READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why James Altucher emails 20 people his ideas every morning
- Who to thank for making your morning cup of coffee possible
- How to make your life better while helping other people
A.J. Jacobs is a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” whose extreme lifestyle experiments have been chronicled in his four New York Times bestselling books, including most recently, It’s All Relative. He joined James Altucher, entrepreneur and bestselling author of Choose Yourself, for a conversation about what it takes to come up with one of A.J.’s signature experiments, and why creativity strikes when you choose to be yourself.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.
James: You had the world’s largest family reunion in [your book], It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree. You came up with the idea that everyone’s related and took it one step further, which I think is so critical to creativity.
Once you came up with the idea for It’s All Relative, did you start making lists of all the interesting stories you could do? You went out and visited George H. W. Bush because you figured out how you’re related to him, you interviewed Daniel Radcliffe, Chrissy Teigen, you basically called up everybody you wanted to.
A.J.: Exactly. It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but everyone’s Kevin Bacon. It’s the ultimate narcissism to see who you’re related to, which is why I liked writing this book. It’s looking at families from every different angle. It is the most basic social network. It is the basic form that we’re all born into.
James: What about the idea that many people don’t like their family, the saying that when you’re an adult, you get to choose your own family?
A.J.: One of the beauties of modern family is that you have your biological family and your logical family. Nowadays, the logical family is almost as important, if not more important, than the biological family. Stalin had kids. You want to be able to choose not to be associated with your father.
James: Didn’t Stalin’s daughter defect to the United States?
A.J.: Yeah, there’s an example of why it’s good to choose your family. That’s one of your big themes: choose yourself, choose your family.
James: It’s all connected. What I admire about your process is that you come up with high-stakes umbrella themes, like the Bible, or knowledge, or health, or family, and then you dive in and experience it. At the end of it all, you sit down and write, “This is what happened to me.”
The topic of your next [book] is gratitude. What are the things you [use] to experience gratitude that you can later write stories about?
A.J.: The idea is I take a cup of coffee, one of my greatest pleasures, and I spend several months thanking every single person I can that made that cup of coffee possible. I went to Colombia and thanked the guys who picked the beans, the truckers, the logo designer, the guys who produce the tires for the trucks, the guys who got the rubber. There are thousands of people involved in every little thing that we do.
When I was calling [or visiting,] it was like the opposite of crank phone calls. I called the warehouse manager of where the coffee is stored. I said, “This is a little strange, but I just wanted to thank you for keeping the coffee in the warehouse clean so that I could drink it in the morning.” At first, she was like, “That is weird.” [But then,] I asked who she was thankful for, and she listed all these people. People who make the forklifts, people who kept the roaches out, and I was like, “Yeah, they deserve thanks [too].” She was weirded out in the beginning, but by the end, she said, “This has made my day. No one ever thanks us.” They help with my coffee, so I should.
James: Not only do you have stories to tell, and a different way of understanding gratitude, but you improve. Now that you’ve personally reached out to everybody involved in making that cup of coffee, does that make you appreciate it more when you sip it?
A.J.: Oh yeah. It is good for you. It is healthy. It makes you happier. Mostly, it makes the other people you thank happier.
The one thing you have to be careful of, if all you are is grateful, you can be complacent and think, “Oh, everyone’s wonderful,” whereas the bean pickers are being paid 50 cents a day. So, you’ve got to use that gratitude as a launch point for action, for trying to make the world a better place.
James: So how did you do that?
A.J.: A lot of it is about choices: making sure you buy the right coffee, giving to charity. Part of it calls for acts of altruism, which is all about giving to the right places. It is hard. These are global forces, so I’m not going to be able to change them myself, but I can do little things.
James: It occurs to me that all of your books, in some way, are about increasing your personal happiness. For instance, in The Year of Living Biblically, you sincerely ask the question, “Is this the guide to life?” You actually did it for a year without a break, living your life. In Drop Dead Healthy, you’re happier when you’re healthy, so you explored that for a certain amount of time.
A.J.: I will say this—I feel that [there’s] a high correlation between your own happiness and your willingness to help other people. When I am bitter and angry, I am all about myself. Whereas when I am trying to make myself happy, the more I try to think about other people, the less bitter and angry I become, because you’re getting outside of yourself. There’s a link between making your life better and making other people’s lives better.
“You’ve got to use that gratitude as a launch point for action, for trying to make the world a better place.”
James: Did you conclude that through your books?
A.J.: Well, it’s also just getting older. In my 20s, I was such an asshole—all I cared about was myself and my career, and I had no interest in how the world was doing. Eventually you become a little better and [start] caring about the world. I’m still a selfish asshole, because I think that is innate and hard to get over, but I’m much less of a selfish asshole than I used to be.
James: How’s this book done so far?
A.J.: Since I believe in radical honesty: the reviews have been everything I could have hoped. The press has been everything I have hoped. The sales—not everything I could have hoped, and I’m not sure why. I think it is partly the Trump effect—people want to buy books about either how great he is or how horrible he is. That is so urgent right now.
James: Do you also feel like people aren’t reading as much? The average National Book Award winner, before they win the prize, has about 2,000 sales. This video already has 2,000 views.
A.J.: Video is a monster that is hard to stop. It is just so alluring, and I think that’s a problem. I’m old, I’m like a dinosaur in that way. I think people think better on the page.
James: Books are an event, too. You accomplished something—you did the world’s largest family reunion, you visited all these people, you explored from every angle. That’s not something you can really describe in a video without just being a talking head. You could document a video as a supplement, but written storytelling is an art form.
A.J.: It’s much easier to get into the subtleties of ideas in the written form. They [tried] to turn The Year of Living Biblically into a reality show and when we set up the first meeting with the producers, they’re like, “This will be great, we’ll show the good of the Bible, the bad of the Bible, we’ll show how it sometimes can help, sometimes it’s terrible for society.” I went, “Yes! I want to show that.”
Six months later, we’re in Spike TV offices pitching the Bible Olympics, where these hunky guys would run down a mountain holding stone tablets and see who could get to the bottom first. I was like, “This is a fucking nightmare.”
The medium lends itself to extremes and one-sided arguments. It’s just so seductive that way. I don’t know if I could have made a subtle show about the Bible.
“I’ll never be as creative trying to do your idea as I’ll be creative trying to do my story, live my life…”
James: It begs the question though: isn’t spreading a message through video or other forms of media just as important now?
A.J.: I do think visuals [are incredibly important]. When I wrote The Year of Living Biblically, I still believe that 70% of the book sales were because of my crazy beard. The Bible says you can’t shave the corners of your beard, and I didn’t know where the corners were, so I just grew this insane Ted Kaczynski-like facial hair down to my solar plexus. I included those pictures on the cover of the book and in every press appearance I did. I think that drove most of the sales.
James: People always say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but the reality is a book itself is like a sculpture almost, a work of art by itself. People only see the cover before they open it up. Everybody judges a book by the cover.
A.J.: Now, let me hear about [your book], because Choose Yourself did incredibly well, and yet, the cover is very simple.
James: I’m still trying to figure visual media out. I’ve started doing more videos, started to use Instagram more, but I love the written word. I love telling stories. The book is basically about when I was broke and jobless and losing my home—I had made a lot of money at one point, and I had lost it all through very stupid decisions. I had to figure out what was I going to do to climb back up.
A.J.: That’s what I love about your books—you practice radical honesty in many ways. You tell about your mistakes, and you are not afraid. I think it’s empowering to talk about how you failed.
James: I’m never qualified to judge anyone else’s life because we’re all struggling with being disappointed in ourselves and putting pressure and anxiety on ourselves. When I write, it’s just my story. I never want to make anyone else feel bad because they’re going through their own struggles. Particularly in today’s Twitter-takes-all world, [where] everybody’s just trashing everyone else, you have to be sincere about what’s going on inside yourself. That’s ultimately how creativity blossoms. I’ll never be as creative trying to do your idea as I’ll be creative trying to do my story, live my life, and then documenting that process.
A.J.: You are an idea machine: almost every day you send unsolicited ideas to 20 people. How do you generate those ideas? Are they just shower thoughts, or do you have a regimen?
“Every part of the process, even rejection, even failure, is art.”
James: I did that today actually. I didn’t send 20 ideas to 20 people, but I sent at least one or two ideas to about 20 people. I think of somebody, and I work really hard [to think], “What would be a good idea for this person?” I have been doing this every day for about 15 years, so I’ve gotten a little bit better at exercising this idea muscle. Like any other muscle you have, it needs to be exercised every day or it atrophies.
That helps you come up with great ideas, but most ideas are still bad. I sent out 20 ideas today and got one response back [along the lines of,] “Oh, this might be interesting, can we talk further?” Just like anything, it takes a long time to be a good writer, it takes a long time of practice and exercise. But if you don’t come up with ideas for people, if you don’t have a giving mentality, then you have the wrong strategy.
If I said to you, “A.J., meet me for coffee. I just want to pick your brain, and I want you to be my mentor,” you won’t even respond. So, I have to say, “A.J., I found you 15 sponsors for your next world family reunion,” or “I found another thing to be grateful for, and here’s all the phone numbers of people to call about this thing.” I have to actually help you too. It’s always an exchange of ideas we can go back and forth on.
A.J.: I love that. And it works for you. When you sent those first 20 people 20 ideas, 18 of them just totally ignored you, right?
James: Yeah, 17 totally ignored me. This was when I realized I had to give something instead of thinking just about myself. Most people still didn’t respond because most ideas are bad, but one person said, “Oh, this is interesting, why don’t you manage some money for me?” I started a hedge fund out of that. Another person said, “Why don’t you write for my website?” I started a writing career out of that. The third person said, “Okay, let’s have lunch.” I didn’t respond to him for twelve years, and then eventually Nassim Taleb, who it was, came on my podcast. I responded to him finally twelve years later, and I said, “Why don’t you come on my podcast instead?”
That’s the benefit of sending out ideas to people—people know you care, people know you’ve done the research, and then you can write about it. Every part of the process, even rejection, even failure, is art.