Podcast #016 – Interviewing AJ Jacobs Podcast #016 – Interviewing AJ Jacobs


Audio Podcast at the very bottom.

AJ Jacobs is a fascinating NY Times bestselling author, current editor of the infamous Esquire magazine, and what I would say is the “father of outsourcing.” AJ Jacobs has written The Know-It-All, in which he documented his experience of reading the whole Encyclopedia Britannica from front to back in his journey to becoming the smartest man on earth.

Another riveting book written by AJ Jacobs is The Year of Living Biblically, in which he followed all the laws of the bible as literally as possible. Some of the other wacky-genius things that AJ Jacobs has done include many one month experiments, known as immersion experiments, which we get into during our interview.

AJ Jacobs: Immersion Experiments

When AJ Jacobs gets interested in a subject, he likes to become immersed in it, and live it from the inside out. Sure enough, when AJ Jacobs became interested in religion and the bible, he decided that the best way to learn it would be to live it.

After researching several versions of the bible, and recording a large list of rules, AJ Jacobs proceeded to follow every single rule in the bible – literally. This included not shaving his beard, following the 10 commandments, and stoning adulterers, as well as many other rules.

This immerse way of learning is truly gripping, and life changing, as AJ Jacobs will testify. While he is no longer religious, the year of living biblically changed his psyche in such a way that the rules of gratitude have carried over into his secular life. Pressing the elevator button, AJ Jacobs is grateful that the elevator comes, and then once again upon arrival he is grateful that the elevator didn’t plummet to the basement.

AJ Jacobs: Creating a Bestselling Book

Let there be no mistake, AJ Jacobs attributes some of his success to luck. Hundreds of great books do not become NY Times bestselling, so riding on the theme of gratitude, AJ Jacobs is very grateful to have made it onto this list (love the humility in this man!).

AJ Jacobs started writing in a tiny newspaper in California about PTA meetings and sewage taxes. After about 15 years in the business, AJ Jacobs finally got to the point where he could write the book. AJ Jacobs took on topics that fascinated him, such as religion and the Encyclopedia (which pretty much covered everything, from advarks to zygotes).

While AJ Jacobs does have narrow focus topics that he enjoys, such as the history of peppers, he decided to write on his more general topics of interest in order to break in in popularity.

When writing The Know-It-All, AJ Jacobs first created a 20 page proposal, which included only 1 letter (A) of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Including the approval chapter, the entire book took approximately 2 years to write.

AJ Jacobs: Outsourcing Your Life

Following his love for immersion experiments, AJ Jacobs outsourced his entire life for one full month. When I say entire life, I mean it. He outsourced reading bedtime stories to his kids, arguing with his wife, shopping and beyond.

In his upcoming book The Guinea Pig Diaries (coming September 2009), AJ Jacobs includes many of these immersion experiments such as My Outsourced Life (Esquire, 2005.), and uses outsourcing to get a lot of the research done for the book. This is 110% on my reading list (I’ll be reviewing it here, and AJ, when you read this, I’d like to do coffee and an autograph!)

So with everything outsourced, what does one do with all the free time? Nothing too out of the ordinary, just some TV, catching up on reading books, and just taking the month off. Following the article, an onslaught of people requested more information about outsourcing from AJ Jacobs. In response, a lot of these outsourcing companies created special departments for “personal life” outsourcing. (I even hear there was some hate-mail from people who thought that AJ Jacobs single handedly ruined our economy by encouraging mass outsourcing, but I think he just wrote about what was inevitably going to happen anyway – globalization).

AJ Jacobs’ article My Outsourced Life has also been included in Tim Ferriss’ bestselling book The Four Hour Work Week. Tim Ferriss called AJ Jacobs while he was still writing 4HWW to request permission to use the article. Tim said he was a recent Princeton graduate and first time writer, so AJ Jacobs was nice enough to let him use the article for free, under the assumptions that only 500 or so copies would be sold. A business mistake he later regretted when just 6 months later 4HWW was number 1 on top of the NY Times bestseller list.

AJ Jacobs: Radical Honesty

Radical Honesty is a movement that requires the “removal of the filter” between your brain and mouth. Not only are you to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but you are to say directly what is on your mind at all times. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Big trouble ahead! The Esquire article in which AJ Jacobs documented this experience was called I Think You’re Fat, which should give you some indication as to just how much trouble this whole Radical Honesty business is really worth.

For AJ Jacobs, to not lie to his wife or boss, was unheard of in his normal day-to-day (something that many of us can relate to). An awkward moment presented itself when AJ Jacobs and his wife ran into a couple they knew from college. The couple suggested that they should all get together, and being under the influence of Radical Honesty, AJ Jacobs had to say “You seem nice, but I’d rather not, because I have enough friends that I don’t get to see, so I don’t want any new ones.” (Damnit AJ, I was hoping WE could be friends… maybe if one of your friends disappears…. jk!)

Now that the experiment is over, AJ Jacobs is once again left somewhat changed. However, instead of bashing people over the head with Radical Honesty, AJ Jacobs practices something called “Sustainable Radical Honesty.” This means you pick when you’re honest (ok, no it doesn’t). This means that you take responsibility for your own actions and mistakes, but when it comes to speaking at the expensive of someone’s feelings you bite your tongue. We both agree that with the way technology is headed, it will ultimately be futile to lie, since everything will be transparent and exposed.

AJ Jacobs: Interviewing George Clooney

I personally love interviewing people, and I’m so humble and grateful to have the opportunity to do so through this site. AJ Jacobs interviews some really awesome people, like George Clooney, so I’m sure he can relate.

The standard stale method of going about such an interview is a lunch with the celebrity. Is AJ Jacobs standard or stale? No. AJ Jacobs is different and remarkable, so he did something a little bit different with that interview.

AJ Jacobs sat George Clooney in front of a computer and had him look at George Clooney fan and hate sites. Believe it or not, George Clooney has never looked at these, in an attempt to spare his personality from splitting.

The first website the viewed together was called “George Clooney is Gay Gay Gay,” to which George Clooney replied, “This is absolutely not true, I am Gay Gay, but that third gay is not true.” Funny guy!

AJ Jacobs: Favorite Books

A Walk in The Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson documented “trying” and failing to walk the entire Appalachian trail. In the entertaining process Bryson documents his experience, the history of the Appalachian trail, and environmentalism in the US. This type of book, one that combines a personal story with real nonfiction history is AJ Jacobs’ favorite type.

In the realm of personal development books, AJ Jacobs likes Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cas Sunstein. This book talks about how people are born with a brain full of biases, leading us to be irrational. It then gives pointers on how to overcome and compensate for these biases and ultimately be a happier, healthier, and wealthier person.

AJ Jacobs: Tip for Success

Altering his own psyche by reading about positive psychology has really helped AJ Jacobs’ to redefine what success means and increase his happiness level. Had he still been using his old philosophy from 20 years ago, he would have been miserable today, despite achieving what we would say is a great life and great deal of success.

This is because that philosophy stated that there is always something bigger and better, so don’t be happy until you get there, and then don’t be happy until you get to the next level. Under the influence of this new positive psychology AJ Jacobs has learned to really be satisfied with what he has, that fact that he’s published a book, can read interesting books, live interesting experiments, and still have enough to eat.

More AJ Jacobs

Practical Personal Development on iTunes

Practical Personal Development on iTunes

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Posted by in Featured, Podcasts | June 9, 2009 | Digg | | Stumble | Print | 9 comments

  • Karim

    Fascinating man. I really enjoy this episode. Keep cranking them out man! Gotta go read the Encyclopedia Britannica now haha.

  • Peter

    Very interesting story and well told. I always believed, if you do something, do it all the way. That is certainly true of AJ.

  • fas

    These podcasts are very inspiring an motivating. Good stuff Alex. You should have a down loadable pdf too.

  • Alex Shalman

    Hey Fas,

    What kind of downloadable pdf were you thinking of?

  • Jonathan Lockwood

    Very cool. I’m right in the middle of “The Four Hour Workweek,” by Tim Ferriss–and remembered his reference to AJ’s “outsourced life.” Thanks for the interview.

  • Joshua

    Great to learn more about AJ, he’s fascinating!

    Can’t wait to hear who’s coming up next!!

    Re: PDF, here’s something to automatically PDF the page:

    Sorry, can’t help you get an automatic transcriptor 😉

  • J Grants

    “The Year of Living Biblically” is so funny.

  • Wily Walnut

    Hi Alex,

    Thank you — I enjoyed your interview and written overview with AJ Jacobs very much.

    I’ve done a few far far tamer immersion experiments myself so it’s really good to read about someone with the balls and imagination to really go for it big time!

    Warmest Regards,

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