If we see global problems as puzzles, A), it’s more motivating because puzzles have a solution. B), you cooperate instead of fighting over the solution. I don’t want to call stopping nuclear war fun, but at least I find it personally much more motivating. I think it’s a better way to frame the world.

A.J. Jacobs

Today’s guest, New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs, always hated Judge Judy. But after he found out that she was his seventh cousin, he thought, “You know what, she’s not so bad”.

Hijacking this bias towards family and trying to broaden it to everyone led to his three-year adventure to help build the biggest family tree in history.

He’s also spent months saying whatever was on his mind, tried to become the healthiest person in the world, read 33,000 pages of facts, spent a year following the Bible literally, thanked everyone involved in making his morning cup of coffee, and tried to figure out how to do the most good. His next book will ask: if we reframe global problems as puzzles, would the world be a better place?

This is the first time I’ve hosted the podcast, and I’m hoping to convince people to listen with this attempt at a clever blog post that changes styles each paragraph to reference different A.J. experiments. I don’t actually think it’s that clever, but all of my other ideas seemed worse. I really have no idea how people will react to this episode; I loved it, but I definitely think I’m more entertaining than almost anyone else will. (Radical Honesty.)

We do talk about some useful stuff — one of which is the concept of micro goals. When you wake up in the morning, just commit to putting on your workout clothes. Once they’re on, maybe you’ll think that you might as well get on the treadmill — just for a minute. And once you’re on for 1 minute, you’ll often stay on for 20. So I’m not asking you to commit to listening to the whole episode — just to put on your headphones. (Drop Dead Healthy.)

Another reason to listen is for the facts:

  • The Bayer aspirin company invented heroin as a cough suppressant
  • Coriander is just the British way of saying cilantro
  • Dogs have a third eyelid to protect the eyeball from irritants
  • and A.J. read all 44 million words of the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, which drove home the idea that we know so little about the world (although he does now know that opossums have 13 nipples). (The Know-It-All.)

One extra argument for listening: If you interpret the second commandment literally, then it tells you not to make a likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or underwater — which rules out basically all images. That means no photos, no TV, no movies. So, if you want to respect the Bible, you should definitely consider making podcasts your main source of entertainment (as long as you’re not listening on the Sabbath). (The Year of Living Biblically.)

I’m so thankful to A.J. for doing this. But I also want to thank Julie, Jasper, Zane and Lucas who allowed me to spend the day in their home; Rob and the rest of the 80,000 Hours team for their help; the thousands of people who’ll listen to this; my fiancée who let me talk about her to those thousands of people; the construction worker who told me how to get to my subway platform on the morning of the interview; Queen Jadwiga for making bagels popular in the 14th century, which kept me going during the recording; and the folks at the New York reservoir whose work allows A.J.’s coffee to be made, without which he’d never have had the energy to talk to me for more than five minutes. (Thanks a Thousand.)

We also discuss:

  • The most extreme ideas A.J.’s ever considered
  • Respecting your older self
  • Blackmailing yourself
  • The experience of having his book made into a CBS sitcom
  • Talking to friends and family about effective altruism
  • Utilitarian movie reviews
  • The value of fiction focused on the long-term future
  • Doing good as a journalist
  • And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.


Reframing global problems as puzzles

I think it is more motivating to call it a puzzle because then you’re reframing it as something that’s not hopeless and might even be an interesting challenge. I don’t want to call stopping nuclear war fun, but at least I find it personally, anecdotally, much more motivating. So I don’t know the research on it, but it would be interesting to see. I don’t know if anyone has done any research on it. But yeah, I think it’s a better way to frame the world.

I think when you’re solving a puzzle, breaking it down into smaller parts is one of the most important steps. And even getting a foothold is important. So the Saturday New York Times Crossword puzzle is the hardest puzzle of the week. And often I’ll just stare at the grid and I will be baffled. But eventually I’ll find one little foothold and one clue that I can answer. And building out from that clue, I can eventually solve the whole thing. So it’s sort of this A), it gives me optimism that I can solve something incredibly hard and B), this idea that you just need one entry point and you just need to gain purchase on one aspect of the problem and then build out from there.

Lessons from the radical honesty project

During this experiment, a freelance writer asked me if I would go to coffee with him, and I said, “I just got to be honest. The thought of it gives me dread”. And I was terrified to send it, but he wrote back, “You know what, I am not very social either. It gives me dread. But I felt I had to do it for my career”. And then we came to a compromise that we would talk on Skype. And that saved me time, and I think I got him the same amount of information. So I do agree. And that is the point that this psychologist is making is that sometimes we think of it as cruel to tell the truth, but in the long run it’s kinder.

So if you have someone who’s doing a career that you think is bad for the world or just a project that is going to end up going nowhere, maybe it is kinder to tell them right upfront, “You know what? I don’t think that this is a good idea.” It’s a balancing act, I think. I would say the lessons I took from this were that we do need more honesty in our lives. I tend to focus on two. One is honesty about when I screw up and just admitting immediately, “Oh, I made a bad mistake there. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do it again”. I do find that, personally, just from a selfish point of view, much, much better because the stress of trying to cover it up or spin it in a way that makes you look okay: that’s a lot of energy. Lot of mental energy.

And the second way I think I’ve tried to increase my honesty is in expressing positive emotions, which can also be awkward and kind of cheesy. But I remember I called one of my mentors who I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, but he was an editor at the first paper I worked at. And I said, “I just want to tell you, I was thinking of you the other day, and how much you meant to me”. And again, from the gender-typical behavior, I’m not supposed to be so open and vulnerable. But it certainly made me feel good, and I can’t speak for him, but I think that he liked it. He seemed to.

Lessons from the gratitude project

I talk in the book about how we all have our “Larry David” side and our “Mister Rogers” side. And my Larry David side I think was very large. It still is very powerful. I enjoy watching Larry David from the outside, but being in that mindset is not necessarily good. So I do think it’s still a struggle everyday, but it helped change my perspective. One thing I talked about in the book is just trying to adjust your frame. So there’s the cliche about half glass full versus half glass empty. And I suggest maybe that that is the wrong way to look at it, and maybe we should just be astonished that we have water in that cup in the first place.

So there’s the cliche about glass half full versus glass half empty. And I suggest maybe that that is the wrong way to look at it. And maybe we should just be astonished that we have water in that cup in the first place. Because I had to thank the people who brought water to New York because coffee is 98.8% water. And I met the thousands of people at the reservoir who do this and it drove home just how astounding it is that I can turn this lever and have safe drinkable water, which was not the case for 99% of human history. And it’s still not the case for billions of people around the world. So that’s what maybe we should focus on.

Blackmailing yourself

This was one of the most effective strategies I found when I was doing the book on health. And this was the idea, again, taking advantage of your future self. So the idea was, to give you an example, I used to be addicted to these dried mangoes, which, they may sound healthy because they’re fruit, but really they’re just sugar. It’s like disguised candy. And I knew I had to cut them out. So I used this trick, which was, I think invented by a Yale professor, where I said to my wife, “Here’s a check for $100. If I have another dried mango, then I want you to mail that check”.

But the catch is, it was a check to the American Nazi Party. And every time I even thought about having a dried mango, I’m like, “I am not going to fund the laces in their jackboots.” And it was incredibly effective, it was such a great disincentive that it worked. I have not eaten a dried mango in years.

Reframing the boring parts of your job

As a writer, a lot of your job is marketing, which I didn’t realize and they’re totally different skillsets. So I had to get out there and try to sell my book. At first, I hated it, but I tried to reframe it as, you know what, marketing and business can be creative, so why don’t I try to do this creatively? I wanted to get into every magazine when there were still magazines. So I pitched an article to Sports Illustrated about the weirdest sports trivia through history and I got that. So it was a lesson in taking something that I feared and hated the prospect of and trying to reframe it as something creative.

And I once interviewed the artist, Christo and Jean-Claude, who put up these amazing public works of art, which from an EA perspective, that money could have gone to saving a lot of people. But still, I find them interesting. And they worked on this project that was right here in New York. They put up these 10,000 colorful gates in Central Park and it took them 24 years to get permission. And I said to them, “How did you have the stamina to do this for 24 years”? And they replied, they saw the bureaucracy as part of the art. Like navigating all of this paperwork and applying. That the art was not just the finished product. And it’s a crazy idea, but it was also lovely. This idea that the boring parts of your job are also… if you can reframe them as creative, it makes your job much more pleasant.

Tips for getting honest feedback

The way I do it is I vote for quantity. So, when I write a book, I’ll send out the manuscript to 20 friends who are nice enough to read it, and I will actually have a little spreadsheet and I’ll say to them, each of them, “Please tell me what were your five favorite parts and five least favorite parts.” Because I don’t trust any single person, they might have a very idiosyncratic view of what’s good. But, if I get 14 of the people saying, “This was a boring chapter”. That has a pretty good indication I should cut it.

So, I am a big fan of getting my work out there. I also love workshopping my material by giving speeches. So, I love giving talks about my projects as they’re going on. So my book on puzzles, I’m still in the middle of writing, but I’m going to do an event where I try to talk about puzzles and you can see what appeals to people. I mean, you can see it in their eyes. You can see it in the way they react.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

A.J.’s work

Everything else

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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