If you’re puzzled by life, NY Times Bestselling Author AJ Jacobs has just the experiment for you.
A.J. Jacobs, is an author, journalist, lecturer and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor and a dash of self-help.
In this episode, the author of The Year of Living Biblically shares how his latest book, The Puzzler, took him on a rollicking journey to understand the enduring power of puzzles: why we love them, what they do to our brains, and how they can improve our world.
A.J. shares how gratitude for the hundreds of things that go right each day can change our lives, how he wishes he knew how comparing led to despairing in his twenties, and how he gets back 47 seconds a day using elastic shoelaces
AJ Jacobs: If you compare yourself to others, it leads to despair. And I definitely was a comparer.
Debra Alfarone: Thanks for listening to BEEP I wish I knew in my 20s. This is the podcast hosted by a former high school dropout turned network TV correspondent, I figured, hey, I had to learn everything the hard way. I had no mentors. I had no big Sister, I had no one telling me stuff. So I want to be that person to you. There’s probably no better guest than my guest today. AJ Jacobs, who is an author, a……wait…… back that up….New York Times bestselling author a couple of times over and the reason why you make such a great guest is because you’ve gone on these incredible quests in your books.
AJ: Can I just say I’m very excited to be here. I love the concept of the show. And yeah, I certainly could have used this show. I was an idiot in my 20s. I’m, you know, I’m still an idiot in many ways, but hopefully slightly less of an idiot.
Debra: Your first book is “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” where you literally read the entire encyclopedia. So you’re pretty smart.
AJ: I tried to be smart, I’m not sure I achieved it.
Debra: What were you like in your 20s?
AJ: I was a mix of good and bad. The good was that I was a hard worker, I really wanted to have a successful career. The bad was, I was completely focused on myself, which made me miserable. That is one of the crazy, weird things is that when you are focused totally on your own happiness, instead of thinking about others, it’s counterproductive. I think that once I started to think a little bit about other people–I’m sure I’m still very selfish, because you know, that’s part of human nature–but I try to think of others, and that, weirdly, makes me happier. So if you want to, in a selfish way, become happier yourself, think about others, help others and it actually works.
Debra: But you’re so right, service is the rent that we pay to be on this earth. Isn’t that the quote?
AJ: A lovely quote.
Debra: It’s not me. Somebody really, really important, and I cannot steal that one. But anytime I feel just not good about myself, not happy where I am, you know, even if you pay a compliment to someone else, it’s just the most incredible gift you can give someone.
AJ Jacobs: Well, yeah, my most recent book was about gratitude. And, the idea was I went around the world and thanked–it’s not my most recent book, my second most recent book–I went around the world and thanked a thousand people who had anything to do with my morning cup of coffee. So I thank the barista, I thank the farmer, but I also thank the truck driver who drove the coffee beans, and the person who did the logo for the coffee shop. And it was like you say, a virtuous circle. I felt better because I was thanking these people. And then they would thank me for thanking them. And then I would thank them for thanking me for thanking them and it got a little dangerous. But, it was wonderful. Because you do realize the hundreds of things that go right every day that you take for granted, it’s a great way to stop the negative bias, which is our human bias to focus on everything that goes wrong.
Debra: You say something about a negative bias. I don’t think that people realize. I coach lots of young people in their 20s to be good on camera. And what happens is, they’re mean to themselves. “I’m not good.” And we go to the negative. So when you were in your 20s, do you remember being positive like that, like the gratitude project that you had? Or no, it was the other way?
AJ: Oh,no, I was very mean to myself, I beat myself up. I didn’t follow a trick which I try to do now, which is treat yourself like you would treat a friend. What would you say to a friend if they messed up? You know, it’s not the end of the world. You messed up and, and next time you’ll do better. So yeah, I was very bad at that. I was. I was just listening to a friend of mine, her podcast, and I am a sucker for rhyming advice. And she did say something about compare and despair. So if you compare yourself to others, it leads to despair. And I definitely was a comparer. And I still am, as I say, I’m working on it. But yeah, like, you know, I had a friend who published a book before me and it’s like, oh my God, you know, I’m a loser and failure. This guy has so much better a life. And you don’t know that. First of all, you don’t know that. You don’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds. And secondly, who cares? Focus on yourself and try you know, you should be focusing on making your self better and, and what you can do to improve the world.
Debra: It’s like an attack on yourself. Because here’s the thing is no one can be compared to another person. We’re all incomparable. We’re all unique. Little miracles, right? If you think about it, but again, we go right there. And I’ve certainly done that. I literally did that the other day. Oh, and I have a kind of love/hate with Instagram, because I do get so much joy out of talking to people and meeting people. But then I saw this girl doing something I wanted to do. And I was like, oh.
AJ: I know. I wish there were a rule where people had to, for every picture of them in a beautiful, tropical place with their happy family, they should be encouraged to post something about a failure? Because we all have failures.
Debra: Is there one thing that you wish you knew in your 20s? That might have made life a little bit easier? What was the one thing that you wished you knew back then?
AJ: Oh, there are so many. I mean, I made a list of just a couple, but I could go on for hours. I mean, some of them are tiny. I, a few years ago, converted to elastic shoe laces. And I haven’t had to tie my shoe laces in like, three years, and I love it.
Debra: How much time have you gotten back in your life?
AJ: At least like 45 seconds, I don’t know, two minutes, a few minutes. Then there are the big things like helping others is a way to happiness. I would say rejection. You know, it’s very hard to learn, and I’m still learning how to take rejection. But it’s such a part of life. You know, as you say, I’ve had some success in my career, I’ve published several books, but I still get rejected all the time. And, I think a friend of mine has a theory that we are wired to take rejection far more seriously than we should. Because if you were a cave person, and you approached someone who you wanted to have a relationship with, and they rejected you. Like, there are only 100-150 people in the tribe. That’s huge. Like you could be ostracized, that’s it, if you’re kicked out and you die of starvation, that’s big. But I live in New York City, there millions of people, if I get rejected, I’m probably never going to see that person. I’m not even talking romantically because I’m married, but just you know, in terms of, I pitch someone an idea, big deal, who cares? Who cares, I get rejected, there’s so many other people you can try. So just being okay with rejection, is something I tell my 20 year old self.
I’ll give you one other and all, almost all of my books have this running theme about how much your behavior affects your mind. Because the traditional way I thought of it in my 20s was, you know, if you can change your mind, you can change your behavior. If you become more optimistic, then, you know, you might act in a more optimistic way. There’s a great quote, I learned almost as good as yours, which is just not mine. It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.
So if you act, whatever it is, if you act confident, then eventually, you will catch up with your actions and your mind will become more confident. And I saw this over and over. Even when writing books, I wrote a book about health. And I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist. So I would often wake up filled with despair, like, why am I doing this to myself? Watch, you know, this is a disaster. It’s way too big a topic. I don’t know what I’m doing. But then I would say, all right, I’m just gonna act as if I’m confident and optimistic. And I would call someone up, you know, a famous doctor and ask for an interview. Or I would call my publisher and say, well, when the book comes out, can we throw a big party and serve kale martinis or whatever, you know, just acting as if I knew that this was going to be a success. And after a couple of hours, I started to feel better. And the book actually was a success.
Debra: Sometimes some people live on autopilot, the way you wake up, the way you feel and your whole day goes that way. We take the no but it’s just a word. The person said a word. “No, we’re not interested.” “No, we don’t want to go out with you.” “No, we’re not going to, you know, let you write that article.” “No, you’re not going to get that job.” It’s just a word. No. It’s what we make that to mean. That’s where the suffering is. So the what is always the two things of what happened and the story we made up about it, and sometimes you make up a story. I’m never gonna get that book deal. I’m never gonna get that date or no, I’m funny looking. No one wants to date me. I’m too this I’m too that. You go, you know, down a spiral. So it’s not the “no,” it’s the story we make up about the “no,”
AJ: I love that.
Debra: And I will also credit that, Landmark is where I learned that.
AJ: When people ask me for writing advice, I often I say, you know, having what I call chutzpah, strategic chutzpah is very important. And because, you know, your people are not going to come and assign you stuff, especially starting out, you got to get out there and pitch. I was writing my book. It was called The Year of Living Biblically. And a freshman at my college at Brown, emailed me out of the blue and said, this was many years ago, like 15 years ago, and he said, I want to be a writer someday, can I come volunteer and be your assistant? So first of all, he was risking rejection. Secondly, his letter was very funny. Well researched, like he knew a lot about me. And it was beautifully written. So it wasn’t just phoned in like, and I could see he put some work into it. And I was like, you know what, what’s the downside of having someone volunteer for you for free? Yeah. So I did, I ended up hiring him. And the book was about the Bible and how people interpret it. So I actually went on a trip to Jerry Falwell’s church. And he, I asked him to come with me as sort of thank you. And he came, and he loved it. He was fascinated by this. And he said, what if I write a book where I transfer from Brown, like one of the most liberal colleges in the world, to Jerry Falwell’s college Liberty, which is the most conservative? Yes, like you can’t, you know, hold hands with the opposite sex much less the same sex. And I said, Well, that was a, that’s an interesting idea. And I helped him, I got him my agent, and I helped him with the proposal, and he published the book. And it’s set him off. He’s a superstar. He’s now a columnist for the New York Times. So a lot less takeaways for me were like, he put himself out there, but he did it in a creative way. It could be considered that I was doing him a favor. But in the end, it actually works out for me great, because he is super successful. And he has helped me connect to people that he knows that I don’t know. So it has, it has paid off big time. This has paid off big time.
Debra: That is an incredible story. And you have to do the big ask, you have to ask, you know, you got to be nervous, if you’re not a little bit. If you don’t have some butterflies in your stomach while you’re writing that note, that letter to you, then you’re really not living, and you get to create the size of your life. So that is an incredible story. Okay, we need to know about him.
AJ: His name is Kevin Roose. And if you yeah, Google his columns in the Times. He’s brilliant. He writes about technology and Facebook. And he was like, way ahead of this. You know, social media can be really bad for.
Debra: I want to talk about your most recent book, this one’s a little bit different. And I want to hear a little bit about how you got to this and what the lessons are for our 20-something friends in it.
AJ: Yeah, well, there are definitely a lot of lessons. And it’s an actually an unusual origin story for me of how the book came out. Because I was working on another book, which actually, I think is an interesting topic. It was all about how do we know what we know? But I was also miserable. I somehow felt overwhelmed. And my agent said to me, you’re miserable. Why don’t you try–I was three months into it. I had a contract and he said, Why don’t you write something that you love, something that you’re passionate about, which was puzzles, I have always loved puzzles, crossword puzzles, you know, mostly word puzzles, but you know, riddles, logic puzzles, too. So I was like, well, that would be fun. That would be a much more fun way to spend a couple of years if I can convince my editor. And I wrote up a proposal and she said, okay, yeah, we can do that instead. So, the big point, I guess, of that story is, is you have to be flexible. And pivoting, I guess is an overused word. But it is really important.
So I pivoted from one product to another, and I was much happier. And I think it’s been a success, because I really enjoyed researching it. And weirdly, one of the big lessons in puzzles is that you have to be flexible, you have to have cognitive flexibility, you have to see the problem from 100 different ways. You can’t be convinced that your one first way you come up with is right. So flexible thinking to me is everything and it’s how it came about. But it’s also how to solve puzzles, which is what the book is all about. The book is called The Puzzler. And it is about my lifelong obsession with puzzles. And I dive into 20 different kinds of puzzles. So every crosswords, jigsaws, Japanese puzzle boxes, chess puzzles, you name it, and I talk to these wonderfully eccentric people who spend their lives obsessing about this. And I go on adventures, like I participated as Team USA in the world jigsaw puzzle championship. And we were, we were trounced. We embarrassed our country. So I apologize to America, but we had a great time nonetheless. And, and it’s got tons of puzzles in it. But the big theme is, as I say, flexibility and curiosity. It’s an ode to curiosity, which I think even in my 20s, I was, I knew the value of curiosity. So but it is one along with gratitude. Curiosity is one of my favorite emotions. And since you are very good at crediting people, I’ll credit Alex Trebek, the Jeopardy host, I once interviewed him for Esquire magazine, and of the lovely quote that I still think about? It’s a little nonsensical, but I still love it and it resonates with me so deeply. He said, I’m curious about everything, even those things that don’t interest me. So he’s curious about boring things. And I was like, that’s great. Because there is nothing that’s boring. If you scratch the surface. Everything is fascinating. Like take accounting, that, you know, maybe people love to make fun of it for being boring. But accounting is about people’s livelihoods, their business, their passions, their conflicts with other family, it’s about everything. Those numbers are not just numbers, they represent these amazing things.
Debra: Here’s the thing is you stop talking about flexibility. And I’m sorry, but I was totally inflexible about accounting. And I just thought, nope, boring not going to do it. Or I’m going to do it. But I’m going to do it begrudgingly and I’m going to complain the whole time. But if I can be flexible of mind, I can think okay, well, what’s here for me? What might I find here? And if I found like an extra couple of 100 bucks in my bank account, maybe I would be really happy with that. Yeah, you can think that way.
AJ: I love that. Yeah. For me, reframing is another big lesson I would tell my 20 year old self. And in the puzzle book was a lot about that. There’s Quincy Jones, the great musician, he has a quote, he says, I don’t have problems. I have puzzles. So if you can reframe your life’s problems as puzzles, and that can be small puzzles, you can, you know, it could be like, you know, how do I do it? Seating of my family at Thanksgiving, and I use it all the time. Like when I have a discussion with someone on the other side of the political spectrum. I think in my 20s, I would have been seen it is a war. Like a contest, you know, I’m gonna berate him, I’m gonna present facts and and I’m gonna win. And that rarely works for either side, you just become more frustrated and polarized. So instead, if I’m in a conversation like that, I do try to frame it as a puzzle. Why does this person believe what they believe? Why do I believe what I believe? What evidence is there that could change one of our minds? What common ground do we have? Where do we go from here? All of these are fascinating puzzles, and more likely to produce something productive than then berating the other person and trying to beat them down.
Debra: Yeah, boy, this is something you know, I’m in Washington. I mean, it is tough here. It is tough here and they just won’t give each other a chance. I always feel that communication is the way through. But if you’re not gonna listen to someone, you ain’t gonna get anywhere. So I do ask this all the time, about your worst, and you can pick yours, whatever you like, worst date, worst job, worst outfit, in your 20s.
AJ: I remember I was pitching my very first book. And I was working at a tiny newspaper as a reporter outside of San Francisco, Antioch Daily Ledger Post Dispatch. And I sent out my book proposal and an agent actually responded, and he said that, that this publisher was interested in the book, but they wanted to see a photo of me. And I was like, why would they want that? I don’t, what is that? And he says, Don’t worry, it’s just they want to make sure you don’t have three heads. So you can go on a talk show and promote the book. So I I didn’t have, this was way before cellphone phone camera. So I actually I didn’t have one, I went to Walmart, and had them take a photo of me. And I sent the photo to him. And, and he’s like, great. And then two days later, he calls back and he said, Well, they’re gonna pass. And I was like, what? I’m not attractive enough to be an author? So that was devastating. And I was really for, but a couple of things. First of all, I sold the book to someone else who didn’t care what I looked like. And secondly, it turned out that I was able to write about this, you know, it was, I think it was a book of essays by people who have had terrible rejections or something along those lines. So I was able to reframe it again, as a funny story instead of a, you know, this horrible thing that happened to me. So that would be, that would be my worst job.
Debra: I feel like, as long as you get a story out of it, I’ll take any rejection letter, as long as I can tell about it.
AJ: I am with you. 100%.
Debra: What is the one book that you would recommend to someone in their 20s?
AJ: I love that question. Well, I, I would say my book on gratitude. You don’t need my book on gratitude. There are a ton of great books on gratitude. So but that certainly is something that I needed in my 20s is a book on gratitude. I’m just gonna look at my Kindle and see something.
Debra: Please do in the meantime, I’m gonna get my dog. Oh every podcast here’s Baxter.
AJ: He’s a cutie. It’s called The Scout Mindset. The key is to be curious to have the scout mindset means sort of like the explorers mindset is another way to say instead of the soldiers mindset, the soldier knows what he or she wants, and and has their argument already, and is just looking for things to back it up. Whereas the explorer, the scout, is much more curious and doesn’t know all the answers but is willing to look and discover. So I love that way of going through life. And I think I would have been happier if I had that as my mindset in my 20s
Debra:Thank you so much, everyone, you need to go to ThePuzzlerBook.com.
AJ: If you go there, there is for free, like 30 amazing puzzles that I didn’t write, my friends wrote so I can boast about them. But they are so clever and weird and funny, and they’re for free. So if you are looking for some free puzzles to occupy your weekend, please check out thepuzzlerbook.com.
Debra: AJ Jacobs, thank you so much for sharing some BEEP we all wish we knew in our 20s Make sure you hit subscribe if you haven’t already. Tell a friend, leave a review. It helps more than you know. You can also watch this interview on YouTube. Follow us on Instagram and Tiktok @DebraAlfarone for more BEEP I wish I knew in my 20s and drop your email to be the first to know about new episodes and guess what? I’ll send you my free GTFO confidence guide, just drop your email at pages.debraalfarone.com Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
This transcript is from episode 4 of the Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties podcast.
Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties (SIWIKIMT) is a podcast dedicated to helping 20-somethings thrive in their twenties, not just survive.
Host Debra Alfarone knows how tough being in your twenties can be. As a high-school dropout turned-network-TV-correspondent, she learned most of life’s lessons the hard way. She overcame the odds and now covers the White House for CBS News nationally. She’s also a confidence coach for young women in the TV news industry.
Learn more about Jacobs’ latest book here: www.thepuzzlerbook.com
Connect with Jacobs on IG: https://www.instagram.com/ajjacobsinc/
If you like Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties, drop your email at pages.debraalfarone.com to be the first to know about new episodes.