Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us AJ. For those of you who were listening last episode, there were several hints to suggest who AJ is. He grew up in New York City. He has done several books where he had to radically alter his lifestyle. And as a hint, AJ was number one down on the New York Times’ crossword puzzle about two years ago.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Act Confident Then Be Confident with AJ Jacobs
Listeners, I am so excited to be sitting here today with the legendary AJ Jacobs. For those of you who figured out who he is, and I know one of you got invited to come to The Salon by Influencers, AJ is not only a close friend but I consider him my cousin. Maybe, AJ, as you introduce yourself you’ll explain why we refer to each other as cousins.
You are my cousin, I feel very honored. I am a writer. I’ve written several books, non-fiction books, mostly about radical self-improvement. I wrote one about trying to be the healthiest person alive. I wrote one about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and trying to learn everything in the world. My bestseller was I tried to live by all the rules of the Bible, so I had this huge beard and wore the sandals and stoned at altars using small stones, pebbles, but I did check that off. That one is called The Year of Living Biblically. It’s being made into a TV show. That will be out in the winter of 2018. I’m a writer in Esquire and I go on NPR. I’m lucky enough to go to Jon Levy’s Influencers Salon sometimes.
The reason that you call me cousin?
My new book, which is coming out in September, is all about helping to build the biggest social network in the world, The World Family Tree, and show how everyone is a cousin. It’s online now. I’m one of thousands of people working on this. There are literally about 150 million people on this tree. Jon and I are two of them. We are officially connected. I think we’re about eight cousins, twice removed.
One of the things I love about you, AJ, is that you fundamentally live a life based on novel projects. I really have to commend that.
Thank you. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a project to work on. I think I would just sit on the couch and vegetate.
When people hear what you’ve accomplished, what’s the most common question?
A lot of people will say, “How about your wife? What’s her deal? Why does she stay with you?” For the Bible book for instance, I had this huge beard, which she hated. She didn’t want to kiss me. I couldn’t touch her when she was menstruating. That she found a little bit offensive. She definitely puts up with things.
She got her revenge a little, didn’t she? If memory serves, there’s this absurd rule that if a woman who’s menstruating sits on a surface, you’re never allowed to sit on it, right?
Right. The surface has become contaminated, that’s in Leviticus. She thought that was offensive, so she sat in every seat in our apartment and I had to stand for the rest of the year. She got me. Although, in my health book, I did learn that standing is much healthier than sitting, so in a sense she was doing me a favor.
What’s the most interesting question anybody has asked you?
I do get a lot of suggestions on other books I should do. One popular suggestion is that I should try to become the greatest lover in the world and we should do all the positions in the Kama Sutra. I always say, “I’m just too old for that.” I don’t have the flexibility. I think I would hurt my back. I leave that to someone else, perhaps, Jon Levy. Perhaps that’s something you might be interested in.
I’m not sure if you know this and I think you do, I’m probably equally as injured as you, if not worse. Please remember I was crushed by a bull in Pamplona during Running of the Bulls and I still get back problems. I tried all these experimental therapies to fix everything. It’s been a journey to say the least.
You are saying to me that you cannot do all the positions in the Kama Sutra as well?
Ladies, you’re best off finding another man. Sorry to disappoint you. If you need some suggestions, write to me. Especially if you’re a charming person, I will be happy to introduce you to a fine, fine person to write this book with.
You know a lot of them.
Yes, and remember, it’s for the sake of literature and science.
It’s science, exactly. I know that you’re interviewing me, but how many people have passed through the Influencers Salon?
The Salon, thousands. It’s probably somewhere around 6,000. I’ve hosted 6,000 people and many of those are repeats. There’s probably 2,000 plus people and I’ve hosted 6,000 seats, let’s say. At the dinners, I’ve hosted a thousand individuals. Very few people ever get to repeat it. Occasionally, I’ll allow it, especially if they’re my cousin.
Last question: How many of those 1,000 or 6,000, do you remember all their names? Do you have a superhuman memory?
No. I’m taking a speed reading/memory course just for that. Dinner guests, I remember almost all of their names. The Salon guests, they’re often guests of guests, so I don’t know them at all. Back to me interviewing you, AJ, the forever troublemaker.
Can I go on one other?
Apparently, I don’t have a choice. Go for it.
I was once interviewing Scarlett Johansson. As a journalist, I was trying to get some juicy stuff and she said, “You’re asking me all these personal questions. Why don’t I ask you personal questions?” I’m like, “All right, I’ll do it.” She turned the tables on me. She took my notebook and recorder and started asking me the most personal, “When did you lose your virginity? Have you ever had an STD?” She went really into it. I was very proud of her. She could be a journalist if this movie thing doesn’t work.
We’re all rooting for her and hoping it does. It’s nice to know that she has a fallback. Back to the questions at hand. Your industry is fraught with challenges, either being a journalist working at a publication or being an author. Everybody always says, “I want to write a book. I think I have a book in me,” all these things. What are three tips you would give people that really want to succeed in your industry?
One tip I always give is that you got to come up with your own ideas. No one is going come, especially in the beginning, and assign you. I literally take fifteen minutes a day and I carve out that time like it’s an appointment and I spend those fifteen minutes brainstorming ideas, for articles, they could be for books, they could just be random cartoons, not that I’m a cartoonist. I find it helpful in not only generating ideas but just keeping that muscle going so that you’re always thinking creatively. Our mutual friend, James Altucher, he was one of the ones who taught me this practice. He says it helps him in life because if he’s in a car and the car breaks down and has a flat tire, he’s able to think creatively of what are the solutions. That would be number one.
Number two is, this is a very practical tip but if you’re pitching editors or agents or anyone, kissing ass really does seem to be a very successful strategy. I know because I was an editor and when I would get a note saying, “I love this particular article on basketball hairstyles.” I never did that but then I was like, “This person has taken the time to appreciate my work.” When you’re pitching someone, be very specific in your praise of something that you love that they did. That’s much higher chance that you’ll get a response.
Number three is, this might be obvious, but just keeping a little pad in your back pocket or doing it on you iPhone. Just taking constant notes because hopefully you’ll have ideas throughout the day. I used to have them and by the end of the da, they had slipped away. Always be on the alert. Go through life looking for stories and interesting ideas. Don’t be in default sponge mode. Actually be looking actively and saying, “That could be a story. That could be a Facebook post,” whatever.
It’s really true that there’s this expectation of permeance that doesn’t exist. Just because we think something or we tell ourselves we’re going to do something, we expect it to sustain itself. Unless you physically put it down on paper or in a notebook or something and you have a system to make sure that it retains, otherwise it’s just going to disappear and will be one of those things that exists as another thing we didn’t do.
I have on my computer a crazy file. It’s probably 600 pages long of ideas and 95% of them suck, but that’s the way life is.
All you need are a few to have all these super successful books.
Exavtly. I did one article once on creativity and he talked to all these expert scientists on creativity and they’re like, “Picasso painted some really crappy paintings and Mozart had some terrible songs.” It’s a numbers game. You’ve got to come up with tons of ideas.
There was a study done of famous classical composers, it was number of pieces and number of hits. What they found overwhelmingly was that it was just a numbers game. The people who are most famous were just more prolific and they produced a whole lot of crap, and among the things they created were a whole bunch of hits. There are a very few stories about anybody releasing 40 hits and three duds. It’s usually three hits and 100 duds. As a writer, just keep writing.
I’ll keep writing those duds.
What are some of the pitfalls or secrets that nobody talks about in writing or even in your experience in your career?
I don’t know if people don’t talk about this or do. I’ve been doing this a long time and I still am filled with despair all the time and get rejected all the time. One of the secrets that I found, I mentioned it already, is I just act confident and as if my next book is going to be a huge hit. Then the chances of that happening in real life are much higher. When I was writing the health book, I remember I woke up almost every day filled with despair. I think this topic is too big. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not a doctor or a health expert. But then I would act as if the book was going to be a hit. I would call my publisher and I would say, “Let’s have a big party when the book comes out and we can serve kale flavored martinis.” I would call doctors and say, “I’m writing this book. Can I interview you?” By a couple of hours in, I started to feel better because I act confident. Maybe this is more of a reflection of my personality but I think most writers face despair all the time. You should realize that that’s part of the territory. There’s such a high rate of rejection I think in most things, but certainly in writing.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
I don’t know if it’s a causal thing but I will say that, I don’t want to curse on your podcast, but I’d say if I used to give 300 F’s, now I give maybe three or four. That has been very freeing. For me, one of the secrets is not caring as much about myself and that has made me a lot happier. I think about a lot more, what is going to make my kids happy? What is going to make my friends happy? Is this going to make the world a better place? It sounds goody two-shoes but it’s actually very selfish because it makes me so much happier. If I focus exclusively on my own happiness, then I’m terribly unhappy. If I focus on other people, then I’m much happier.
One of my mentors used to say, “Jon, the reason that you’re suffering or that you’re having an issue with this area, whatever it was in your life, is that your problems aren’t big enough. If your problems were bigger, then you’d just handle all the small stuff and this would be considered small.” I think what you’re pointing to is that when we have something that’s more important, that’s critical and essential, then the normal stuff that would otherwise occupy our bandwidth just falls on the wayside. In your case, caring how your kids are turning out makes the stuff around you and your self-consciousness disappear.
Absolutely. I will say, this election has driven me crazy and made me angry and all that. It’s also, in a sense, empowering because it has motivated me to become much more politically active. In one sense, I’m very angry about the state of the world but, because I think this is more important than my own life, it’s satisfying on some level. It’s empowering and motivating.
As we’re talking about what’s inspiring you, is there a certain quote that really you feel embodies what’s important?
I did mentioned the one before that it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. I love that one. I once interviewed George Clooney for Esquire and he told me a quote that I think about, or maybe it’s not a quote. It’s more of a mindset. He used to play baseball in high school or college. Whenever he got up to the plate, he won’t think, “Am I going to hit a homerun?” He would think, “Which field am I going to hit a homerun to? Is it going to be a right field homerun or a left field or a center field?” I just love that. Most of the time he still struck out, I’m sure as we all do, but the chances of him hitting a homerun would raise just by that level of presumed confidence, I act confident, even if it’s not real confidence.
As an author, is there a certain book that influenced you the most?
There is this classic by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird, which I love and I bring up all the time to my kids. The title comes from the fact that it was her brother who was in high school and was told to write a report on all the birds in North America. He was so flustered and he didn’t know what to do and he said to his dad, “I can’t. That’s overwhelming.” Dad said, “Just write it bird by bird. Take it one at a time. Break the problem down into little small parts that you can handle.” I always find that inspiring because if I go into a book saying, “I’m going to write a book now.” That’s just overwhelming. I have to see it as almost 25 interrelated small projects, and then I’m able to handle it.
Excellent advice. Do you have a hero?
Aside from Jon Levy, of course, I would say the idea of hero is something I avoid because I think that one of the things humans get in trouble with is lionizing one person and not realizing everyone has their good and their bad. If you look at the world this way, it’s much better because it’s easier to forgive because heroes are going to screw up. Even the great heroes like Gandhi, he had some issues going on. Sleeping in the same bed with a naked peasant, that was weird. He didn’t touch her as far as I know but he had some weird thing going on. Everyone has their problems. I still think what he did was great with the British, but every person has their good and bad. If you look at the world like that, it’s healthier. It’s easier to forgive people for their faults and also, it’s easier to see good in people who might be jerks in other ways.
Talking to you is interesting. Who was it that wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People?
Dale Carnegie, that’s the man.
I feel like you’re a modern day Carnegie in your advice. I recently reread the book as I’m working on my next book on influence. Basically, you’ve summed up three of his nine tips in everything we’ve talked about. Guys, you just saved reading a third of a book as long as you listen to AJ Jacobs. AJ, what would have you accept an invitation from a stranger for a meeting? You just get a random email from somebody, what did they say to you in that email?
What I said before I think is very powerful. Be very specific in your praise and not just like, “I was reading your book and I loved it,” but, “I love the scene of you cutting off your beard. That must have been such a weird experience,” so being really specific. That did happen to me. I don’t if you’ve had this guy, Kevin Roose, at your Influencers Dinner. He is a great journalist. He was at the New York Times and New York Magazine. When he was in college, he emailed me out of the blue and said, “I want to be a writer.” He wrote a very funny letter with very specific details that made it clear he was totally familiar with my work. He wasn’t just like, “I’m a college student. I want to get advice. Can I pick your brain?” Never use that phrase, “Pick your brain.” At least for me, it’s like, “I don’t want a brain surgery. I don’t want you picking around my brain.” Try to say, “I’m very excited. I have some ideas. I love your work. I’d love to talk to you about your work and also bounce some ideas off of you.” That to me is much more appealing.
That’s really sound advice, that you want something that’s heartfelt that people really took effort and thoughtfulness in communicating. When that happens, my sense is that people will respond more effectively to it.
James Altucher, who has his own podcast, is a writer, he talked about one time he was down in the dumps, he had lost his job. He wrote 40 strangers and emailed them cold emails, but each of them he said, “Here are ten ideas that I think would be helpful to you. No obligations. No strings attached.” I think 38 of them ignored him but two of them responded and responded in a big way and invested in his next venture. If you show some proactivity, as they say, if you show that you’ve got these ideas, then you’re not just a sponge trying to soak up everything from them. You can actually bring something to the table.
Let’s switch to a bit more of a human tone because you’ve been nothing but inhuman.
I’ve been robotic, yeah.
What are you passionate about or committed to, like a non-profit or an organization or a project that’s really driving you these days?
I did gave a talk at this at one of The Influencer Salons. I’ve become very interested in a movement called Effective Altruism. It’s almost like a scientific approach to charity. This is almost like money ball but for charity. Really crunching the numbers and seeing what helps and what doesn’t. It’s somewhat controversial because the founders, who are these philosophers at Princeton and at Oxford, they say something like, “Make-A-Wish Foundation? That feels good. You’re helping a kid with cancer and meet Mariah Carey, and it feels good. But let’s say that costs $10,000 to set up. You can literally saved the lives of four kids in the developing nation with $10,000. Is this really our best use of money?” In one sense, it’s cold and calculating, but in another sense it’s compassion on another level. It’s trying to see what can you really do to make the world a better place. I’m very into that, Effective Altruism.
What’s a very human secret that you’d feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? The reason I ask this is it’s sometimes easy to look at people who’ve achieved quite a bit. You have several books. You have this wonderful family, a wife who somehow manages to put up with you. There’s this impression that everything is just perfect in your life, whereas other people are maybe struggling with something. Other listeners have shared how they struggled with anxiety or they’re bipolar, anything that you could even imagine. What’s something that you feel comfortable sharing that’s just on a bit more of a human note?
Like most writers, I struggle with anxiety and depression. I have been officially clinically depressed a couple of times. Right now, I’m not fully depressed, which I suppose is good, but I’m definitely anxious about my kids and their future and the state of this world. I think on the long view, the world is getting better. If you look at 20,000 years ago, life sucked. It was the worst. I think we have taken a little wrong turn right now and it’s causing me a lot of anxiety. There’s that. I struggle with depression and mental health issues like many, many millions of Americans. I love this one podcast, it’s called The Hilarious World of Depression. It is all about these comedians who are battling depression and talking about it. It’s great because they are funny. It’s not boring. It’s not clinical. It’s very funny but it shows you that even these people who are incredibly successful and incredibly funny also have these mental health issues. It’s okay if we do it together.
It’s really part of being human. It turned at one point from you can be happy if you come from the right family and you have privilege, then it became we have the right to pursue happiness when we established this great country of ours, then everybody has the opportunity to be happy, then it became this thing where you should be happy and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you. Happiness has turned from a privilege to a burden. It’s incredible because now if you’re not happy every moment of every day, you should do something about that, either medicate or see somebody. Let’s be honest, human beings didn’t evolve to be happy.
That’s a very good point. Humans, we are very, very flawed machines. We’ve got all these crazy cognitive biases. I find that very freeing when I think about life, is this species that we’re a part of, if someone from the MIT media lab saw this machine that we are, they’d be like, “Oh, my god. What a disaster.”
Look at how complicated it is for no reason. There had to be an easier way to build this thing. Just to finish up. You know I’m a big geek. You know I love my comic, especially the heroes and so on. I know you’re not a huge fan of heroes but if you could be any hero from a comic book, who would you be?
I watch some of them superhero movies with my kids. I forget the name of the character. He is the Marvel version of the Flash. He runs incredibly quickly.
Quicksilver? He’s Magneto’s son.
He’s the one. I forget which movie, it was an X-men movie, where he runs around really quickly. I love that scene where he’s taking a sip of someone’s coffee while he’s running around avoiding bullets, fantastic. I feel that way because I feel time goes way too fast. If I could go really fast and somehow time could slow down, that would be the best.
Last question, if you could have dinner with any three living people that you’ve never met before, who would they be?
I would like a lively discussion. Maybe how Abraham Lincoln did the Team of Rivals. I would want people on opposite ends of an issue. Richard Dawkins and the Pope, and maybe throw in Jim Gaffigan just because he’s the life, it will be fun. Jim Gaffigan, Richard Dawkins and the Pope.
I will get right on that. We’ll see if we can arrange that for the next dinner. AJ, it was an absolute pleasure hosting you today. Thank you so much for giving us your time. If people want to find you, get a hold of you, where can they find you on web, Twitter and all that?
Preorder the book, it will not disappoint. If I know anything about AJ, and if you’ve noticed anything from this interview, he’s wild, fun and entertaining. AJ, thank you so much. Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview.
About AJ Jacobs
Author of four New York Times bestsellers, including the Year of Living Biblically. Editor at Esquire magazine. Host of Twice Removed podcast. Contributor to NPR. Threetime TED speaker.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Now, for my absolute favorite part, the anonymous interview. I couldn’t be more excited to be hosting my friend, Jesse. Jesse, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
I have to say, of all the people I’ve hosted on this show, the way I met you is probably the most random by far. We were both coincidently in Stockholm on Ulf Ekberg from Ace of Base’s home island. He has some island property. We crossed a drawbridge and savored bottles of champagne for a day.
It was completely random but an amazing day and we learned how to play Kubb. It’s an amazing game. Listeners, if you have never played Kubb, look this game up. It’s completely ridiculous and fun to do on a sunny day if you have a yard or something like that. It’s a traditional Swedish game. Let’s give the listeners a few hints about who you actually are. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Boulder, Colorado but I grew up out here in LA.
Was there a teacher or something that happened that really inspired you to go into your career?
Not directly related to my career but in high school I had a drama teacher who was super inspiring.
How did you end up in music?
I did a lot of things in high school: sports and theater and music. My bandmates and I did meet in high school, in seventh grade.
You guys have been working together ever since, isn’t that right?
Yes, it’s been a long time.
I’d assume you’re about my age. That makes it close to fifteen, twenty years, right?
I think it’s probably been over twenty years that we’ve been together.
That sounds like an impossible number because all you ever hear about bands is how they break up because of some weird drama.
It’s true. We have sidestepped a lot of the common pitfalls for bands imploding.
One of the things I find interesting is after meeting you, I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of your other band mates. Each of them seems like such a good person. One of the things that just surprised me was how down to earth everybody is and also just somebody you’d want to grab a beer with. Just to give people a sense of what you might look like, if somebody were to play you in a movie, who would you want as the leading man?
I suppose I would cast Casey Affleck. I know my sister would cast Thomas Middleditch.
Who’s Thomas Middleditch?
He plays the Lead Coder and Head of Pied Piper in the amazing television show, Silicon Valley.
That’s absolutely hilarious. I can see both, but I love it. If Casey Affleck and the guy from Pied Piper would have a love child, I could see that, too.
We’ll just CGI it. We’ll put them together digitally.
Is there a certain accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your career?
I think we already touched on it; the fact that we have stayed together and remained so close in our professional and personal lives is something that I’m most proud of and most grateful for.
I often ask guests is there a song that really represents their life. I feel like that’s going to be a really interesting response if it’s one of your own or if it’s somebody else’s.
The first song that comes to mind for a song that would represent my life would be the song Graceland by Paul Simon, which is one of my favorite songs of all time.
That album is one of the absolute classics. It’s incredible, and great choice. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a bet or dare, or maybe a stunt that actually cost your success?
I’ll give you story that I think sums up a lot of the luck that our band has had, combined with a lot of the ambition that we had as kids. We were obsessed with all of the grunge bands in the 90s. As soon as we started our band, we started writing songs and we wanted to be as big as Pearl Jam. That was our ambitious goal even in eighth and ninth grade. In tenth grade, we recorded our very fist demo tape at a studio in Hollywood called Room 222 Records. That night, it was New Year’s Eve 1993, going into 1994, and we had booked a beach party out in Malibu and we were playing our songs. I had the demo tape that we’d recorded that day in my pocket with three songs on it.
A record producer was walking his dog on the beach and heard us play and came up to the party and found us and said, “Do you guys have a tape?” I pulled it out of my pocket and gave it to him. The very next day we got an independent recording contract through this label called Caroline, who would put out The Smashing Pumpkins’ first album. We were so excited and that led to everything that took us to being the band that we are today. That was a roller coaster of our journey over many years.
The ultimate question: Who sold more albums, you guys or Pearl Jam?
That’s a tough one to answer. I don’t know. We’d have to look it up.
Was there an experience of some kind that made you feel like you’ve made it? I know nobody ever fully makes it, but where you were like, “Okay, I’m on the inside now.”
I agree with what you said about no one ever really makes it. I don’t have a sense that we’re done. We still have our sights set high up into the future. I will say that when we did Saturday Night Live for the first time, that was a moment where we felt like, “This is really exciting.” Our single that was out at the time went to number one that very same day that we were on Saturday Night Live. That was the first time we’d had a number one single, so that was incredible timing as well.
What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
I think we might want to say something about Queen Elizabeth and her family. That has something to do with the core of me or the middle of me, I would say.
That’s actually an excellent hint. Listeners, you have a bunch of hints, among others that Jesse may have sold more or may not, we don’t know, records than Pearl Jam. The problem is that people really bought a lot of albums back then and you guys are from a following generation. Nobody goes quintuple platinum anymore.
I remember the day that Pearl Jam’s second album came out. I ditched school to go buy it. It was a great day. They sold a lot of records that first week. Then, the record selling thing, it peaked with NSYNC I believe, selling two million albums in one week. Then it started to decline as the internet started to rise.
Listeners, you’ve got plenty of hints. Figure out who Jesse is and you could win an invitation to The Salon.