Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with bestselling author, journalist, and human guinea pig A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs). A.J. 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today, one of my favorites, one of your favorites, A.J. Jacobs. A.J. Jacobs is a bestselling author, journalist, and human guinea pig. Now, all of you long term listeners will know I do not apply that term, that label, lightly. But in this case, it applies. He has written four New York Times bestsellers, including one of my favorites, The Year of Living Biblically, for which he followed all of the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. Including, I should mention, stoning adulterers. You’ll have to read it to get that. 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. I thought about this morning, as I had my coffee.
He has given four TED Talks, with a combined 10 million plus 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. What a title, 4-Hour Workweek. Who wrote that? It sounds like an infomercial. He was once the answer to one down in The New York Times crossword puzzle, you can find in my 2016, good Lord, that’s a long time ago, interview with A.J., where we cover a lot of back story. A lot of our shared, converging paths in life at tim.blog/aj. You can find him online, ajjacobs.com. The website for the new book is thepuzzlerbook.com, and we’ll link to all the social as well. But it tends to be AJJacobs on Twitter, Facebook, et cetera. And A.J., it is so lovely to see you again.
A.J. Jacobs: I am so delighted to be back. And first, I have to say thank you because, for many things, but one is, that beloved entertainer, Hugh Jackman, read my book on gratitude because of you. He’s a huge listener. And he put it on Instagram. And that was the first time in my life that my kids showed a modicum of respect to me, because Wolverine said that my book was okay.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing.
A.J. Jacobs: So I’m indebted. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you’re most welcome. Hugh is a sweet guy. And that was Thanks a Thousand? Or which book was it? You have many.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, it was Thanks, and he’s also into coffee. He has a coffee company, so it all worked together.
Tim Ferriss: That all the colliding worlds collide yet again, as the world gets smaller and smaller, it seems, every day. A.J., you are prolific. And I wanted to start with a bit of a flashback and then we’ll come to present. So I have read this is on 80000hours.org, and we may have covered quite a bit of this in our first conversation, because we did discuss creative process, writing process, which I’m sure we’ll touch on here again, that at least, with some of your books, you’ve had a spreadsheet and you send the manuscript out to, say, 20 friends who are nice enough to read it. And you’ll ask each of them to tell you their five favorite parts, five least favorite parts. And then you look for patterns to make decisions on what to cut or keep. And I am curious to know what, you can answer this in either order, but what got cut from The Puzzler that you really hoped would make it, and then what ended up being a fan favorite? A proofreader favorite?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I love that. I might well have gotten that strategy from you. I can’t remember.
Tim Ferriss: I do something very similar.
A.J. Jacobs: So thank you. I’m giving you full credit now. But well, the weird thing is, that strategy usually does work. With this book, it was a complete failure because everyone has their own favorite type of puzzle. And I cover 20 different types of puzzles. So there are people who love crosswords, sudokus, jigsaws, logic, secret codes. And everyone was like, “This is the best chapter, and this one sucks.” And they were all over the map. There was no way to see the signal in the noise. And it was a, it was a huge flop. So it didn’t help at all.
Tim Ferriss: Spreadsheet fail. So now, just for people who don’t have any context, The Puzzler subtitle, you are, and I also don’t, I mean, bestow sounds a little grandiose, use this — I wouldn’t say this lightly, and that is, you are a master of subtitles.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, think they’re long.
Tim Ferriss: Subtitles are important! Well, yes, they are long, maybe. I think that’s part of the affinity. I like long subtitles too. One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Cwosswords — Crosswords. Cwosswords! I got a little Elmer Fudd — from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. So there’s a lot to unpack there. What made the short list of next books, possible next books for you? And how did you settle on The Puzzler?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, it’s interesting. I actually worked on another book for three months and abandoned it right in the middle, because I was miserable. And so and one of the big themes of The Puzzler is you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to pivot. You’ve got to always be open to new ideas. And this was an example of it. I still think it’s an interesting idea. The idea was about, it was called, tentatively, Fact Checking My Life, and it was about the post-truth crisis. So what do we know and how do we know it? How do I know that the world is round? How do I know that my wife loves me? She says she loves me. I don’t know. What, how do I know anything? And I was working on it and I was just miserable because it was, I was, I felt I didn’t know anything and it was freaking me out.
So I may come back to it. But my agent said, “You love puzzles.” He knows that that’s my obsession. And he said, “Why don’t you just do a book about your true passion?” And I thought it was fascinating because, in a sense, I have loved puzzles since I was a kid. And all of my books are about metaphorical puzzles. The Year of Living Biblically was about the puzzle of religion. The gratitude book was how do you be more grateful in this world where it’s sometimes very difficult to be grateful? And this one, I was like, “All right, I’m going to stop beating around the bush. I’m going to focus on literal puzzles and why do I love them? Why do millions love them? What can they teach us? And how can they make us better thinkers?” And so I went all in for two years, just a deep dive. And I got to do, meet crazy people and do puzzles as my job. So I was super grateful.
Tim Ferriss: So you’ve been described as the George Plimpton of thought experiments, which I think is pretty apt. And for people who don’t know George Plimpton, worth checking him out. But he would, I think he did a few rounds with Sonny Liston, which, if you don’t know that name, you can look it up. But suffice to say, punches a lot harder than George Plimpton, professional boxer. And then would write about the experience. Or become a professional football player for a period of time, then write about the experience. I wouldn’t say that what you do is purely mental, but it sounds almost like what you attempted with the fact checking book was similar to someone else you have quite a bit of respect from. Blanking on her name, but a female writer who did quite a lot of, let’s call it immersive journalism. One experiment of which was admitting herself to a mental hospital to show the abuses they’re in.
A.J. Jacobs: This was the, from the 1800s, not a current —
Tim Ferriss: The 1800s. No, this is not current. And I was just thinking, as I did a little bit of research and she popped up, at you having mentioned her once before. That getting admitted is the easy part. How do you, firstly, as a woman in the 1800s, get yourself out of a situation like that? But then, when you’re, if you’re the one imposing insanity or in the form of not knowing what is true or what is not, what is real or what is not, when you’re fact checking your life, I can see how that would be very anxiety producing, as a first attempt.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I have two comments. First of all, thank you for saying I’m the George Plimpton. It was written somewhere. I prefer to think of myself as the less successful Tim Ferriss, because you are the master of life experiments and I’m just trying to keep up with you. The second thing that —
Tim Ferriss: I just go for the cheap applause with fat loss and writing about sex and NFTs and so on. So you’re taking more honorable paths.
A.J. Jacobs: I don’t know. Less successful, but honorable. And yes, that woman you mentioned was Nellie Bly. And she was a great character. I don’t know. There should be a movie about her. The book Around the World in 80 Days, she actually did it. She’s like, “All right, I’m going to do it.”
So she was sort of the original guinea pig. And she also did a very Tim Ferriss experiment, I think, where she decided to write an article about, and I, this might be a little apocryphal, but I think it’s true, about why there are not more women in journalism. And she interviewed, she got an interview with all of the editors in chief of all the major newspapers in New York. And that’s how she made the connection. And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, maybe we should hire her.” So that’s how she got her job. And I just think it’s, that to me is how you came out of being a first-time writer and 4-Hour Workweek, like mega blockbuster. You met people, you approached me. I didn’t do much for you, but other people did.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I would refute that you didn’t do much for me. A, you were very generous with your time. And I think, were you working on The Year of Living Biblically at the time? You might have been. So I caught you in a period where I think you were trying very hard to be compassionate. You’re already a nice guy, but I may have caught you in a really good window.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. Really —
Tim Ferriss: You were very helpful. And you gave me a lot of great advice when I was writing. I remember the coffee shop in Buenos Aires where I was, and whenever it was, 2005, 2006, when we were chatting. It must have been via Skype or something at the time. So I owe you thanks for that.
A.J. Jacobs: My pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: Well, so, puzzles. I have, I don’t want to say abandoned, but I was, when young, a fan of all sorts of puzzles. And I think, as I got older, somehow convinced myself that I shouldn’t spend time on certain frivolous activities, after college anyway, and have let certain muscles atrophy. Perhaps you could just give us a little context and you can tackle it any way you want, as to why puzzles are important or meaningful or valuable. And you could do that via telling a story, giving us some historical context, any way you’d like to tackle that.
A.J. Jacobs: I think that puzzles are the opposite of frivolous and I hope that I can entice you to come back. First of all, you do, even though you say you don’t do puzzles, you do puzzles, because you’re one of the most curious guys I’ve ever met and innovative thinkers. And that is the essence of puzzles. It’s a problem where you use curiosity and innovative thinking to solve it. So you do puzzles even if you don’t think so. And these 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. And so I’ve always loved puzzles and I never lost my obsession.
About five years ago, as you mentioned in your intro, I was the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle. One down, author, A.J. blank. And as a word nerd, I was like, “This is the greatest moment in my life. This is better than my kids being born, my marriage.” And then my brother-in-law pointed out correctly, if a little ungenerously, that I appeared in the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. And if you know anything about crosswords in The New York Times, Saturday is where, is the hardest. Harder than Sunday. All the answers are totally obscured. No one knows them. So his point was, this is not a compliment. You are just, this is proof you’re totally obscure. No one knows who you are. So I told that story on a podcast and it happened that a New York Times crossword constructor was listening and saved me, and put me in a Tuesday puzzle, which I don’t belong in.
That’s where you might belong, where Lady Gaga — but not me. So I didn’t belong, but I loved it, and that reignited, I had done a little less obsession and I was like, “Oh, man.” So I started doing the crossword every day, hoping to reappear after that Saturday. But I’m not monogamous, I’m promiscuous. I love all kinds of puzzles. Except I did not love jigsaws, which we can get into, until this project. And now I have tremendous respect for jigsaws, which is all about flexible thinking. As we mentioned, being okay with being wrong.
Tim Ferriss: So how does one compete in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship? So this, I believe, was in Spain. What does such a competition look like? Because I can imagine that many people cannot imagine, including myself, what that looks like. And this is true for a lot of competitions, right? There are memory competitions and there are different events. It’s like a decathlon of attentional focus and so on. But what does a jigsaw puzzle champion look like?
A.J. Jacobs: I was totally surprised because I always think of it as a relaxing meditative. So it was like a meditation competition or a napping competition. But it, I found out about it because I was Googling. First of all, one of the first facts about jigsaws is that Hugh Jackman is a huge fan.
Tim Ferriss: Huge. He spent about 10 minutes, of maybe 15 on our podcast, he and I together, talking about jigsaw puzzles. So yes, a huge jigsaw puzzle fan.
A.J. Jacobs: But one of the other results, this was right before the pandemic, was that there was a world championship in Spain and it listed all of the countries that were competing and there were tons of them. There were 40 countries, Mexico, Japan, Uganda, but no USA. So on a whim, I fill out the form and figure that’ll be the first of this long process to qualify. I get back an email the next day, “You are Team USA.” And I’m like, “Oh, wow, that’s not good,” because I did not —
Tim Ferriss: The next day. No due diligence at all.
A.J. Jacobs: No. It was a disaster. And I, as I said, I didn’t love jigsaws. I thought they were, I was a snob. I thought they were too easy. They were not sophisticated. So I was like, “Oh, God.” So I recruited my family to be as a four-person team. And we flew to Spain and you have eight hours to finish four giant jigsaw puzzles. And we were a, I mean, I’m sorry. I apologize to my fellow Americans because we came in second to last. We beat one of the Spanish hometown teams, so that’s something, but these, despite us, the humiliation, I loved it. Because it was just so fascinating for so many reasons. First, just being able to see people at the top of, the LeBron Jameses of jigsaws. So even if jigsaws you think is a silly pastime, seeing anyone, and you know this, you’ve interviewed, that’s the premise. You interview the top people of every category and you’re going to learn something from them.
And these people, their hands move so fast. We finished one puzzle of the four, in six and a half hours. The Russian team, these women, four women from Siberia, finished in just over four hours. The whole thing. They, their hands were moving so fast, and there were rumors of doping, but not confirmed. And the, another part I loved, was just meeting people from all over the world, united by this weird obsession. And I talk about jigsaw diplomacy. I actually, I felt I was a little ahead of the curve because I have a sec — a paragraph in the book that, about how much I hate Putin. This was long before the Ukraine —
Tim Ferriss: Before it was cool.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Before it was cool. And I say, but I can’t hate these people because I’m here, in face to face and they’re humans. And I am hoping that they’re one of the, some of the millions who oppose what Putin is doing now, but it was what I call jigsaw diplomacy. So it was a wonderful experience. And also learning, like in everything, there are strategies. You think, “Oh, it’s just putting together,” but, and the strategies are sometimes surprising. You don’t always, everyone’s like, “Oh, do the edges first.” No, not necessarily. Some puzzles, if they have, very colorful, you do the colors first. Sometimes, you focus on shapes. If you’re hit with the sky, like a huge expansive blue, you’ve got to sort them by shapes. So this one has two outies and one inny, this one — so it was just wonderful to see the nuances of this delightful and ridiculous competition. And it was one of my favorite experiences.
Tim Ferriss: So I have a number of questions about this. The first is, how do you delegate or divide and conquer as a team? Because I can imagine, if four people were just let loose, having no strategy, trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, it might take longer than just one person trying to do it, if you don’t have some type of plan going into it. And second, I’m just curious, did you notice any sponsors? I’m just wondering what kind of financial support is offered to the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championships.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I love —
Tim Ferriss: Guessing it’s not a BMW. I —
A.J. Jacobs: I know, maybe not. But I mean, this was right before the COVID, when jigsaws experienced a boom during COVID that no, the first — not seen since The Great Depression. So they became harder to get than Clorox wipes. So maybe now they could be sponsored by BMW, but then, yes, it was the only sponsor was the puzzle company itself, Ravensburger, sadly. So I didn’t make a huge amount of money on it, but I did —
Tim Ferriss: As the second-to-last finisher.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I feel it’s something.
Tim Ferriss: No, it’s, you finished. No, it’s a thing.
A.J. Jacobs: I think someone for —
Tim Ferriss: For strategies, what do you do as a team?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, you’re absolutely right. That was the secret that the Russians had. They told me it’s all about division of labor, like in many endeavors. So there was one woman who specialized in sorting colors. Another sorted shapes, another sorted, what was good at the edges and another was really good at the trial and error because you, I often am, I’m afraid to put something down if I don’t think, she was like, “No, just do it. Just be okay with failing.” She put things, she’d try it. “No, next one. No, next one. Yes.”
So it was fascinating to see the division. And I found that as a theme throughout puzzle solving. I went to this one event that was the Ironman triathlon for nerds, which was a, it was called a puzzlehunt. And it was at MIT, 2,000 people, real rocket scientists. And they come together for 72 hours and solve the hardest, craziest, most baffling, nonsensical puzzles that involve advanced calculus and Justin Bieber’s tour schedule and just the most random things you can think of. And you need 50 people on a team. The teams were 50 people because you needed specialists —
Tim Ferriss: Gigantic.
A.J. Jacobs: — in all these areas. So yes, a diversification and having different people do different things is a big theme, I think, in puzzles and life.
Tim Ferriss: And I, then I’ll mention, I do have a number of friends or have known people through my life who have been, I don’t think obsessed is an overstatement, obsessed with puzzles of different types. And I was, I wanted to get the attribution. One of them was one of the most curious and intelligent people I’ve ever met, John Horton Conway, and I’m looking at his Wikipedia. And unfortunately, he passed away some time ago, but English mathematician, active in the theory of finite groups, knot theory, number theory, combinatorial game theory and coding theory. He was in Cambridge and then moved to the US and helped John von Neumann, I’m guessing that’s how it’s pronounced. Professorship at Princeton University, and he could recite Pi to several thousand digits and he would do it musically. I think he and his partner did that together as they would go for walks.
And he was so — what struck me about him, I’m not saying the puzzles are entirely causal here, there’s a lot going into this, but he was very childlike in two respects. A is enthusiasm for any type of puzzle. They could be mathematical, could be societal. It could be a physical game. He had physical games all over his office. And he was also very, very good at explaining complex concepts simply. And I remember, for a period of time, he did public lectures on mathematics and they were standing room only. And people would come from all over the place, from all different walks of life. So that is to say, my connotation with puzzles also is very positive. Even though I have let my muscles maybe atrophy when working with what we would consider formal games, like jigsaw puzzles and so on, the connotation’s really positive. And I’m wondering what you have observed over the process of working on this book, writing this book, engaging with all the puzzles, about your own thought processes or how the working on the small puzzles has helped with other types of puzzles.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, first of all, he sounds great. I’m sorry he is not around. I would’ve interviewed him. And I agree, what you characterize is the enthusiasm and curiosity, love that. To me, two of the big themes of this book in terms of thought processes are curiosity and flexible thinking. And I love, you’re one of the most curious people, I think it’s one of the greatest drives that humans have, along with gratitude. Gratitude and curiosity to me are two amazing forces. And actually I interviewed Alex Trebek, the late, great Alex Trebek.
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
A.J. Jacobs: From Jeopardy once. And he said a quote that I still think about all the time. Even though it doesn’t quite make sense, it still totally makes sense to me. And that quote is, “I’m curious about everything, even those things that don’t interest me.” So he is curious about everything, even the most boring things. And I love that because I think it’s true. Whatever the topic is, if you dig a little, you’re going to find fascinating. And in fact, I once thought of trying a challenge where I write a book about the most stereotypically boring thing in the world, maybe it’s accounting and trying to make it interesting because I’m sure it is.
It’s not about numbers, it’s about people. It’s about actions and business and love and hate. So anyway, curiosity, I think puzzles just fuel my curiosity. And as I said, I see the world as a puzzle. I have what I like to call the puzzle mindset, which is, I think, so important when you are looking at world problems to adopt the puzzle mindset, which is opposed to the motivated reasoning or anger mindset. There’s a child psychologist I saw who said, “Don’t get furious, get curious,” as parenting advice. But I think that’s great life advice because that really is, if you’re going to solve a problem, curiosity is the way to do it. Not anger. Anger gives you tunnel vision.
And even like, 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 is 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? So anyway, that to me is the big thesis thrust of the book. Don’t get furious, well, get a little furious. Sometimes you need to, but balance it with curiosity.
Tim Ferriss: I would imagine you still outline your books quite a bit. You think about the structure in advance. Were there any particular twists or turns or surprises or things that you found surprising in the process of putting this book together?
A.J. Jacobs: That structure to me is everything. And I have to structure. Like my book on health, which was sort of the much less selling, 4-Hour Body perversion. And I structured it by body part. So a part on stomach health, what you eat, and lung health, how you work out, but even hand health and butt health, like how you go to the bathroom. And I will say, I missed a huge opportunity, which I realized during this. I didn’t have an appendix, I should have had an appendix about appendixes. What was I thinking? But anyway, yeah, so many surprises.
And I think that for me, writing is a combination of knowing where I’m going, I do structure it and outline it very thoroughly, but also allowing for some surprises and twists and turns. For instance, I have a chapter on this crazy, unsolved puzzle, which is located at the headquarters of the CIA. And I got permission, after months, to visit the CIA and see this puzzle in person. And I decided afterwards, how should I write this? And I decided I’m going to write it like a thriller, like a spy thriller. So that chapter almost, I tried to make it read like a spy thriller and that was not planned. But it is a fascinating, and we can talk about it. It’s called Kryptos. One of the craziest puzzles known.
Tim Ferriss: Why is there a puzzle at the CIA? So yes, let’s talk about it. What is this and how is it at the CIA?
A.J. Jacobs: It’s one of my favorite chapters because yeah, it was commissioned 32 years ago by the CIA. They wanted to spruce up their grounds. And this guy, a sculptor, teamed with an ex-CIA cryptographer, and they made the sculpture, which is basically a huge metal wall with thousands of letters on it. And the letters are a secret code and they thought it would be solved in like a week. It’s been 32 years. And no one, including the CIA, which is right there, has been able to solve it fully. They have solved parts of it. And part of it seems to indicate that there’s something buried on the grounds of the CIA. And we don’t know what it is. It could be treasure, it could be the poison cigar we gave Castro, who knows? But what I love about it is many things.
But one thing I love about it is that there’s a group of thousands of people, I’m on the online group, that spend their days, hours a day, trying to crack this code. And 32 years they’ve been working at it. So that to me is the true puzzle mindset of grit. When I help my kids with math homework and I give up after like three minutes, I now have to say, these folks have been working for 32 years on this problem. I’m going to give it another couple of minutes. So yeah, Kryptos is a fantastic puzzle. And I will say, I just want to addendum, the sculptor is not just a genius coder and sculptor, he’s also a great businessman. And I think you’ll appreciate this. He got sick and tired because he would get dozens of emails every day saying, “Is the answer this?” “Is the answer that?” So he decided, “I will answer you yes or no, but you have to pay me $50. You have to PayPal me.”
Tim Ferriss: Genius.
A.J. Jacobs: He makes, who knows how much hundreds of dollars a day just saying, “Nope, that’s not right.”
Tim Ferriss: That is genius. I’m wondering if this sculptor is also just the most epic troll of all time and the sense that he just created a nonsensical —
A.J. Jacobs: That is such a great point. And I will tell you —
Tim Ferriss: — piece of work that cannot be broken because there is no message, in which case he’s just created this amazing annuity stream for himself that’s lasted for two years.
A.J. Jacobs: I know. Can you imagine? It is possible that those people are, and I will say, there is historical precedent for that. The most famous puzzler of the 1900s was this guy, he was like the Will Shortz of his day, The New York Times‘ Will Shortz, and he sold millions of this puzzle called the 15 puzzle, which you’ve probably seen as a kid. It’s the little tiles, you moved the tiles around, they’re numbered 1 through 15 and you have to make them in a square, and he had a contest where he would give, I believe it was $10,000 at the time, which was huge, that if someone solved this particular arrangement, they would win the money. But what he didn’t tell then is that half of the initial arrangements are impossible to solve, just mathematically impossible to solve.
And he put it in one of those. So he was a 1900 super troller from that era. And I will say just, I have a contest, there’s a secret hidden code in the book and if you put it into the website, you can do these puzzles and try to win $10,000. I am not a troll, they have an actual answer. So there is a real contest. And I think actually, since you are first out of the gate, I think you might be the first time I’ve mentioned it.
Tim Ferriss: Fantastic. Well, there you have it, folks. And this brings up sort of a more meta commentary on the book, which is, it’s not just about puzzles. It includes quite a lot of puzzles. So you mentioned the sculptor, you mentioned this puzzler and the 15, what makes a puzzler? If you were doing, let’s just say like a CIA profile, looking for patterns across the puzzlers, what makes a good puzzler? Because you were helped in this book by a master puzzle maker Greg Pliska? Am I saying that name correctly?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, yes. There are hundreds of historical puzzles, but also a bunch of new puzzles by Greg, who’s amazing. And I would say I actually tried to make some puzzles. My wife has a company, Watson Adventures, that puts on scavenger hunts and she hired me, by not paying me, to make a bunch of puzzles. And I think they’re okay, the puzzles, but I don’t have it in me because you do need a certain level of sadism. You need to be okay with putting people through the pain because that’s what people want. They want to experience pain. And then the release from pain, they want that dopamine hit. And I don’t know if you’ve had him on the podcast, Paul Bloom, great writer. He wrote a book about why do we, as humans, why do we want to do these painful — why do we run marathons? Why do we do puzzles? Why S&M? And it is a lot about this idea of we are programed to struggle, struggle, struggle, and then get that payoff.
You have to struggle to get that dopamine hit. But you have to be a little sadistic to be a great puzzler, and I didn’t have it in me. So I stick with the masochism of doing puzzles.
Tim Ferriss: What other attributes do you spot, whether those are innate nature, God-given attributes or developed skills in people who are good at creating puzzles? Or is it just sheer volume of exposure? These have to be people who have digested and seen a million varieties of puzzles. How would you describe, just as a category, or Greg specifically, what are the ingredients that make a good puzzler?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I do believe anyone can be a good puzzler if you can tolerate the sadism, puzzle maker. But I would say the idea for curiosity, and innovative thinking, the best puzzles are the ones that are just make you go, “Oh, my God, why didn’t I see that?” And it’s something in your mind, you feel you should have known. And you’re like, “Oh, that is so clever.” As opposed to crappy puzzles where you’re like, “Oh, that wasn’t fair.” Or they’re just boring, like an escape room where you have a hundred keys and you have to try every key in the lock. That’s just busy work. That’s just like doing the dishes. The key is the little — the leap, that leap of ingenuity, the cliche is outside the box, think outside the box. Which actually comes from a puzzle. That’s where it originates. The puzzle has nine dots, three on each row and you have to draw, yeah, you have to draw four lines.
Tim Ferriss: What is it? Four lines. That’s right. Connect all the dots. To connect them all.
A.J. Jacobs: And the only way to do it is to go, you’ve drawn the lines so far outside the box that the diagonals line up.
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t realize that’s the origin of that expression. That’s cool.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I did not know that.
A.J. Jacobs: And I do believe that’s what the great mRNA vaccine was thinking outside the box. Make just part of the virus so that it kicks in the immune system. Don’t make the whole virus. That was a leap. That was a brilliant way to approach it.
Tim Ferriss: So what are some techniques, mental strategies, anything that we can borrow from solving puzzles, making puzzles, either, and apply in other areas?
A.J. Jacobs: I got some, I got some for you.
Tim Ferriss: I thought you might.
A.J. Jacobs: I have four or five that I thought we could go through that, to me, illuminate some of the best strategies. So let me start with a little puzzle and we’ll work through it together. Because I am very bad at doing puzzles on the spot and the stress, so I don’t want to put you, I know you’re brilliant, so we all know that.
Tim Ferriss: Cultivate your inner sadist. Maybe it’ll make you a better puzzle maker.
A.J. Jacobs: So this is a puzzle that’s based on a famous story of a German mathematician named Gauss, in the 1700s. And he was nine years old, in school and the teacher said, “The assignment is: add up all of the whole numbers from one to a hundred and tell me the answer.” And two seconds later Gauss raises his hand. And the teacher’s like, “What the hell? You couldn’t have done it!” and Gauss says, “No, I did it.” So the puzzle is, how did he do it? How did he add up one through a hundred?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I’m going to just go straight.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let’s get straight, no chaser. I’ll leave it to you.
A.J. Jacobs: Get to the spoiler. The default way, which is what I thought and most people think, you add one plus two is three, one plus two plus three, three plus three is six, and you just go straight through. But Gauss realized, no, there’s a better method. Because one plus a hundred is 101, two plus 99 is 101, three plus 98 is 101. So you take these pairs and they’re 50 pairs. So 50 times 101, that’s not that hard, 5,050. That’s the answer. So to me, this is a very Tim Ferriss way to think because what he did was, he didn’t immediately dive into solving the problem and doing the busy work. He took a step back and he said, “What is the meta strategy? What’s my goal? What is a better way to solve this problem?” And many of your books have a lot of this, The 4-Hour Workweek is, what is the real goal? Is the goal to have as many clients as possible or is it have a good life and make enough money? So fire those pain in the ass clients. To me, that is a very Gaussian way to approach it.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. How old? At nine years old?
A.J. Jacobs: Who knows how true it is, but —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. But it makes for a good story. Am I making this up? Is this the Gauss of Gaussian distribution? I wonder.
A.J. Jacobs: I’m thinking, they probably were, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The Gaussian distribution, which is a normal distribution. I won’t take us too far down that rabbit hole. All right, so Gauss nine-year-old, one, Tim Ferriss, zero. But I appreciate the approach, it is very Abraham Lincoln too. And of course probably apocryphal, maybe it’s attributed to Groucho Marx or Gandhi online because those tend to be three of the top blanket attributions but the, if I have four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three hours sharpening the ax. So thinking about the meta strategy and the —
A.J. Jacobs: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: — right tool for the job.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that’s a good, all right. Can I give you another? Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God damn it, A.J. You’re always interrupting me on this podcast and I’m supposed to be asking you questions. Please continue. Yes. Number two.
A.J. Jacobs: All right. Another strategy that I love is, we talked about it before. Just the flexibility, just the flexibility of mind is so crucial. Getting caught in a mental rut is the enemy of coming up with good solutions. And I’ll give you a puzzle example and then a real life example. So the puzzle example is, I have a section on British crosswords, which are insane, crazy, much harder than American. They have all these weird obscure word plays and you don’t know what’s going on. So for instance, one of the clues in the British crossword was, the letters, four letters, G E G S, G E G S. And I’m like, all right, what is a geg? So I focus. What is a geg? And I look it up. I even use Google, which I try not to do.
And it’s the symbol for the [Spokane] airport is a GEG and there are a couple other like urban dictionary gegs that maybe are not appropriate. So anyway, I’m like focused, what is a geg? And I finally just give up after half an hour and take a break. I don’t give up. I take a break, which is also a huge puzzle and problem solving strategy. Take a break, because it resets your mind. Leonardo DaVinci talked about taking breaks. So I took a break and I came back and I was like, maybe it’s not a geg. Maybe there’s something in the letters. And I eventually, I noticed that GEGS, if you rearrange them, is eggs. E G G S. So the answer is scrambled eggs. GEGS is scrambled eggs. So, which was annoying, but also brilliant. But that to me is the key, don’t lock in on your thesis, have it provisional, always be open to new ways of looking at it.
Jigsaws is an example. I hated jigsaws. And I found that they are incredibly subtle and interesting. Or I was obsessed with ending this puzzle book in a certain way. And I was talking to my son and he’s like, “I don’t know. That doesn’t sound great.” So I totally abandoned that. So yeah. Flexible thinking, loosely held belief. I am a big fan of some beliefs you should hold deeply. Like don’t be an asshole. That belief to me is like, that’s sacrosanct. But many other beliefs I have are just provisional probabilistic.
Tim Ferriss: Why are jigsaw puzzles called jigsaw puzzles? Is the jigsaw a tool they used to cut the pieces? What?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, originally, yes. Yes, it was. They made them out of wood and they used a jigsaw, which is a saw, I think it’s sort of in the shape of a question mark with a saw and you carve it. And there still are hand-carved, wooden puzzles. There’s one of the chapters I go to, this crazy company in Vermont that makes hand-carved wooden puzzles that are insanely expensive. They go up to $10,000.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, they must.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. And Bill Gates is a fan. The guy who owns it calls himself the Chief Tormentor, because they’re not regular puzzles. He is sadistic. He loves his sadism. So yeah, because they’re totally different than normal puzzles. They have holes in them. They have pieces that don’t fit. They have pieces that go three dimensional. So yeah. I am a big fan. That’s called Stave puzzles. So if you have enough money, check it out.
Tim Ferriss: Chief Torturer.
A.J. Jacobs: Chief Tormentor. Chief Tormentor.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, Tormentor. Pretty close. Pretty close. Tormentor. I mean, tormentor is like what an older sibling does to a younger sibling. I guess a little less intense than torture, but nonetheless.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a good point.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So what else?
A.J. Jacobs: Another?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Another, please.
A.J. Jacobs: All right. Well, this one I love. The idea is to reverse your thinking, to think upside down, to think totally differently. So I’ll give you a riddle, a classic riddle. There’s a man in a room, the walls are cement and the floor is dirt. And the only opening is this locked door in the room and a skylight. The man has a shovel and he starts to dig. He knows it’s impossible to tunnel out, but he continues to dig anyway. So what’s going on? Why does he keep digging? Even though he knows he can’t tunnel out.
Tim Ferriss: So this one, I’m going to admit, I know the answer to. So I don’t want to do too much thanking of the Academy for my acting, as I pretend like I don’t know the answer. But why don’t you explain it and then I’ll have a little bit of commentary because I love these types of riddles. And when I was younger, I actually did, and by younger, I mean, even up through high school and maybe even early college, loved these types of riddles that force you to check a lot of your assumptions about whatever you’ve just heard. So why don’t you unpack that?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I’m very impressed with your honesty. It’s actually, just a quick side note, I have a chapter on escape rooms and the escape room owner was telling me that there’s always a guy who comes every week with a date, a new woman, and pretends that it’s his first time at the escape room and she’s supposed to be like, wow, you can solve the NATO alphabet? I want to go to bed with you. I guess that’s the theory. But anyway, so freaky.
Tim Ferriss: Quite a racket that guy has, right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. No. It’s dozens of guys across the country, they all say they have one. So the idea, the way to do this is to reverse your thinking. So instead of focusing on the fact that he’s digging a hole, what else is he doing? He’s doing the opposite. He’s building a mountain, a little mountain of dirt, and he’s going to climb that mountain and get to the skylight. And I love this because I use it in everyday life. I use it collecting the laundry, I reversed my thinking and this one came up yesterday.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Hold on, hold on.
A.J. Jacobs: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Collecting the laundry? How do you apply? Please explain.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, sure. I live with three teenage boys, so there are clothes every corner. So I used to go around and collect an armload and put them in the hamper in our bedroom. But I realized, what if I took the hamper with me and put the clothes in, so I don’t have to make as many trips? So I reversed it. I was like, bring the hamper to the clothes. So yes, I am a genius. That is the conclusion. But to give you another example, that’s maybe more, I don’t know, important, my son said to me yesterday, “Why, in an elevator, if the power goes out, what’s to stop the elevator from plummeting to the basement and killing us?” And I looked it up and it turns out that elevator brakes work the opposite of the way you think. The default is that the elevator brakes are clamped on the elevator. And they only are released when there’s an electric current. So the electromagnetism opens them up. So if the electricity goes out, if there’s a blackout, the brakes automatically clamp on, which is the opposite of what I would have thought. You need to activate the brakes. But some genius said, “No, this is a better system.” So whoever it is, thank you for that. I’m sure you saved my life.
Tim Ferriss: I love these word riddles. And actually, one came to mind. I’m not going to get it totally right, but this is from 20 years ago, or 25 years ago. They could be so simple. There’s a woman who’s afraid. She’s afraid because she can’t go home because the man with the mask is there. Who is the man in the mask, right? And then the person who’s attempting to answer it can ask yes or no questions. This was sort of a common game that we would play. And you can think about it. You can go through all sorts of hoops. And ultimately in this example, it’s a game of baseball. Afraid to go to home base.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. Yeah, that is a classic.
Tim Ferriss: Right?
A.J. Jacobs: Sometimes I’ve heard it as two men in masks, so you’ve got the umpire and the catcher.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, right. Yeah. Yeah, that would be a better way of phrasing it, for sure.
A.J. Jacobs: But yeah, love that.
Tim Ferriss: What are these types, are they just known as riddles?
A.J. Jacobs: Those are sometimes called lateral thinking. And again, the idea is, lateral thinking involves totally reframing and looking at what your assumptions are. Which again, I think is crucial in thinking about real-life problems and a very Ferriss —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: So I’m surprised that you even gave them up because they are very Ferriss ways of thinking.
Tim Ferriss: It was super fun. I think I was just encountering them piecemeal, and didn’t know where to find a collection of them. I think that’s probably what it came down to, is that I would very once in a blue moon run into something. I remember another one which was — and you probably know the better phrasing, but it was something like, there’s a man in a room. He’s dead on the floor, and there are 53 Bicycles in the room. What happened? He was cheating at cards.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. Right. The Bicycle cards. Yeah. I love that. There are several of the —
Tim Ferriss: And, but it takes a while.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I can send you a website with all of them. I don’t have it offhand. Or you can buy my book. Shameless.
Tim Ferriss: Get the book, folks. Shameless, shameless. You’ve got to be shameless sometimes, especially on podcasts. Yeah. So if you were choosing for yourself kind of best bang for the buck puzzles, and by bang for the buck I mean, puzzles that are enjoyable/interesting enough that you’ll keep doing them, but that also seem to have an impact on the rest of your life. And that can be super broad, right? It could help you sleep. It could help you with your thinking. It could help in any way. Are there any particular types of puzzles that kind of make the final cut? If you think about them through that lens.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that question. I love it. Well, I guess I would break it down into, what is your goal? So if your goal again is to go to sleep, then jigsaws are very meditative. If your goal is to learn how to think, then buy one of these lateral thinking puzzles, or one of these incredibly hard British puzzles, British crosswords. Also, one of my favorite genres that I knew very little about is Japanese puzzle boxes. So I would recommend that just for pure wonder and awe. And these are — I actually went to Japan where they make them and they are wooden boxes, but they’re works of art. They’re gorgeous.
And they’re locked, and you have to manipulate them. Sometimes it’s spinning them. Sometimes it’s turning them upside down. Sometimes it’s moving 100 slats in a certain order to open them. And they have become this cult. And there are people who pay thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars for the most rarest of these puzzle boxes. Apparently Russian oligarchs buy them out, or they used to. I don’t know if they can afford it anymore. Hopefully not. But these things are really extraordinary. And I will say, I’m friends with, you might know him, John Ruhlin, who his expertise is —
Tim Ferriss: How do I know that name?
A.J. Jacobs: Giftology. He wrote Giftology.
Tim Ferriss: Giftology.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s all about giving gifts, and how they can make your life better and make other people’s lives better. So they make these boxes in all sorts of themes. So I gave my editor a Japanese puzzle box in the shape of a book. And so if you are looking for a great gift or you’re looking for something to inspire wonder and awe that’s a beautiful object, that’s a good one, Japanese puzzle boxes.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve actually seen some of these in-person in Japan because as you may or may not know, I lived there as an exchange student for a year. I’ve gone back many times since. And they are stunningly beautiful and very intricate.
A.J. Jacobs: Amazing.
Tim Ferriss: You’ll have, as you mentioned, some you have to turn upside down because there are ball bearings or other weight-loaded components that will shift only if you tilt them in a certain direction. Absolutely stunning. I was hoping to bring this up because my latest book I got is this, which makes me think a lot about Japan. Anyway, not relevant to the conversation, but Visions of Japan.
A.J. Jacobs: A little.
Tim Ferriss: Kawase Hasui’s Masterpieces. A lot of people know Hokusai, but I’ve been becoming more and more interested in other woodblock-based artists and need to thank Maria Popova for that reference.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. She’s great. And by the way, have you ever had Darren Aronofsky on the program?
Tim Ferriss: I have a long time ago, long time ago.
A.J. Jacobs: Because he is super into puzzle boxes. And he actually designed one of the most intricate — he commissioned one of the most intricate puzzle boxes ever. It’s a desk by this artist named Kagen, Kagen Sound. And the desk has 22 secret puzzles in it. And it took Kagen four years to make. He lives in Colorado. And it literally is like one of Darren’s movies. It drove him crazy. He had a mental breakdown.
Tim Ferriss: Where’s my pencil? Oh, no.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. So yeah, they are really remarkable.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about the shadow side of puzzles. So it drove them crazy. I see —
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, there is a shadow side.
Tim Ferriss: I see a bullet here, tackling a logic puzzle that literally drives people insane and has spawned 100 philosophy papers. Please tell me more about this.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yes. This is called the Sleeping Beauty problem. And it’s a cousin of the Monty Hall problem. Do you know the Monty Hall problem?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t. I don’t know that either. Maybe you could explain.
A.J. Jacobs: The Monty Hall problem is a very famous puzzle, very controversial. And it was popularized by Marilyn vos Savant. I don’t know if you’ve had her on the show, this woman who says she’s got the highest IQ ever.
Tim Ferriss: No.
A.J. Jacobs: So she wrote a column in Parade magazine. No comment on why the smartest woman was writing a Parade magazine column. She’s smarter than me, so she would slam me. But anyway, the problem she popularized was this. Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given a choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, and behind the other two doors are goats. So you pick, and assuming you want the car and not the goats, so your goal is to pick the door with the car. So you pick door number one. And the host, he knows what’s behind all three doors. And he says, “Well, I’m going to open door number three. Before I answer whether you got it right, I’m opening door number three.” And behind that door is a goat. Then he says to you, “So do you want to switch? You want to pick door number two instead?” And my gut and most people’s gut is like, “No. Why would it matter?” It’s 50/50, right? But it’s not. You should switch.
Tim Ferriss: You should switch. Okay. So yeah, this is a better question for my brother who has a lot of statistics and mathematical training and inclination. Okay. So I would not have. I would’ve failed that test.
A.J. Jacobs: No. Most people do because it’s so counterintuitive. And that’s another big theme of puzzles, I think, is that 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. So yes, you should switch. And when she wrote this, she got hundreds of condescending letters from mathematicians saying, “You’re an idiot.” But she’s right. You should switch. And you can look it up why. But basically, instead of your initial odds of one to three you are choosing, you have a two out of three probability of getting the car because Monty didn’t just pick a random door. He knew what was behind all three doors. And he picked a goat. So then it narrows it down. But anyway, this Sleeping Beauty problem, I’m not going to say it because it’s super complicated, and it’ll put you to sleep, but it’s in the book, but it has caused, as you say, 100 philosophy papers.
And I love it because this is one of the puzzles that has no correct — people are still debating what the answer is. Is the answer two out of three, or is it one out of two or something else? So I love a puzzle that cannot be solved. And actually, as part of the book I commissioned what I believe is the hardest puzzle in the history of the world. And it cannot be solved because you cannot solve it by the time the universe runs out of energy. It’s a mechanical puzzle where it’s got a metal rod inside a tower. And in the tower there are all these pegs. And you have to turn the pegs to remove the metal rod. But you have to turn the pegs many times, many, many times. 1.2 decillion times, which is one with 33 digits —
Tim Ferriss: A lot of times.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. So it is literally if you do one every second, every nanosecond, the universe will end. And I love that. I love that.
Tim Ferriss: So what was the impetus for creating this puzzle? And this is Jacobs’ Ladder, am I right?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
A.J. Jacobs: A few reasons I loved it. One, it’s part of a genre called generation puzzles, where you pass them down from generation to generation because no one person can solve it. So I love this idea of connecting generations, and thinking, you mentioned 80,000 Hours. And they talk a lot, that’s the effective altruism movement. They talk a lot about the far future and our 14th great grandkids. And so this is sort of a way to connect with that. One of the great Japanese puzzle makers, he was called the Godfather of Sudoku. And he summarized puzzles and much of life with three symbols. The question mark, the forward arrow, the exclamation point. You arrive, you’re baffled.
Forward arrow is the struggle. The wrestling with the — and then the exclamation point is the revelation. And he said, this is very Zen, he said, “You have to embrace the arrow. You have to learn to love the solving, because you’re not always going to get to the exclamation point.” So this is the ultimate arrow. This arrow goes on to the end of the universe. So I love that. I love that. And it’s also, I love it because it’s kind of a ritual that I can do. A little meditative ritual. There’s only one in the world, Jacobs’ ladder and —
Tim Ferriss: Where is it? Where is it located?
A.J. Jacobs: I’m looking at it right now. It’s to the left of my desk. It’s taunting me. The guy, he’s a brilliant puzzle maker. Oskar van Deventer was the one who designed it. And he’s going to release the plans on the internet, so you can 3D print one yourself. So it will be available.
Tim Ferriss: So it sounds like Jacobs’ Ladder, maybe if you commercialize this and sell it, the company logo should be the question mark and the forward arrow, without the exclamation point.
A.J. Jacobs: I love it. All right. I’m in.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you are a collector of experiments and experiences. Just if you look at your last handful of books, you certainly span a lot of disciplines. And one question I’m curious to hear your answer to related to The Puzzler is, what you think a year or two from now you might still have taken with you from this book? Whether it’s a habit, a new type of puzzle, it could be anything. And I remember you and I chatting, years ago after The Year of Living Biblically. And one of the things that you took from that for a period of time at least was wearing white. And then after that, wearing more colors. And there’s a lot more to that story, but what do you think you may take forth from all that we’ve learned on The Puzzler?
A.J. Jacobs: Right, I love that question. And just to dip into the wearing white clothes, I love that, that at least at one point had an influence on you because you and I both are big believers in the outer affects the inner. Your behavior affects your thoughts. And so wearing white, it just has this connotation of lightness, and like you’re going to go play Wimbledon. Or I think I used in the book that you might go to P. Diddy’s white party, but I don’t think exists anymore. But anyway, yes, that was one of the many things I took away. I also took away from that gratitude, which turned into its own book. For this one, the puzzle mindset, it really reinforced this puzzle mindset, which is all about seeing the world as puzzles. Don’t get furious, get curious. Flexible thinking, all that. But more specifically, I do think every morning I have some rituals where I spend 15 minutes brainstorming ideas, and 99 percent of them suck.
But I just feel that the mental gymnastic, sort of the aerobic workout of your brain is very helpful in solving the real puzzles and life puzzles, and coming up with new ideas. But in addition to that now, I am addicted to several puzzles. If you’re going to have an addiction, I think it’s a good one. So I do the Spelling Bee in The New York Times. Wordle, which was such a huge phenomenon, but I think it’s — a friend of mine described it as the Ted Lasso of puzzles, because it’s very nice. You’re probably going to get it. And so it’s not too sadistic. And of course The New York Times‘ crossword puzzle. So I will continue to do that. And I will also, I loved all of the dozens of subcultures of people I met. So I do hope to keep in touch with them because they are such curious and bizarre and interesting thinkers, and such great characters.
Tim Ferriss: Is there any subculture that if the task or the question was, “Okay, twice a month for the next year, you need to have dinner with someone from this subculture. A long dinner, not a short one.” Could be beers, could be something else, but just I’m wondering which subculture you’re like, “I could be an honorary or dishonorable inductee for a short period of time, depending on how things go?” Where do you think you would lean?
A.J. Jacobs: There are so many that I find fascinating, but one, I do love the codebreakers, the cryptographers because — and I’m terrible at codes — they range from professional cryptographers to janitors, to writers, to artists, but they are all obsessed with breaking codes. The Kryptos one I mentioned, but also there’s something called the Zodiac Killer and his letters. So those are still on. There are a few dozen codes that still have never been solved, but they obsess over them. One of the ones I featured in my book was this amazing woman named Elonka Dunin, who she consulted on codes for the CIA and the FBI after 9/11. And she is so obsessed with Kryptos that she moved to DC to be closer to Kryptos.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
A.J. Jacobs: And but talking to them, you realize how much secret codes I won’t say infect, just affect every part of our lives. Cryptocurrency and your bank account and your passwords, and the secret code and military. So secret codes may be a puzzle, but they are a crucial puzzle for humanity. And in fact, one of the historical things I mention in the book is that there was a puzzle in 1942 in the Telegraph newspaper. And it was a crossword puzzle. And it said at the bottom, “If you solve this in 12 minutes or less call this number.” And that number turned out to be the British Secret Service, the spy agency. And it was a recruitment tool for the people who cracked the Enigma code, the Nazi Enigma code.
Tim Ferriss: Enigma code, right.
A.J. Jacobs: So you could say the crossword puzzle saved the world.
Tim Ferriss: And for people interested, I just want to lay out the spelling. So Kryptos is K-R-Y-P-T-O-S sculpture by the American artist, Jim Sanborn, located on the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. And there’s a whole Wikipedia entry, but certainly the firsthand experience of having spent time there as you did, I think, is worth digging into. Do you find not to in any way imply that the woman you just mentioned falls prey to this, but that people interested in cryptography have a high risk of, I want to say psychosis, but seeing signal where there is noise, right? So ending up succumbing to all sorts of conspiracy theories or God knows what? There are a million pitfalls kind of in the gray zone.
A.J. Jacobs: Totally. That — I mean, I love that question because I talk about the dark side of puzzles. I think they’re mostly a force for good, but if you don’t have that flexibility of mind and you get obsessed with puzzles and you fall in love with your particular hypothesis, there’s a word for it. It’s not psychosis, it’s apophenia. Apophenia is one of my favorite words I learned, and it is when you see signal in the noise. I mean the classic is you see Jesus’ face on a piece of French toast. And yes, it is a big danger. I mean, you look at these online groups for Kryptos and there are people like, “No, it’s got to be Morse code. It’s got to be,” you know.
Tim Ferriss: The Illuminati.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. Definitely. I mean, QAnon is basically a puzzle gone wrong. It’s people who have figured out a solution that they think is right and no amount of counterevidence will allow them to change their mind. So yeah. And I also have a section in the book about this famous book from 1980-81 in England, where it was a picture book with clues to a hidden treasure, a golden rabbit hidden somewhere in England. And it caused a mania. People were digging up yards and trespassing looking for this gold. Finally, someone found it. But what was crazy is that even after someone found it, there were dozens, hundreds of people who were like, “No, no, my theory is right.” They refused to abandon their theory even after it was found. And that to me is a very dangerous look at the dark side of human nature.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Apophenia, learning all sorts of things. So let’s take a revisit of this subtitle: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. So I’m going to give you, there’s a fork in the road that we can take here. We can go to meaning of life and you can expand on why that’s in the subtitle, or we could go to the hardest corn maze in the world. Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: If you have time, maybe I’ll just do quickly the corn maze.
Tim Ferriss: I have time.
A.J. Jacobs: I feel like if you do the meaning of life that’s kind of like, where do you go from there? So you’ve got to do —
Tim Ferriss: Right, right. Hard to segue from that to the corn maze.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. But yes, I have a section on mazes, which were fascinating. And I found the hardest corn maze in the world. It’s in Vermont. And it is so hard. Talk about sadism. The guy who created it just revels in the amount of pain and misery he causes. He talks joyously about couples getting into massive fights, people weeping, hundreds of people just breaking out in tears of frustration. A father who abandoned his family and drove off because he was so — it is incredibly hard. There are emergency exits because it’s so hard. People get freaked out. And I did it. It took about four and a half hours and a bunch of hints. But I loved interviewing him because one of the things —
Tim Ferriss: Hold on. A bunch of hints. You just have an earpiece and he’s like, “Go right. I can see you from the drone, go left.”
A.J. Jacobs: Well, what he does is he stands on a platform in the middle of the maze like a God, and you can go up to him and plead your case. You know, “I am so frustrated. Can you help me?”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God, that’s incredible.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s great. But I asked him, “Standing on that platform, what have you learned from observing human nature?” And he said this theme that we’ve talked about, is the ones who are never going to make it out are the ones who have no flexibility of mind, who just go down the same. They’re like, “This is the way, I swear.” And they’ll hit a wall. They’ll go back. They’ll do it again. He does say that teenage boys are particularly prone to this. So I have teenage boys, I’m trying to say, “Flexibility, you’ve got to be flexible.” Because I guess the testosterone kicks in.
Tim Ferriss: Testosterone. Yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. So he was great. And I am a big fan of mazes. Another genre that I wasn’t particularly obsessed with before, but I do see the beauty of them now.
Tim Ferriss: Mazes.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. Mazes.
Tim Ferriss: So Vermont unexpectedly has come up quite a bit. I mean, you mentioned the sort of Bill Gates, Bugatti of jigsaw puzzles from the Chief Tormentor, which I think you mentioned were made in Vermont. You’ve got the most difficult corn maze in the world in Vermont. It makes me think of these unlikely epicenters or places that are famous for things you wouldn’t expect. Right? Like Gilroy, California is the garlic capital of the world.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Tim Ferriss: You would never guess that unless you happen to be driving by it as I have many times when I lived in California. Are there hotbeds of puzzle creation? Is Vermont one of them?
A.J. Jacobs: Vermont. I mean, these are not as unexpected. These are not Gilroy, but Japan makes amazing puzzles. Russia is known for making amazing — and one of the chapters is about chess puzzles, which are different from chess games. And I interviewed, I played with Gary Kasparov, who is a big fan of chess puzzles, although he himself is not the greatest chess puzzler, because it’s a different skill than regular chess. And just very quickly, a chess puzzle is when you have a certain arrangement of pieces on the board, like a king and a rook and a queen. And you have to checkmate the other side in a certain number of moves. So it’s a constrained puzzle as opposed to an unconstrained game. And it’s a different skillset there, these people who are like the Gary Kasparovs of chess puzzles. And I loved talking to him. You’ve had him on the show. Right? I imagine.
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t. The only time I’ve ever met, well, I didn’t really meet him, Gary Kasparov, quick side note, is when I was presenting at TED however many years ago. It was my first time on this big stage at this big event. I was very nervous and I was told by the organizers, “Well, before you go up, when you’re three or four out, you can go into the Zen pod,” or they had some word for this place that was supposed to be very calming, had all of this beautiful imagery. And it was supposed to be this very Zen, sedating place where you could prepare for what would otherwise be very, very stressful.
And I remember walking out because I was sweating already to whatever the Zen pod was. And the people on deck before me were Gary Kasparov and two other super geniuses. And they were pacing like they’re on death row about to go to execution. And I was like, “This is not going to help my nerves.” And so I turned around and I left. That is my one and only exposure to Gary Kasparov.
A.J. Jacobs: That is funny. Yeah. That would not be good for your nerves. And I will tell you, I mean, he was very gracious to come to my apartment and allow me to interview him. I will say, he’s not like the softest and cuddliest guy, which is probably good. You know, he saw this Vladimir Putin thing coming. But when he came, I had set up my chess set so that we wouldn’t waste any time. And he looked at it and he said, “That is a very cheap chess set, I see.” And I was like, “Well, yeah.” It’s like a plastic thing I had bought on Amazon. And I was like, “Oh.” And he said, “No, don’t worry. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I’m used to cheap plastic chess sets.”
So he forgave me, but he was not impressed. But he was fascinating because one of the keys, he says, to chess puzzles is, again, the counterintuitive and looking at the long view. The long view, which he’s good at in life as well. That the best puzzles make you do things that are short term crazy, like sacrifice your queen. A lot of them are about sacrificing your queen. But in the long run they will pay off. So I like that as a life lesson, just look at the long view.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I imagine. I mean, I know very little about chess. But perhaps the reason these chess puzzles are not comparable to chess games is that they are presenting the pieces and configurations that would almost never occur in a natural game. Right? And I do know some very good chess players, but they become very good at chunking the board in sections where they might recognize a particular sequence of moves that they have already recorded to memory from studying historic games, or having played a thousand matches in a certain way. But when you then get to a puzzle, perhaps it’s almost nonsensical. Right? There isn’t any historical record to kind of play off of to figure out what the next best move is.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s exactly it. I mean, some of the most famous puzzles are just crazy. There’s a genre called grotesques, which sounds very —
Tim Ferriss: Grotesque.
A.J. Jacobs: Grotesque puzzles, chess puzzles. And it’ll be 16 black pieces and only two white pieces. But white can win and you have to figure out how can white win. So it’s a real like David versus Goliath thing. But yeah, they look crazy. There’re 16 black pieces huddled in the corner. Never would happen in a real game.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Meaning of life.
A.J. Jacobs: All right.
Tim Ferriss: I think we’ve pushed it as long as we can.
A.J. Jacobs: All right. Well, I first of all, put it in there just because I wanted to show puzzles are not trivial, like a waste of time, frivolous. So there’s a little of that. And so I may not have actually solved the meaning of life by the end. But I will say, and I hope it doesn’t come off as pat, because I truly believe it. Part of the meaning of life is the search for the meaning of life.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
A.J. Jacobs: Because curiosity, as we’ve said over and over, is to me one of the greatest gifts. It’s a key to a joyous life. It’s a key to resolving conflicts. It’s a key to business, family, everything. So to me, never giving up on the search for the meaning of life is a big part of the meaning of life.
Tim Ferriss: Less furious, more curious. So that came originally, or your source was parenting advice?
A.J. Jacobs: I was watching, they had a webinar deep in the middle of the pandemic where it was a child psychologist and ways to survive the pandemic with your kids, because it was just horrible. So I was like maybe there’s something. And that was the phrase he used, and he meant it in parenting terms. So when your two-year-old is throwing a tantrum, don’t get furious, get curious. Why is the kid throwing a tantrum? What can we do to prevent it in the future? What will work? So instead of just getting angry and giving up, look at it from a sense of — and I think that’s very good for your own mental health. Otherwise, you know, when I read the newspaper or I don’t read the newspaper, when I read media online.
Tim Ferriss: Parade, when you’re reading Parade.
A.J. Jacobs: My favorite column in Parade. I mean, I do read the paper, just not like the old folded paper. But when I’m doing that, if I don’t look at it like a puzzle, I get so angry and it’s just not good for my health. So yeah. Look at it more like — there are different ways to put it. Some people say the engineer mindset versus the lawyer mindset. I like Adam Grant, he calls it be a scientist, the scientist worldview instead of the prosecutor or the preacher. Or he had one other P. He was very good with the alliteration. So yeah. Look at the world that way. But they’re all the same thing.
Tim Ferriss: Pescatarian, maybe.
A.J. Jacobs: You nailed it. Exactly. Those pescatarians are very narrow-minded.
Tim Ferriss: Well, A.J., we’ve covered a fair bit, but I’d still love to hear you just reiterate for people what you hope they gain, not just from the book, certainly the book. I mean, I hope people check them out. I’ve never been disappointed by a book of yours. I think you’re an excellent writer, but also an excellent entertainer. And the combination of those two, I think, often results in you being an outstanding teacher because you take what can otherwise be very difficult to absorb or difficult to understand, and you provide a wrapper that makes it really easy to digest. I’ve always admired that. And that goes back to some of your earliest work, certainly The Year of Living Biblically I thought was outstanding. What do you hope people will get from this and puzzles, if there are any stones we haven’t turned over yet?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Well, tons. I mean just to reiterate some of what we’ve covered, I mean, it’s got tons of puzzles in it, so I hope that they will do those and find the joy of puzzles. It’s got the contest, which I hope you’ll enjoy even if you don’t win. It’s got my adventures. But it’s also got this way of hopefully looking at the world, which will make your life better, make you happier, more effective, more productive, both in the macro sense of looking at the world as a puzzle. And in the more micro sense of here are 10 strategies for solving puzzles.
We went over three or four of them, but there’re plenty more in the book. And yeah, I think it’s funny because I didn’t plan this. I feel very lucky, but we are in a puzzle boom right now. People are obsessed with Wordle and jigsaws. And so I hope that as COVID hopefully ends, that that doesn’t die, that people continue this love of puzzles, because I really do think that they make the world a better place. And maybe if I can, I’m going to, you know what? Oh, this is good. I’m going to make you a little gift box of puzzles that are going to blow your mind and get you sucked back into the puzzle call.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I would love that. The gateway drug box of puzzles by A.J. Jacobs. Yes.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: I would love that. I would love that. Thank you so much. And I also want to give voice to something that I’ve been thinking throughout this entire conversation, and you pointed this out already when I said that I dropped puzzles. I haven’t dropped puzzles. It’s just that my narrow definition of puzzles needs to be expanded. Right? And if we think of puzzles in a sense as games with certain rules, certain constraints, certain desired outcomes, that we’re all playing games. Right?
If you think about outside of the lowest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I mean, what we’re opting into, we are playing games. And I guess the first order of business is to try to identify which games we’re playing. Right? And try to make sure we’re playing the right games, because the social conventions around us can be enabling or disabling. And I would expect that the way you present subject matter and the way you tell stories will help people to realize that the water they swim in is already full of puzzles. And that by, as you said, sort of working on the micro puzzles, you can develop up capacities that then translate to the macro puzzles.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. I mean, you just reminded me, you have been doing puzzles. I mean, in your first book, when you talked about the martial arts competition you won. That was a puzzle.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. It was, yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: That was like you used an innovative technique. Then Tango also a puzzle. So yeah, you are a puzzler, whether you know it or not.
Tim Ferriss: I suppose that’s true for a lot of people listening. A.J., is there anything else that you would like to mention? Any requests you’d like to make? Public complaints you’d like to lodge? Anything at all that you would like to add before we bring this conversation to a close?
A.J. Jacobs: I will say, I mean, I hope you buy my book or at least take it out of the library or enjoy it or talk about it. But I have not settled on my next book. And I have found that readers or just listeners have sometimes wonderful ideas, sometimes not. But sometimes interesting ideas. So if you feel like getting in touch with me through my website or Twitter, I would love to hear from you about what you think I should embark on next.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful. People can find you @ajjacobs.com, @AJJacobs on Twitter. What can people find at thepuzzlerbook.com? What will people find on this website?
A.J. Jacobs: That is where you enter the code for the contest that will open up to about 20 wild puzzles that I did not design. Greg Pliska and these great designers made them. So if you want to enter the contest, it’s thepuzzlerbook.com. And there are all these disclaimers about you have to be 18 and live in the United States, et cetera, et cetera. So that’s on there. But also, there are a bunch of puzzles on there as well. So even if you don’t enter the contest, it might be worth checking out.
Tim Ferriss: A little something for everybody. And we’ll link to all of the social, link to all the websites in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast as per usual. And I’m very happy that you made it both into the Saturday and Tuesday editions of The New York Times crossword puzzle.
A.J. Jacobs: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Getting a twofer, that seems, unless you’re Justin Bieber. I think, I mean I have to imagine that’s quite an unusual honor to actually get a doubleheader.
A.J. Jacobs: I don’t deserve it, but I am happy to take it.
Tim Ferriss: Who deserves anything? I mean, I think you were able, you managed to appear twice, no one could argue. The results justify in this case, the means. And so nice to see you again, A.J.
A.J. Jacobs: So fun.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks for taking the time.
A.J. Jacobs: What a blast. Thank you, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: And for everybody listening, as always, and as I already mentioned, we’ll have links to all the resources in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And certainly check out A.J.’s new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. And until next time be a little kinder than is necessary. Take care of yourselves. And thanks for tuning in.
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