For the last 25 years, writer A.J. Jacobs has attempted to live his life as a human guinea pig.
“I’ve engaged in a series of experiments on my mind and body,” he says, “some of which have been fruitful, some humiliating failures. I’ve tried to understand the world by immersing myself in extraordinary circumstances.”
For The Know-It-All, he read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. To write The Year of Living Biblically, he followed every commandment in the Old Testament, including the edicts stone adulterers and avoid shaving the corners of your beard. Now, A.J. is back with a new immersive memoir, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.
Listen to A.J.’s appearance on the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.
“We are wired to solve problems.”
A.J. Jacobs: We are wired to want to solve problems.
Michael Kovnat: I think you quote someone as saying evolution wants us to solve things.
A.J.: Yes, of course, because that’s how we got food. And luckily it’s gone beyond that. It’s how we got the mRNA vaccine. It’s how we got electric cars. I think we’ve got huge problems, and luckily we have this instinct to want to solve them. But I think it’s very helpful to frame them as puzzles.
There’s a quote I love from Quincy Jones, the music producer, who says: “I don’t have problems. I have puzzles.” He frames life is as a series of puzzles. And I find that wonderful. I find it very empowering, because the word “problem” feels thorny and off-putting and intractable. “Puzzles” are solution oriented. It sounds fun, almost playful. It’s like, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and solve these puzzles.” And I think if we frame big problems, like the environmental crisis, as puzzles — you know, “Let’s solve the puzzle of how to stop climate change” — that is much more inspiring to people than calling it a crisis.
“Don’t get furious—get curious.”
Michael: What are some personal situations that you’ve encountered that you’ve tried to reframe as puzzles instead of problems in your life?
“If I’m talking to someone from the other side of the political spectrum, I will try to frame it as a puzzle instead of a war of words.”
A.J: One is trying to reframe conversations as puzzles, or debates as puzzles. As you might have noticed, we are in a very tribal situation, a very polarized society. So I try to remember this little mantra: “Don’t get furious—get curious.” So if I’m talking to someone from the other side of the political spectrum, I will try to frame it as a puzzle instead of a war of words. What do we really disagree on? What evidence is there that would change her mind or my mind? Where can we go from here? Framing the culture debates as a puzzle is much more productive. It’s more pleasant. And if you’re looking for solution-oriented ways to make the world a better place, I do think that this is a much better strategy.
How many piano tuners are there in New York City?
Michael: You also shared with us this idea of chopping a problem into bits. That’s a strategy you learned from puzzling? Can you say more about that?
A.J.: Yes! I love this. And it comes in handy not just in puzzles but in life. And there’s a good example of this is a genre of puzzles called Fermi problems. It’s these logic problems that Google is supposed to use in job interviews — questions like, “How many piano tuners are there in New York?” And you have to estimate the size of something you know nothing about.
To solve them, don’t just take a wild guess, because you’ll probably be wrong by orders of magnitudes. Instead, just break it down. Think How many households are there in New York? What portion of them have pianos? How often are pianos tuned? How many homes can one tuner reach in a day? You’re going to get an answer that’s not going to be totally accurate, but it’s going to be much more accurate than if you just take a wild guess.
Michael: And I think you said this applies to book writing too, right? I mean, writing and publishing and promoting and a book—these are all puzzles.
“To solve [fermi problems], don’t just take a wild guess, because you’ll probably be wrong by orders of magnitudes. Instead, just break it down.”
A.J.: Oh, yeah. If I tried to think of a book as a single monolithic hunk of prose, I would never get anywhere. It’s too intimidating, too big. So I break it down. Here are the chapters. And then within the chapter, I break it down further. Here are the three ideas I wanna share. Here are the two stories I wanna tell. Otherwise, I would just be staring at a blank screen.
All hail the Heinz ketchup bottle.
Michael: Another puzzle mindset tip that you offer is to turn the puzzle upside down or backwards. Could you share with us the puzzle of the man locked in a room with the cement walls and the dirt floor?
A.J.: This is a classic of what’s called lateral thinking puzzles. So there’s a man in a room. The walls are cement. The floor is dirt. The only openings are a locked door and a skylight. And the man has a shovel, and he starts to dig. Now he knows it’s impossible to tunnel out, but he continues to dig anyway. What’s going on there?
To get the answer, you have to reverse your thinking. He’s not just digging. He’s making a hill of that dirt, and he’s going to make a big mound of dirt that will allow him to climb up and out of the skylight.
That is a crucial tool. You see it in tons of puzzles. But I see it everywhere in real life. Think about the revolutionary assembly line. The idea was: “What if the car parts move to the workers instead of the workers moving to the car parts?” That was a totally opposite way of looking at it. Or even something as literal as the Heinz ketchup bottle where the lid is on the bottom. My old boss at Esquire used to bring the Heinz ketchup bottle to meetings and say, “We’ve gotta think like this about magazines.”
Michael: You also offered us the tip of being supremely flexible. I think it taps into another idea you have in the book you call “the way of the eraser.”
“Embrace the idea that you are going down the wrong path.”
A.J.: Oh, yes, I am a big fan of erasers and of cognitive flexibility. To me it is the most important strategy. Keep your beliefs provisional. Stay open to new evidence. Everything should be as open as possible because it helps you solve problems.
I’ll give you some puzzle examples, and then we can talk about real life examples. A puzzle example is these British crossword puzzles. They’re called cryptics, and they are much trickier than American puzzles. These are all about wordplay. I remember I was doing one, and there was a clue that was just four letters and the letters were G-E-G-S. And I was like, “What is a ‘geg’?” I took a break, and I let go of my certainty, and I came back a couple hours later, and I realized, “I’ve got to be completely flexible and realize it’s not a thing: it is an arrangement of letters. It is eggs scrambled.” So E-G-G-S scrambled. It’s scrambled eggs.
Embrace the idea that you are going down the wrong path. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize–winning psychologist, says being wrong is the only way he feels sure he has learned anything. That to me is such a big takeaway. It’s okay to be wrong. Don’t get obsessed with your one solution and think that it’s got to be this way. Keep your brain as flexible as possible.
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