A.J. Jacobs is the editor of What It Feels Like and the author of The Two Kings: Jesus and Elvis and America Off-Line. He is the senior editor of Esquire and has written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, New York magazine, New York Observer, and other publications.
AJ Jacobs’s writings stand at the intersection of philosophy, Gonzo journalism and performance art. Stubbornly curious and slyly perceptive, he takes immersive learning to its irrational and profoundly amusing extreme — extracting wisdom and meaning after long stints as a self-styled guinea pig. For his widely circulated Esquire article, “My Outsourced Life,” he explored the phenomenon of outsourcing by hiring a team in Bangalore to take care of every part of his life — from reading his emails to arguing with his wife to reading bedtime stories to his own son. A previous article, “I Think You’re Fat,” chronicled a brief, cringe-inducing attempt to live his life in Radical Honesty, telling all the truth, all the time.
Jacobs is author of The Know-It-All, which documents the year he spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, uncovering both funny and surprising factoids but also poignant insight into history and human nature. In 2007 he released The Year of Living Biblically, in which he attempted to follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible for an entire year. His book The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment is a collection of numerous personal experiments, including living according to George Washington’s rules of conduct, outsourcing every single task to India and posing as a woman on an online dating site. Jacobs recently released a new book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, which relates his life-altering journey to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee.
A. J. Jacobs Quotes
It’s sort of my job to feel good.
I tried the paleo diet, which is the caveman diet – lots of meat. And I tried the calorie restriction diet: The idea is that if you eat very, very little – if you’re on the verge of starvation, you will live a very long time, whether or not you want to, of course.
I pledged to become the world’s greatest expert in a field I knew nothing about.
My goal? To test out every diet and exercise regimen on planet earth and figure out which work best. I sweated, I cooked, I learned to pole dance. In the end, I lost weight, lowered my cholesterol and doubled my energy level. I feel better than I ever have.
I have little shame, no dignity – all in the name of a better cause.
Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great and powerful one.
I’ve started to look at life differently. When you’re thanking God for every little you – every meal, every time you wake up, every time you take a sip of water – you can’t help but be more thankful for life itself, for the unlikely and miraculous fact that you exist at all.
Think of negative speech as verbal pollution. And that’s what I’ve been doing: visualizing insults and gossip as a dark cloud, maybe one with some sulfur dioxide. Once you’ve belched it out, you can’t take it back. As grandma said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. The interesting this is, the less often I vocalize my negative thoughts, the fewer negative thoughts I cook up in the first place.
A few weeks later, I’m in a fluorescent-lit classroom in Chelsea awaiting the start of the official Mensa test. I’m sitting next to a guy who’s doing a series of elaborate neck stretches, like we’re about to engage in a vigorous rugby match. He’s neatly laid out four types of gum on his Formica desk: Juicy Fruit, Wrigley Spearmint, Big Red, and Eclipse. I hate this guy. I hope to God he’s not a genius.
I’ve never before been so aware of the thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right every day.
I’m addicted to self-improvement. The thing is, there’s so damn much about myself to improve.
There’s a very passionate pro-chewing movement on the Internet called Chewdiasm. They say that we should be chewing 50 to 100 times per mouthful, which is insane. I tried that. It takes like a day and a half to eat a sandwich. But their basic idea is right. If you chew, you’ll eat slower and you will get more nutrients.
This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just lowering the volume, but a muting. As the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.
The Bible talks a lot about thankfulness, and I’m more thankful than I ever was. I try to concentrate on the hundreds of things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four that go wrong.
I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.
The key to making healthy decisions is to respect your future self. Honor him or her. Treat him or her like you would treat a friend or a loved one.
Behavior shapes emotions.
There’s a beauty to forgiveness, especially forgiveness that goes beyond rationality. Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great & powerful one
Very few people changed the world by sitting on their couch.
I’m still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I’m now a reverant agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance.
A 2002 Oxford study showed counting sheep actually delays the onset of sleep. It’s just too dull to stop us from worrying about jobs and spouses.
It comes back to the old question: How can the Bible be so wise in some places and so barbaric in others? And why should we put any faith in a book that includes such brutality?
Scrabble – The game is available in Braille. That’s a nice fact. This makes me feel better about humanity for some reason. I can’t really explain why.
The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion… But the important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se… the key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.
I thought religion would make me live with my head in the clouds, but as often as not, it grounds me in this world.
I love to live things, so I wanted to immerse myself and get into the mindset – and sandals – of my forefathers.
After decimating several vegetables, I decide juicing is my favorite form of food preparation. There’s something perversely appealing about subjecting an innocent plant to that much violence.
Let me tell you, though: being the smartest boy in the world wasn’t easy. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. On the contrary, it was a huge burden. First, there was the task of keeping my brain perfectly protected. My cerebral cortex was a national treasure, a masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel of brains. This was not something that could be treated frivolously. If I could have locked it in a safe, I would have. Instead, I became obsessed with brain damage.
I always thought the name of Utah’s major newspaper was some sort of weird misspelling of the word “desert.” But no, Deseret is the “land of the honeybee,” according to the Book of Mormon. I guess I should have figured they would have caught a typo in the masthead after 154 years.
Probably 90 percent of our life decisions are powered by the twin engines of inertia and laziness.
The Bible improved my ethical IQ. I started to act like a good person. I tried not to gossip, and lie, and covet, and just by pretending I was a good person, I think I actually became a little bit better of a person. I’m not Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but it was a baby step.
I was what they call ‘skinny fat’ – a body that resembled a python after swallowing a goat.
I find placebos uplifting and exhilarating. It means that taking action–no matter what the action is–might help you feel better.
I was very good at sitting. But I just read so much research about how horrible sitting is for you. It’s like, it’s really bad. It’s like Paula-Deen-glazed-bacon-doughnut bad. So I now move around as much as possible.
The World Health Organization … estimated that 1.6 million years of healthy living are lost every year in Europe because of noise pollution.
A loud noise will get your fight-or-flight response going. This, over the years, can cause real cardiovascular damage.
More people die on a per mile basis from drunk walking than from drunk driving.
I’m not a fan of ‘write what you know.’ If you don’t know, find out. I knew nothing about the Bible before I started writing ‘The Year of Living Biblically.’ That was kind of the point – to learn.
If my former self and my current self met for coffee, they’d get along OK, but they’d both probably walk out of the Starbucks shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “That guy is kinda delusional.”
Giulia Melucci has written a wonderfully funny and moving book. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love, with recipes.
Plus, in one of his e-mails, the guy said he didn’t like pancakes. What kind of asshole doesn’t like pancakes?
The whole bible is the working out of the relationship between God and man. God is not a dictator barking out orders and demanding silent obedience. Were it so, there would be no relationship at all. No real relationship goes just one way. There are always two active parties. We must have reverence and awe for God, and honor for the chain of tradition. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use new information to help us read the holy texts in new ways.
I love it when the Bible gives Emily Post-like tips that are both wise and easy to follow.
It’s a different way of looking at the world. Your life isn’t about rights. It’s about responsibilities.”–Mr Bill Berkowitz
I’ve rarely said the word “Lord,” unless it’s followed by “of the Rings.
My reading list grows exponentially. Every time I read a book, it’ll mention three other books I feel I have to read. It’s like a particularly relentless series of pop-up ads.
Sometimes miracles occur only when you jump in.
Jealousy is a useless, time-wasting emotion that’s eating me alive.
I’d recommend learning to accept rejection. Become friends with rejection. Be nice to rejection, because it’s a huge part of being a writer, no matter where you are in your career.
I know that you should always say yes to adventures or you’ll lead a very dull life.
In trying to avoid one sin I’ve committed another.
Its sort of my job to feel good.
When I went to Israel, it was a little disorienting, because there are so many people who look crazy and were dressed like me. There, I was just one of the apocalyptic crowd.
When I was with the serpent-handlers in Tennessee, it was the most bizarre method of worship I could think of. Yet when you sit with these people, you can kind of see how it makes sense.
It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re walking around looking like you’re about to play the semifinals at Wimbledon.
There’s a lot of food restriction in the Bible, but it does say you’re allowed to eat crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts. I decided to take advantage of that and eat a cricket. It was chocolate-covered, and I’m not sure that’s the way they were served in Moses’ time. But this was a rule that seemed crazy on the outside, then actually turned out to be pragmatic and compassionate.
After a while, if you’re committed, you start to believe in the things in which you’re praying. It’s just cognitive dissonance. You can’t live a completely religious life and not start to have it sink in.
I don’t believe that prayers actually change God’s mind – if there is a God – but I liked praying for people in need. It was like moral weightlifting. I tend to be self-obsessed, and it was nice to get out of my brain once in a while.
I grew up in a very secular home with no religion at all, so I was starting from zero.
Since I was relatively new to the Bible, I was surprised by the Old Testament God. He’s wrathful, but at other times, He’s incredibly compassionate. He’s not a one-dimensional figure at all.
I found there were things about religion that I really loved; things like the sense of gratefulness that it brings.
I thought religion would eventually wither away and we’d all be worshiping at the altar of science.
I got a sense of the amazingness of ordinary life, and I became aware of the marvel that we’re around to begin with. I visited a lot of extreme communities, like the Amish, Hasidic Jews, and serpent-handlers. And I was proud, because I think I’m the first person to ever out-Bible-talk a Jehovah’s Witness. After four hours, he said, “Okay, I have to go.”
Behavior shapes beliefs.
Med students panic their first year when they learn all the diseases. It’s not until the second year that they learn the cures.
One of the interesting things to me is that God grows throughout the Old Testament. He evolves, sort of matures, and becomes kinder.
I know that history is simultaneously a bloody mess and a collection of feats so inspiring and amazing they make you proud to share the same DNA structure with the rest of humanity. I know you’d better focus on the good stuff or you’re screwed.
How do you gag the voice in your head that says, ‘You don’t have to [do it] today. There’s always tomorrow.’?
Paintings! They’re like TV, but they don’t move.
I prefer the earlier birth control techniques, which ranged from the delicious (using honey as a spermicide) to the aerobic (jumping backward seven times after coitus).
Taking the Bible too literally is a mistake. It should be read as a guidebook of wisdom and insight.
I’m all for cafeteria religion. I think there’s nothing wrong with cafeterias – I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some horrible meals, so it’s important to pick the right things. Take a heaping helping of compassion and mercy, and leave the intolerance on the table.
I know that knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing – but they do live in the same neighborhood. I know once again, firsthand, the joy of learning.
The best we can do, to paraphrase Pollan, is to eat whole foods, mostly plants, and not too much.
My immune system has always been overly welcoming of germs. It’s far too polite, the biological equivalent of a southern hostess inviting y’all nice microbes to stay awhile and have some artichoke dip.