revenge: How do you know that they won’t go on to abuse someone else similarly, with a less fortunate final outcome?

  4. Another stellar episode. Learned about the importance of puzzles to our species and will be open to trying different, unfamiliar puzzles. Pre-ordered this book yesterday based upon this podcast. Thank you, gentlemen, sponsors.