367 – AJ Jacobs: Immerse Yourself (A Creative Process)

People used to blow smoke up their asses… to cure themselves. I shouldn’t know that. But I do. Because I’m friends with A.J. Jacobs.

“They would actually take a hose, stick it up your butt and then blow smoke up— you know the phrase ‘blow smoke up your ass’—that’s where it started,” A.J. said.

He was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. And found this fact under the letter T for “tobacco enema.”

It was part of his research for a book called “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.”

Before that, A.J. wrote “It’s All Relative,” where he went on a mission to find all 80,000 of his relatives—and then realized that we’re all relatives. When he emails me, it always starts either with, “Hey James!” or “Hey cousin James!”

He even threw a family reunion in New York. And it won the Guinness World Record for biggest family reunion. Dr. Oz was there.

This happens with all of A.J.’s projects. He comes up with an idea, physically throws himself in the middle of it, and then it just takes off in all these unpredictable directions.

And the experiment becomes an experience. He doesn’t dig into his past or search online. He starts something new.

“I often think of my life as if I’m a curator of great moments,” A.J. said. “‘Cause 90% of moments are going to be boring, but if you can find those few moments and just collect them like a curator and keep them in your mental museum, that’s a lovely way to live.”

I’ll give you an example.

His next book is about gratitude. But NOT in a way you’ve ever heard before.

The new book is called “Thanks a Thousand.”

“And what I do is I go around the world thanking 1,000 people who helped make my cup of coffee. It could be anyone.”

He went to Colombia to thank the farmers.“But also the truck drivers,” he said. “And the people who paved the road because the truck drivers couldn’t do their job without the roads. I had to thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement.”

He knew it was weird.

And that’s part of the brilliance. He took a big concept (gratitude), and expanded it to all the layers underneath.

“Push it as far as you can,” A.J. said. “And I will tell you, I thank my son for helping me come up with it. I’ve read all the studies about gratitude. There’s tons of science behind it. So I always say a prayer of thanksgiving before my meal, but I’m an atheist, so I wouldn’t thank God, I’d say, ‘I’d like to thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes and the trucker who drove the tomatoes to the store and the cashier who rang the tomatoes up.’”

His son stopped him once.

And this is where the idea came in.

His son told him, “If you really care, you would go out and thank them in person.”

That’s part two of A.J.’s creative profession: totally immersing himself.

Part one is the idea.

So I asked him, “How do you come up with so many good ideas?”

“It’s a numbers game,” he said. “Most of my ideas suck. “You just don’t see them, but if you come up with enough ideas, some of them are going to be gems.”

“Do you ever feel irrelevant if you’re not producing everyday?” I asked.

Because I do. I get anxious if I don’t produce podcasts, articles, books, ideas all the time. And this pressure can come from anywhere. From a boss, clients or customers.

Even if you have good relationships with these people, there’s still that internal pressure. And it’s almost painful. I can feel it in my chest. And yet I don’t slow down when I need to. I try to run away from it. I focus on getting better, getting closer to peak performance. It’s part addiction, part love, and part fear. I’m afraid of being forgotten.

But not everyone sees it that way. A.J. even debated me on quantity vs. quality. “I should study you more for your productivity,” he said.

“No, but maybe my stuff isn’t as high-quality as your six New York Times bestsellers.”

“Quantity over quality… maybe there’s something to that,” he said. “Maybe I should just start vomiting out more stuff instead of trying to sweat it.”

Quantity vs. quality is an interesting and useless debate. He has his way. I have mine. Both work.

The key is to DO.

A year ago, I was thinking of writing fiction novels. I doubled down on comedy instead. And now I’m trying out YouTube (more on that later). And A.J. almost tried out a year in venture capital, but, he wrote “It’s All Relative” instead, which turned into a TV show.

We’re lucky life is full of choices. But only if you actually choose. And go.

“I once did an article on ‘How To Do Everything Faster’ and one of the people I interviewed was a thriller writer, whose name I totally forget now…”

The guy had written over 200 books. It’s cliché, but his philosophy was, “Perfection is the enemy of productivity.”

I’ve written somewhere around 19 books, I think. (I’ve lost count.) But only some are good. I needed those first few books to get started. I need to be bad to get good.

A.J.’s already good. He was a journalist before he was an author. His books didn’t need to teach him how to write. He learned something else from them instead…

“I am default-mode cranky and annoyed at everything,” he said.

“Wait. I’ve never seen you cranky or annoyed.”

“Well, that’s ‘cause I’m so good at faking gratitude… until I feel it. So this is one of the big lessons: I would spend two hours calling and thanking people and by the end, it had worked its magic. It’s this whole idea of fake it ‘til you feel it.”

I’m going to try this. I’m going to pick one thing a day, and wonder what it took for it to get in my hands. And I bet I can make it to 1,000 “thank yous.”

——-
Last thing before you go blow smoke up your ass! About the YouTube show. My post-game analysis with A.J. is live.

Half way through the podcast A.J. said, “Yeah, I want to analyze all the things I did wrong. Cause I have a lot of criticisms already on my performance.”

“On your performance on this podcast?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, that will be on the post-game analysis.

 

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