Ep. 213: AJ Jacobs – Podcasting, Then and NOW

aj jacobs

My first podcast is 24 minutes long. It’s just me. No guest. The topic: “Why College Is a Waste of Time.” Then I did one about my book “Choose Yourself.”

One week later, I got 30 minutes with Robert Greene. Then an hour with Tucker Max, an hour with Gary Vaynerchuk, and an hour with AJ Jacobs.

A month later I interviewed Dr. Wayne Dyer. Two months, Arianna Huffington. Six months, Mark Cuban.

I didn’t have an editor or a microphone. Three years later everyone has (or should do!) a podcast.

It connects me with people I never thought possible. Or in AJ Jacobs’ case, it connects people with family they didn’t know existed. That’s the theme of his new podcast, “Twice Removed.”

“The good news is once you realize that everyone is family, you can just choose,” AJ said. “So you’re not stuck. You’ve got the whole world to choose from.”

His first guest was Dan Savage, the sex columnist for “The Village Voice.” In the other room, AJ had a secret guest, a relative 41 degrees removed from Dan.

Along the way, AJ unravels the 41 connections. He had Dan in tears.

“We’re all connected,” AJ said. “People have called genealogy the museum of me. We all see the world through our own lens.”

Here’s what I learned from AJ’s lens…

1. Start with X

When I first started doing an interview podcast my audience size was X. Then I improved the quality and my downloads went to 3X.  In the case of “Twice Removed,” “Start Up” and “Freakonomics” adding production makes it 10X.

“For every minute that makes the air, there are hours that don’t,” AJ said. “You can make 18 different shows using the same material.”

The key is to do the best with what you have today. That’s how I started “The James Altucher Show.” And how I started doing what I never dreamed possible for the first 40 years of my life.

2. Show the truth

The arc of a good story starts with a problem. Luke Skywalker wanted to explore but he couldn’t until his aunt and uncle were killed by stormtroopers. Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in the first few panels of Batman.

You need a problem to kickstart an otherwise reluctant hero.

“I love to tell my kids about my family’s failures,” AJ said. “Honestly, I think they think I’m total loser.”  

AJ told me about an Emory University study. It showed kids are better adjusted and happier when they’re told about their family’s failures.

“There’s the narrative of ‘We were always successful’ or ‘We’re always losers.’ Families are oscillating,” AJ said. “You go through times where things are going well and times when it’s total failure. Tell your kids about the struggles your family has undergone and that you emerged ok… that you survived.”

Give yourself permission to have an imperfect life.

3. Surprise Yourself

AJ learned this from a writer at “The Daily Show.” “He talked about how important it is to surprise yourself and make yourself laugh,” AJ said, “which at the time I didn’t really understand.”

So he tested it.

“As you’re writing, take a left turn that your brain didn’t expect.” He does this in “Twice Removed.” And in our interview.

He told me about an experiment he did with his wife. They filmed 24 hours of their day for weeks. Every argument was caught on tape. And they checked it to find out who was actually right.

“It was bad either way,” he said. “Because if I was wrong I looked like an idiot, but if I was right she would just get angrier.”

So they quit that experiment. And he started a new one: “Twice Removed.”

Photo credit: Pamela Sisson

Links and Resources:

Books by AJ Jacobs:

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  • Starting stories about our family tonight!

    I’ve been telling our kids adventure stories with personified animals the past few months, which has been a big help with copywriting, and the kids love it, so clearly a win. Adding stories about our struggles and triumphs is a no-brainer.

    Thanks James & AJ!

  • Virginia Reeves

    I know very little about anyone in my family. We hardly talked to each other growing up and rarely now (I’m 66). And then it’s nothing deep. It’s sad that we know very little about our grandparents or cousins as they live(d) 1,500 miles away. Our parents rarely talked about their lives. I encourage families to share more. Instill this curiosity and desire to truly know what’s going on. That is real education.

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      • Eric Worral

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  • Angelica Mena

    Great podcast James! I’m curious to know whether AJ bought an abundance of gifts in advance and gave one to his wife each day or if he devoted time out of his day every day to buy her a gift for the experiment?

  • Everyone has a story before the story that you have about them. I interviewed my Grandma a year before she died in 2014. If you get the opportunity to do so, do. Her story was rich to partake in. It increased my empathy for my own mother, even more than before. https://soundcloud.com/rose-b-levantine/interview-with-grandma-rosie