Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
AJ Jacobs is a popular author who many of you will have heard of thanks to his books “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”, “My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself” and the more recent “Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey”.
Basically AJ does crazy stuff in his personal life and writes about it.
It turns out that he’s also a fan of 80,000 Hours and is actually a member of Giving What We Can, meaning he’s pledged to donate at least 10% of his income to effective charities.
We met him at the Effective Altruism Global conference which led my producer Keiran Harris to set up this interview at AJ’s place in New York.
Don’t jump down their throats though, this was recorded in December last year, before most of us had ever heard the term ‘social distancing’.
A lot of it is about AJ’s various wacky projects and what he has learned doing them over the years.
In the second half they turn to what AJ does and doesn’t like about effective altruism, as well as his ideas for ways to have a big social impact through writing and other means.
I’ve heard AJ on other shows so I know he’s always a great person to interview, but Keiran and AJ clearly had an unusual level of podcast chemistry together.
As always we’ve got chapters so you can skip to a particular section you’re interested in.
One other thing – two years ago I gave my tips for listening to podcasts. We’ve had a lot of new subscribers since then, and a few people have told me these tips were incredibly useful to them, so I’ll share them again at the end of the interview.
To get to that use the chapters or jump a few minutes short of the end of the episode.
Alright, without further ado, here’s the producer of the show, Keiran Harris, interviewing AJ Jacobs.
The interview begins [00:01:51]
Keiran Harris: Today, I’m speaking with A.J. Jacobs. A.J. is the author of The New York Times Best Sellers, “The Know-It-All”, “The Year of Living Biblically”, and “My Life as an Experiment”. His most recent book is “Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey”. He’s the editor-at-large of Esquire magazine, where he wrote a piece on effective altruism called, “The Maximum Good: One Man’s Quest to Master the Art of Donating”. He’s a contributor to NPR, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. He’s also attended and spoken at three Effective Altruism Global conferences and is a member of Giving What We Can, pledging 10% of his lifelong earnings to charity. He lives in New York city with his wife and kids and is, for my money, one of the most delightful people on the planet. Thanks for coming on the podcast, A.J..
A.J. Jacobs: Wow, right back at you. I find you delightful and I’m a big fan of the podcast, and of 80,000 Hours, and of your writing, so very excited to be here.
Keiran Harris: I hope to talk about your experiences experimenting on yourself, and your thoughts on effective altruism and longtermism, and your advice for talented writers in the audience. But first, what are you doing at the moment and what drew you to the project?
A.J. Jacobs: I’m doing a couple of things. One that I’m excited about is a podcast that I’m doing with a friend of mine and it’s called “Good or Bad”. It’s actually about ethical philosophy and we’re trying to make it entertaining and who knows if that’s going to be possible. But the idea is that we take a big topic every episode. We’ve done democracy, the Olympics, dogs… And then we try to discuss and figure out how it’s good for the world and how it’s not good for the world from a utilitarian perspective mostly. So like dogs, they bring joy to billions of people. They’re soft and furry and delightful. On the other hand, most of them are carnivores. So when you adopt a dog, you’re condemning hundreds of other animals to be eaten. So, how do you weigh those on a scale?
Keiran Harris: And what was the conclusion for dogs? I noticed, and A.J.’s been gracious enough to let me record this interview in his New York city apartment, but I noticed that you have a dog, so I’m guessing that you came down on the side of “Dogs are good”?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, my dog is good. Yeah. I don’t know. It was a hard one. I’d say at the end, we tried to come up with a suggestion on how to make whatever it is better. And my thought was that we should encourage people to adopt more rabbits because rabbits are also soft and cuddly, but they’re herbivores. So yeah, maybe, God forbid, whenever we need a new pet, maybe we’ll go with a rabbit. But yeah, I’m a hypocrite because I love my dog.
Keiran Harris: That seems beyond reasonable. Were there any other interesting episodes?
A.J. Jacobs: The first episode which I’m excited about is a meta episode about whether this podcast is good or bad for the world, because do we really need another podcast in the world? But, on the other hand, the idea is to try to promote the idea of nuance and that everything has its grays and its trade-offs, and that we need more of that thinking in this polarized world. On the other hand, there’s the problem of bothsidesism, because we don’t want to, you know, in some issues like evolution versus creationism, don’t want to put them on equal footing and say they’re good and bad. In that case, there really is a clear cut.
Keiran Harris: Do you want to go on the record of saying which is the clear-cut answer?
A.J. Jacobs: Thank you for asking; I am a believer in evolution. I am a Darwinist. And I do have a whole section in one of my books about creationism and the allure of creationism. So I do see the good of it, but it’s very small. Very small.
Keiran Harris: All right. So I know you’re also working on a new book and I would love to hear about that.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I’m working on a book about puzzles, oddly enough. I’m a big fan of puzzles. In general, crossword mostly is my passion, but this is going to be about all types of puzzles: jigsaw, mazes, logic puzzles. And I’m sort of trying to compete in all sorts of puzzle competitions. My family and I, a couple months ago, went to Spain to represent the United States at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship, and we placed second-… to-last. I like to pause just to give people… But yeah, we were terrible.
Keiran Harris: You competed as a family?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, there’s teams of four and you’re given eight hours to solve four large puzzles, and we were terrible. We finished about a puzzle and half. The Russians were astounding. They finished all four in about three hours, you know, possible doping; I have my suspicions. But it was remarkable to see just the level of virtuosity. And whatever the topic, there’s gonna be someone who’s just spent so much time being an expert. So it was a blast. And one of the bigger points of the book, because I always try to inject a little effective altruism thinking into my project. So the way I’m crowbarring it into this one is the idea that if we all think more like puzzlers, would the world be a better place? And I think it’s Scott Alexander who wrote about the “Conflict Vs. Mistake” theory and the idea that some people see the world as a war of ideas.
A.J. Jacobs: So Marxism being an example. And some people see it more as an engineering problem; is world hunger an engineering problem that we can solve almost technocratically? And I think reality has elements of both. But I do think that we, especially in the political atmosphere now, we focus too much on conflict theory. So the idea is can we solve many of these big problems? Like if we see the environmental crisis as a puzzle, A), it’s more motivating because puzzles have a solution. B), you cooperate instead of fighting over the solution. So is this a better way for any of the big topics that we talk about in EA, if we see them as a puzzle?
Keiran Harris: So do you have a sense of whether this would be more motivating if people thought… I suppose some people would feel a bit pessimistic about some of the topics we talk about thinking like, “Well what can you actually really do to influence the long-run future”? But if they thought of it as a puzzle, do you think that they would have a sense that maybe they can win?
A.J. Jacobs: Well that’s it. 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.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. Are there any specific techniques that puzzlers use that you would see in this thought process? So someone who wasn’t thinking of climate change as a puzzle, sat down and tried to solve this problem, how would that differ to someone who was thinking of this purely as, “This is just a puzzle. I’m representing my country in the international puzzle competition, and climate change happens to be the puzzle I’m working on”. Are there any steps that they would go through that maybe normal people wouldn’t?
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a good question. Let me think about it. I think if you can cut it out, then I’ll seem smarter… I think when you’re solving a puzzle, breaking it down into smaller parts is just 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.
Keiran Harris: I love that.
A.J. Jacobs: All right, good. I came up with something.
Keiran Harris: So how did you first come up with a plan of doing immersive experiments and writing books about the experience?
A.J. Jacobs: Well I think partly by accident. Partly that the advice I got from all writing teachers is write what you know. Write what you experience. And I did not really experience anything interesting. My life was not particularly remarkable like, you know, Frank McCourt who had an amazing childhood. My childhood was not that interesting. So I thought, “Well maybe I could do something interesting. Do a little experiment and then write about it, and that might be a better way to go about it”. And of course this is not an original idea. There’s a writer named George Plimpton who was active in the sixties/seventies who mostly focused on sports. So he played for a professional baseball team for a week. He played for a football team. He got hit by a heavyweight boxer in the face. I am not very athletic, nor do I relish getting punched in the face by a heavyweight champion.
A.J. Jacobs: So I thought, “What if it was more social”? Because I am okay with awkward social situations and inflicting pain and suffering on myself that way. And so that sort of was the origin, and I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to make a living out of it. Because I do think it is a very interesting and fun way to spend my days. Not always fun, I should say. Sometimes quite painful.
Keiran Harris: We’re definitely going to get into that.
A.J. Jacobs: But overall, fun. In the good or bad scheme, overall, good.
Radical honesty [00:12:18]
Keiran Harris: Okay. So I did want to talk about a bunch of your experiments specifically. I thought maybe we’d start with a collection of essays that you wrote in 2010 which was called, “My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself”. And so this book contains experiments featuring George Washington’s rules of life, marital harmony, marital disharmony, multitasking, and nudity. All of which are fascinating, but I wanted to ask you about “Radical Honesty”. So, can you talk about your adventure with Radical Honesty and the lessons you took from it?
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. Radical Honesty is a movement that was started by a psychologist in Virginia, and he believes that we should never lie. But he goes further. He says that whatever’s on our brain should come out of our mouth. There should be no filter. And he says, “This is the way to an authentic, happier life”. So I tried that for a couple of months, and it was quite the nightmare for all. It was not an easy couple of months because his philosophy is if you, for instance, have a crush on your wife’s sister, you should tell your wife, and you should tell her sister. My wife doesn’t have a sister, so that didn’t apply to me. But there were many, many awkward moments. I remember one in particular where we were in a restaurant and we ran into some of my wife’s friends from college and she hadn’t seen them in years and they were all excited and the friends said, “Oh, we should all get together and we should have a playdate with our kids”.
A.J. Jacobs: And I was following Radical Honesty, so I had to say what was on my mind which was, “You seem very nice, but I really have no interest in getting together with you again because it’s more a time management thing. I don’t get to see my real friends”. So it was terribly awkward. I felt terrible. My wife was furious. They did not seem overjoyed. We never did see them again. So it was effective.
Keiran Harris: Kind of works out.
A.J. Jacobs: So I don’t think total Radical Honesty is the way to go.
Keiran Harris: So what do you think you ought to have done? What do you think the ethical thing to do in that situation is? Because that comes up so frequently. I’m tempted towards something closer to honesty than what we actually engage in. Not that. You want to be softer, but genuinely I don’t think that people should be going through with these obligations to meet acquaintances. This just doesn’t seem like a good use of anyone’s time.
A.J. Jacobs: Agree!
Keiran Harris: What do you do, A.J.?
A.J. Jacobs: One of the things was that 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.
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
Keiran Harris: No, absolutely not: it shows so much weakness!
A.J. Jacobs: But it certainly made me feel good, and I can’t speak for him, but I think that he liked it. He seemed to. So those kinds of honesty. And then the third one that you’re talking about is should we just be a little more upfront about awkward social engagements or any type of task that we don’t want to… I think so. I’m usually too much of a coward to do that. But what do you think? Are you able to do it?
Keiran Harris: It’s interesting. Yeah, I have views on honesty that are a little bit different to most people where I have this basic default where I try to be completely honest. Not radically honest, but not to tell any lies of commission, at least, versus omission, to anyone with whom I want to form a long-form friendship or relationship. And I really try and stick to this. And so I would say that I don’t think I’ve ever lied to you. This is only the second time we’ve ever spent time together, but I feel like, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to lie to A.J..”
Keiran Harris: And also I just feel like it just makes life so much easier to not have to keep track of your lies and, “Oh, what did I tell this person? What did I tell that person?” And so I take this very seriously and actually I proposed this to my now future wife at the start of our relationship years ago, and I said, “I would really love it if we were able to have a relationship where we actually, legitimately never lied to each other.” As much as you can. Keeping in mind that I don’t want anyone to feel guilty, and that if you lie, it’s fine, but just really genuinely try to do this.
Keiran Harris: And for us I felt like given you’re going to spend so much time with this person, I just saw this huge upside and it was probably utopian to think that you could do this at the time. But it’s actually worked out. So, this is years later we’ve gone traveling together, spent every minute of every day for months together. And I have genuinely never told her a lie or a lie of commission: lies of omission, constantly. But try and keep those within balance. But what it does is it just means that you both have this incredibly close relationship because you do have to admit things, like things that are very out there, but that creates a level of closeness if you’re saying things that you would never say to anyone else.
A.J. Jacobs: I love it. Is there an example of a difficult truth that you’ve told your girlfriend?
Keiran Harris: So, this just happened the other night. So we’re at, I think it’s Van Leeuwen ice cream parlor here in New York, and she goes up and orders for us. And she’s going to get a waffle cone. I’m just going to get my ice cream in a cup. And she orders them. They hand it to us. And my girlfriend has a waffle cone that seemed to have two scoops in it. Well-packed ice cream cone. I have a cup with very clearly one scoop of ice cream. And I was just baffled. I was just like, “Why would you assume that I only wanted one scoop to your two scoops? What kind of a strange assumption would this be”? We haven’t had any discussions about me going on a diet or anything. Why wouldn’t we have the same amount of ice cream? And I can imagine that, in alternate worlds or in previous relationships, just keeping that to myself and just being a little bit bitter about it and going, “Well, I didn’t get as much ice cream here, and she’s certainly enjoying her double serving of ice cream, but that’s fine.”
Keiran Harris: But here I said, because of this honesty thing, I immediately just said, “What’s with the one scoop? What’s this about”? And she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Did you want two scoops”? And I said, “Well, probably whatever you’re getting, I think that makes sense”. And she said, “No, no, I only got one scoop, but it just looks like it’s bigger”. Given that it was in the cone. So this is a silly example, but it is just something that the night would’ve just taken a slightly worse turn where I’m just sitting there thinking, “I feel like I’m not getting a fair amount of ice cream here”.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I love that example. And in fact, when I was doing the article, I was having lunch with a friend of mine and I said to him, “I have this resentment because you did not invite me to your wedding. It was in Vermont so I wouldn’t have gone because it would’ve been a pain to get there, but I just wanted to be invited”. And he said, “But you didn’t invite me to your wedding”. And I said, “Really? I thought…” And he said, “No”. And I was like, “Oh”! This revelation was so freeing.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, it’s amazing.
A.J. Jacobs: So I would agree. There are many times when being more honest than is expected is beneficial. Well I think that’s a lovely lesson, and I’m going to try to be more open with my wife even.
Keiran Harris: I was going to ask that. Did you feel after this experiment like it changed your relationship in any way? Did you feel like you were more open?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes. And I think in the beginning of my relationship, I definitely baited and switched my wife because I pretended to be someone who loved going out all the time. And then, once we got married, I revealed my true self which is preferring to watch Netflix. So I think that I would not do that today. I’m much more open. So if she wants me to do something, then I do try to say, “How important is it to you on a scale of one to 10?” Because sometimes, she’ll invite me just because she thinks I want to go, but I don’t. So that’s helpful. I also have been honest… I wrote a piece on Valentine’s Day about what if we looked at romance in more of a cost-benefit analysis. Because Charles Darwin wrote when he was considering whether to propose to his wife, who also was his cousin, he wrote a list of pros and cons: that he would have less time with the “fellows”, that there would be someone to be there when he was down.
A.J. Jacobs: Of course it’s ridiculous and cartoonish, but also I liked it. And so I do say to my wife, half-jokingly every Valentine’s day, “The benefits of being married to you outweigh the cost”. But I say, “I love you, but there are things that annoy me. But overall I love you very much”. And I think that might not work for everyone, but it works for our relationship so far, at least.
Keiran Harris: And to finish up this section, I’ll just say that I’m likely to get married in the US. I don’t have any family here. I have very few people I know. Would you want to get an invitation to my wedding?
A.J. Jacobs: Well to be radically honest, I would love to get an invitation…
Keiran Harris: But not come?
A.J. Jacobs: Well it depends where it is.
Keiran Harris: If it was in New York?
A.J. Jacobs: Definitely I’ll be there.
Keiran Harris: You would come?
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely.
Keiran Harris: Okay, we’ll see about this.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s true.
Keiran Harris: All right.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s very true.
Keiran Harris: Well I’ll keep that in mind.
A.J. Jacobs: Listen, you have it on tape. You have it on podcast tape right there. I would be honored. But yeah, don’t make me travel, please.
The Year of Living Biblically [00:24:17]
Keiran Harris: Okay. So let’s turn now to probably your best-known project. In 2007, you wrote, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”. And I suspect many of our listeners will have read the book or at least be familiar with the project, but for those who haven’t, can you give us a brief overview?
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely, yeah. The premise was just what the title says, which was I tried to follow all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. So the 10 Commandments, the famous ones, but also the lesser known rules mostly in the Old Testament. It says you cannot shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were, so I just let the whole thing grow. And I had this crazy topiary from my chin; I looked like Ted Kaczynski.
Keiran Harris: That’s one value of getting the book, is you get to see the photos of you.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, I do think! People are very visual. I think having photos of the beard was 70% of the sales. And then the Bible says that you should stone adulterers. So I tried. I used very small stones like pebbles so I didn’t actually hurt anyone or go to jail. But that was the idea. And I think there were two motivations for doing this project. The first was to try to expose or make fun of fundamentalism because I was basically becoming the ultimate fundamentalist. And there are millions of people who say, “Oh, we take the Bible literally. That’s why homosexuality is a sin. That’s why we believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago”.
A.J. Jacobs: But it seemed to me that they were very selective. So they were not taking everything literally. They were taking the parts that they wanted literally. So they were not avoiding clothes made of two different kinds of fabrics, which is also in the Bible. So I wanted to show what it would look like if you took everything literally and how absurd it is, and that fundamentalism is deeply misguided. So that was one motivation.
A.J. Jacobs: The second motivation was a little more earnest. I grew up very secular. I say in the book, “I’m Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian”, so not very, but I wanted to see… There are tons of smart people, billions, who embrace religion. So am I missing something by not having this experience? Are there good parts of religion that I can take away? So those were the two reasons why I undertook it.
Keiran Harris: And in case I forget, I want to just mention that I loved this book. So I just want to specifically recommend that everyone go out and read this book.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, well thank you. You make me commit the sin of pride. It’s very unbiblical. But that is lovely to hear.
Keiran Harris: Looking back, because it’s been a while now since you wrote this book, how big of an impact do you think this experience had in your life?
A.J. Jacobs: I would say it has had pretty long-lasting effects. First of all, it was the inspiration for the gratitude book because the Bible has a lot about gratitude. So I was introduced to that concept. There are many terrible things in the Bible. It is a very tribal book, and there are horrible, horrible scenes of violence, and misogyny, and homophobia. But there are also some parts that are inspiring, and I think that the biblical way of looking at the world, they did not value individualism all that much. So it was all about responsibilities to your society, to your tribe. Honor the elderly, honor your parents, help your neighbor. So I think we need a balance. You need individual rights or else you become like North Korea. There are huge downsides to ignoring individual rights.
A.J. Jacobs: But I do think we’ve swung too far on the side of individual rights versus social responsibility. So I do think the Bible helped me see that we need to correct that a little. We need more of a balance. And also, rituals, I still am a total atheist, but I do think that you don’t need to believe in a mythical being to have meaningful rituals. So I do like a good ritual.
Keiran Harris: What are some of your favorite rituals that you actually do in your everyday life?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, even something like a birthday. That’s a ritual. And I love a good birthday party. We’re Jewish, and my son’s just had a double bar mitzvah. And again, I have many issues with Judaism. But one thing I do like about it is that it encourages questioning.
A.J. Jacobs: So in their speeches they actually questioned the story of Abraham and Isaac, and Abraham almost killing his son. And so, one of my sons argued “Is this a good way? This is probably not someone we want to emulate”. So I love that you’re able to wrestle with things. So rituals, I like. But again, the downsides of religion, there’s massive ones. And to me, one of the things I think I was too soft on in the book is the idea of knowledge by revelation.
A.J. Jacobs: Believing in God without evidence, because I think it makes it very hard to argue with someone when you say, “Well, let’s talk about abortion”. And they’ll say, “Well, life starts at conception, and life is sacred”. “What do you mean by sacred”? “Life is sacred. God gave us life. Life is sacred. End of argument”. You can’t go anywhere from there.
A.J. Jacobs: So I think I was too soft on that. If I were to go back, I might be a little tougher. I mentioned to you once, from a purely mercenary point of view, I thought maybe I should have three endings to the book. One where I became an evangelical Christian, one where I become really hardcore, Sam Harris-like atheist, and one where I maybe become a practicing Jew, and that could sell in different parts of the country. But I thought maybe a little misleading.
Keiran Harris: You could have potentially included all three endings in the same book. Maybe you don’t have to have a specific ending on it.
A.J. Jacobs: Vote on it. That’s a good idea for the reprint.
Keiran Harris: A question here that came from Arden, who asked, “It seems like there are a million different ways that one could choose to live a year as an experiment, but we only have so many years. So why did you decide to spend a year living in that particular way”?
A.J. Jacobs: I think that one was because so many millions of people say that their lives are ruled by the Bible. I do get suggestions from readers, which I love, on other projects I could do; “Why don’t you take up the French horn for a year”? I don’t know, to me that doesn’t have… I try and take the biggest topics and explore them. So, health, religion, knowledge, and I don’t know if–
Keiran Harris: Family?
A.J. Jacobs: Family. In one sense it’s bad, because they’re so big and they’re daunting. But in the other sense, I just think, as Arden says, you only have so many years, so why not try to tackle the big ones?
Keiran Harris: Okay. So The Year of Living Biblically was turned into a CBS sitcom called “Living Biblically”, which aired in 2018. Do you feel like talking about how big a disaster that was?
A.J. Jacobs: I love the question. Very honest. It really was a disaster. And from my gratitude project, I wanted to say upfront that I’m very grateful for the experience because it was surreal, and in some ways, a delightful experience. But in other ways, the show that came out of it was just a disaster and polar opposite of what I was trying to get across. And I want to just say that the people who worked on the show were incredibly creative and funny. I think part of the problem was the network CBS really dumbed down the show. And I also think TV is just a hard medium to get across nuance. To me, I knew we were in trouble when the actor who was cast to play me wanted to grow a beard as I did in the book, but CBS said, “No, that might scare off viewers”. So I knew we were in trouble.
Keiran Harris: And the actor has a beard in Mad Men!
A.J. Jacobs: There you go. The actor plays Stan in Mad Men, and is a delightful actor and I’m a big fan. But as I said, the idea was to expose the dangers of fundamentalism. But the thesis of the show seemed to be, if you live by the Bible, your life will be better. If you don’t gossip, you will get a promotion. So it was so cringeworthy. I was honestly incredibly relieved when it was canceled after about seven airings. I felt bad for the people involved, but I found it incredibly painful to watch.
Keiran Harris: So, my future wife and I, we watched the pilot yesterday. So that was as part of my research for this interview. That’s the kind of research that goes on at 80,000 Hours, where we help tackle the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them – I have to watch a CBS sitcom every now and again. And Chloe also loves your books. We read them together. And we just watched it together and just turned to each other and went, “Oh, no. What’s happened. A.J. must have thought this was a disaster”, because it’s just so different from your books. For example, they have this very extreme laugh track, and I just can’t imagine that this is something that you would have sat down and gone, “This is my vision”. I was just wondering, how much influence did you actually have over–
A.J. Jacobs: Zero.
Keiran Harris: Zero. That makes sense. That was my prediction.
A.J. Jacobs: I gave them the rights, and I did make suggestions, but none of them were heeded. I mean, all my experiences with Hollywood have been delightful in one sense, but disastrous in another. The Year of Living Biblically, before that, they tried to turn it into a reality show. So I met with the producers and they said, “We really want to show the nuances of how the Bible can be good and bad”. And I was like, “That is so great”.
A.J. Jacobs: Cut to six months later, we’re in a cable network geared to young men, and they’re pitching the network executives on a show called “The Bible Olympics”, which was shirtless men running down a mountain holding the 10 commandments: who can get to the bottom first? And I was like, “Huh, this seems a little far from my source material.” So thankfully, that never happened. But it was almost like a parody of a movie of how Hollywood works. Actually, as people say, this is an amazing time for television. There are some great things out there. But also, there’s so much crap because it’s a very hard medium to get across.
Keiran Harris: This is such a good premise for a show. That’s part of the tragedy. I mean obviously this is a common complaint that if a book is made into a TV show or movie, “Oh, they didn’t do it well, the book is better,” but this seems like you could make a good TV show about it, and it was just frustrating to watch and just go like, “Oh, all you have to do is just let A.J. write this”. So, I was wondering, were you interested in that? Would you have an interest in being a showrunner?
A.J. Jacobs: No, I don’t think I have the skill set.
Keiran Harris: You have no interest, okay.
A.J. Jacobs: I mean, maybe if I worked at it for 10 years. But no, I don’t think I could have done a much better job.
Keiran Harris: Really?
A.J. Jacobs: I think it’s a very hard thing to do.
Keiran Harris: I would bet a lot of money that you could.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, you’re very nice Keiran, but honestly, I’m being totally radically honest. I did write a screenplay based on my first book because that got auctioned. And my first book, by the way, was about reading the encyclopedia.
Keiran Harris: So not “The Two Kings”?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah.
Keiran Harris: The one with Elvis and Jesus?
A.J. Jacobs: That’s true. Technically, that is my first book.
Keiran Harris: I just know a little bit more about your career than you do. So, that’s okay. It’s fine.
A.J. Jacobs: This is my first real book. But the premise of that book was that I read every word in the encyclopedia so everyone said, “So the movie is going to be a guy in a room reading for an hour and a half”? So that wasn’t quite the screenplay, but that was part of the problem of why it never made it to the screen. But it’s a very difficult and challenging skill that I don’t have.
Keiran Harris: Interesting. And I suppose it obviously involves a lot of collaboration, which I’ve heard you say that you’re conflicted because you both promote teamwork and collaboration for your sons. But then you just really would prefer writing alone.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh yeah. I am a hypocrite, because I do think all the biggest problems need a ton of collaboration. And that’s the lesson I teach my sons. Hopefully they’re not listening, because I personally hate collaboration, and every time I do it, it drives me crazy. So, I need to get over that. But I just find it–
Keiran Harris: How do you feel about this podcast episode? This is a collaboration. This is us.
A.J. Jacobs: All right. This I’m okay with. This is fun.
Keiran Harris: Versus, this is me just asking questions and then you just answering them. I could be in a different room.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, we’ll try that. We’ll do another episode. We’ll do a randomly controlled trial where we do a totally separate interview.
Thanks A Thousand [00:38:04]
Keiran Harris: So let’s talk about your latest book, “Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey”. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for the book? Can you just give a general overview for anyone who isn’t familiar?
A.J. Jacobs: Sure. The idea of the book is that I thanked a thousand people who had even the smallest role in making my morning cup of coffee. So I thanked the barista who served it to me, but also the farmer who grew the coffee beans and the logo designer for the coffee and the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. But he couldn’t do his job without the road. So I thanked the people who paved the road, and I thanked the people who painted the yellow lines in the middle of the road so that it didn’t veer into traffic. So the idea was to try to show the hundreds of people involved in any small thing in our lives and the hundreds of things that go right every day that we take for granted. And we have this built-in negative bias which might’ve served us back in paleolithic days, but we are very good at noticing the three or four that go wrong. So the idea was to try to reverse that.
A.J. Jacobs: And I actually went and I thanked people. Some I thanked in person. Some I thanked over the phone or by email. And some people were very skeptical. They said, “Is this a pyramid scheme? What are you trying to sell”? But the majority were actually very grateful to be thanked. And I remember I called the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee beans are stored. And I said, “I know this sounds odd, but I do want to thank you for helping to keep the bugs out of my coffee”. And she said, “Well, that is odd, but thank you. I don’t get a lot of positive feedback in my job”. So it was, in some sense, a pain in the butt because I had to travel and spend all my day writing thank you notes. But in the other sense it was lovely because it was good for my mental health.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. Do you want to expand on that? Do you feel like you’ve taken a lot of things away from the book? Do you feel like you have an increased sense of gratitude in your day-to-day life now?
A.J. Jacobs: I do. I definitely do. 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.
Keiran Harris: As is mine.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. 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.
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
A.J. Jacobs: And I actually, since, as I say, I try to get effective altruism into every one of my projects, I did interview Will MacAskill, one of the founders of effective altruism, and we talked about a couple of issues that were relevant, one of which was the coffee that I buy. In one sense, it’s ridiculously expensive, $3 at the local coffee shop. And if you add that up over a year, that’s $1,000. So, “Should I be spending that thousand dollars on malaria nets?” And maybe he was just being nice, but he said, “There’s an argument to be made. That it’s okay to spend money on the small luxuries of life, because they’re so important to your mental health.”
Keiran Harris: He does sincerely believe this by the way; I can confirm.
A.J. Jacobs: Does he spend $3 on coffee?
Keiran Harris: I don’t know if he spends $3 on coffee, but I can say I feel the same thing myself.
A.J. Jacobs: There’s the saying, “penny wise and pound foolish” and this is sort of the opposite being penny foolish and pound wise. So when it comes to big purchases like cars or clothes, then you should be much more wary of spending a lot of money. But the coffee is something that could make you feel better and you need caffeine to do good.
Keiran Harris: Absolutely.
A.J. Jacobs: And then the other issue I talked to him about was this idea of whether gratitude is overall good for changing the world or not. Because there are people who say that gratitude is sort of a hindrance, that it’s like an opiate of the people. So corporations will tell their Walmart employees, “Oh, you should just be grateful you have a job”. But the research I saw anyway seemed to say this was not the case. That gratitude actually inspires us to want to make more changes. So when you’re grateful, you want to pay it forward. And I saw this on a very small scale. When I’m in the times of my life when I’ve been depressed, it’s very hard to motivate myself to care about other people. And one of the ways to do it is to try and force myself to think about other people. And this gratitude trail did just that. It reminded me how lucky I am to have water. So, how can we help people get safe water?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, and not only that, but things that come up every day, all over the place. So I think you talk in the book about when you’re waiting in line, normally it’s like, “This is ridiculous. Why am I in this long queue”? But you never notice the times when you’re in the short queue. So just having this different framing seems to be incredibly effective for just being able to increase your happiness.
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. Yeah. Just noticing, even sometimes saying out loud like “Wow, I was just in the shortest line possible at the pharmacy. I should remember that”.
Keiran Harris: Do you think that most people would experience the same benefits from this kind of thinking, or do you think that you’re somewhat of an outlier to being open to experimentation, so you take this more seriously than maybe the average person would?
A.J. Jacobs: It’s hard for me to know, but from what I’ve seen, and personally, and with the studies, I think overall, it’s not just good for people’s mental health but it is good for motivating them. And this I think is an interesting debate in the EA community about motivating people with negative versus positive emotions. Because you can totally get overwhelmed by the guilt. Like when you first read Peter Singer, you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a murderer. I’ve got blood on my hands because of all these people I should be donating all of my money to.” And that might be motivating to some people. To me it was just overwhelming and dispiriting. But instead framing it like, and I think Peter and Will both talk about this, as something empowering–
Keiran Harris: It’s an opportunity.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s an opportunity. You can save people. You can be that person who runs into a building and saves the baby, but you don’t have to burn yourself. You can actually save people’s lives by donating. You can be Oscar Schindler, and that I find more motivating.
Keiran Harris: I couldn’t agree more. This is probably my biggest common thing that I bring up with fellow people in the effective altruism community, is that I have this very anti-guilt stance, which not everybody does. Some people find guilt to be motivating. But I think there’s also this aspect that even if you thought you ought to feel guilty of something, which I think is philosophically mistaken, and I think we agree on that, we might get into that later. But I think, even if you were just looking at it from an impact point of view, and you want to do the most good over your career, I think this tendency towards feeling an enormous amount of guilt will tend to lead people towards burning out far faster.
Keiran Harris: So if we care about doing the most good over the course of our careers, whether that’s 40 or 50 years, whatever it is, if you burn out after five years, well there’s no way that you’ve done the most good you could’ve done. If you had just dialed it back a little bit, you learn from these mistakes, you hopefully don’t make them again. Even if you do, that’s okay. If you just have this attitude of, “Look, I’m doing the best I can, and I’ll continue to do that.” And more or less think well of yourself for that, then you can’t ask more than doing the best you can. I think that that is actually the way to have the most impact in addition to being the best for people psychologically.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. And I also think there’s a distinction between forward looking and backward looking. And I do think guilt has a lot of backward looking; “I’m guilty, that I should have done this already”. But if you’re looking forward you’re more motivated; “Okay from this point on, what can I do that will make the world better”?
Keiran Harris: Absolutely. I mean, once you’re at a point where you’ve already, let’s say you have made a genuine mistake, the question is, well, how much more can you learn from this mistake beyond the first 30 seconds that you beat yourself up about it. Because people will naturally beat themselves up over it, and I will too, potentially. But there’s such a difference psychologically between being mad at yourself for 30 seconds or a minute, five minutes, 10, an hour, and then some people months. They’ll just beat themselves up about something for maybe even years. There’s such diminishing returns for feeling this guilt, and that if you can just recognize within a minute, and I recommend meditation for this, but if you can recognize, “Oh, I’m just feeling guilty now”. You note it. You move on. Hopefully learn the lessons. I think everybody wins.
A.J. Jacobs: You are an inspiration. I love this. I’m going to try even less guilt. I try not to feel it, because I do think it’s debilitating, but it’s so natural to want to wallow in it as well.
Keiran Harris: Absolutely. And it is natural, but then it all just comes back to this point of that you ought not to feel guilty about feeling guilty.
A.J. Jacobs: There you go, ah, very meta!
Keiran Harris: You’re always winning. Can you tell our audience why you think we’re getting birthdays wrong?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, birthdays are all about the person who is being born and we elevate them. But it occurred to me that they didn’t really do a lot of the work, they just came out. The person who went through all the pain and bodily contortions is the mother. So shouldn’t birthdays more be about the mother who put in all the work?
Keiran Harris: I love this.
A.J. Jacobs: So, on my birthday I try to thank my mother for having me instead. I try to turn it around. I thought, can I start a movement? I actually thought “Labor Day” would be a good name but that’s already taken. Someone has to come up with a good name for it: birthing day, maybe.
Keiran Harris: Sure.
A.J. Jacobs: So about the action, as opposed to the passive recipient.
Keiran Harris: I love that.
Drop Dead Healthy [00:49:22]
Keiran Harris: So in 2012 you wrote the book, “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection”. It’s a tale of your quest to be as healthy as humanly possible. How important do you think this project was for your own wellbeing, and what are your main takeaways of this several years later?
A.J. Jacobs: I would say, I’ve had a couple of big takeaways. I mean, it has changed my behavior somewhat. Not as huge as you might think. I still do have a treadmill and I write all of my emails. I walk on my treadmill and work. I don’t run on it. I walk at grandfather’s pace. So it’s changed that. It’s changed my diet a bit more towards real food as opposed to processed food. But one of the big takeaways was, I am so much more skeptical when reading health journalism or health books, because 95% of it is just evidence-free and crap. Because I do think if you were to sum up all of the evidence-based health recommendations, you can do it in like a page: exercise when you can eat real food, try to lower stress, get sleep, don’t smoke, don’t–
Keiran Harris: Don’t eat a mountain of sugar.
A.J. Jacobs: Don’t eat a mountain of sugar. Don’t hit yourself in the face with an axe. It’s pretty basic stuff. But there’s the novelty bias in journalism, and everything has to be new and unexpected or else no one wants to read it. And there’s the one study problem, you can find a study to justify anything. There is a study that says bacon will make you live till you’re 150, sure. So I’m very skeptical reading health journalism. I did think the useful category of knowledge was not what is healthy, because I think we all know, but what strategies are there to try to behave in a healthy way? And I do think that that has changed me and made things better. And I can give you an example.
Keiran Harris: Absolutely.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, one is this idea of respecting your older self.
Keiran Harris: Love this one.
A.J. Jacobs: So, I think a Yale professor had come up with this idea that we have our current self who wants to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos, and we’ve got the future self which wants to be alive. So some studies show that the more you think about your future self, the more responsibly you’ll act, both in financial matters but also in health. So I tried to make this as concrete as possible, and I printed out a picture of myself. I did one of those digital aging software and printed out a picture of myself as a 70 year old, and put it above my desk. And when I was thinking, “Should I eat this caramel popcorn?”, and I see my 70 year old self, I’m just like, “You know what? Let me be kind. Let me treat that person like I would anyone else”.
A.J. Jacobs: And actually thinking about it, I realized it is a bit of longtermism applied on a very personal level. Because you are trying to think of your future self, not just… And I think I love the idea that we are not just oneself. I think the idea of self as a unity is wrong in many ways, and one of them is through time. I really think I’ve changed a tremendous amount since when I was young. I think I’ve mentioned to you that I don’t like the younger version of myself. I think he’s an asshole. So anyway, I think using this idea of multiple selves and future self is very powerful. So that’s one thing I learned.
Keiran Harris: Absolutely. I just wanted to ask you, does this have real implications for your day-to-day life and your interactions with other people?
A.J. Jacobs: I think it’s got its costs and benefits. I mean, one benefit is I do think I’m much more forgiving than I used to be. And it also affects how I look at my life. Because as I say, I really don’t like the selfish asshole that I was. I’m still selfish, I think, because that’s part of human nature. But I fight it. I’m less than I was. So it makes me hate my former self. But also I forgive my former self. As you say, I couldn’t have done otherwise. So the best I can do is try to be better in the future.
Keiran Harris: I mean, this comes back to our conversation about guilt. It’s an easy thing to try and point out, not an easy thing to hear, but an easy thing to point out for someone who is very angry at themselves or even depressed, is to ask, “How would you feel if your friend made a similar mistake, or was having the same thoughts”? And people generally, will be much kinder to their friends. They will say, “Of course, you shouldn’t feel bad about this, of course. You shouldn’t be mad at yourself.” And yet when it comes to yourself, we have these much different standards. But really, again, if you take it seriously and you say, “Well, I’m feeling terrible about the things that former me did.” Well, just show the same level of compassion that you do to one of your friends, or even someone who is closer than a friend, someone like a twin. And if you take that seriously, you can just relieve this burden of just self hatred. It can melt away.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. Although, of course, then I do feel guilty about maybe I’m letting myself off too easily, and it’s a rationalization. But I do think if you take the philosophical premises to their logical conclusion, that’s the way to act. And I do think it’s improved my life.
Keiran Harris: Beautiful. What are people in our audience potentially undervaluing when it comes to health? Should they pay more attention to improving their noses or their hands, or anything else you investigated?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, the book was divided into sections, like improving your hand health, improving your sense of smell. It’s fun to look back on what my former self wrote, and to be a little judgmental because I think that I was way too quick to believe certain experts. It really is remarkable that I could find an expert with great credentials. I remember I was at this conference and there’s a woman, and I think it was Johns Hopkins, but it was something equivalent of that. And she was a professor, and one of her suggestions was that women should go on a trampoline every day, because the movement of their breasts releases toxins and helps prevent cancer. And I was like, “Well, should I tell my wife. Should we get a trampoline”? And I looked and I could find zero research to back this up.
A.J. Jacobs: So, it is remarkable how much people peddle this snake oil. At the same time, I am very pro-science, so my heuristic is more “Believe experts, plural, but not any single expert”. Because you can have an expert who just has a very idiosyncratic view based on nothing. But it’s a really tough question, because you want to have this epistemic humility even when it comes to science, but you also don’t want to give science deniers fuel for their anti-science beliefs.
A.J. Jacobs: So I’m very reluctant to advise people to do anything except, as I said, they’re very basic. But using these strategies, that I feel comfortable advising them. So respecting your older self, or micro-goals, that I’ve found very useful. So, for instance, every morning I wake up and I say, “I’m not going to guarantee to myself that I’m going to go on the treadmill, but I am going to put on my sneakers and shorts,” which is what I’m wearing now.
A.J. Jacobs: And then once I put on the sneakers, I’m like, “Well, the sneakers are on, I might as well get on the treadmill just for a minute. I’ll get off if I want after that”. And then once you’re on and you stay on for 20 minutes. So micro-goals I found very useful. But I would say, look for good strategies as opposed to trying to find some new miracle cure, or potion, or elixir.
Blackmailing yourself [00:57:46]
Keiran Harris: Can you tell us about this idea of blackmailing yourself?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, 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”.
A.J. Jacobs: 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. I’m not going to give any…” And it was incredibly effective, it was such a great disincentive that it worked. I have not eaten a dried mango in years. Whatever it was, it’s been 10 years.
Keiran Harris: Does it still stand?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, it still works.
Keiran Harris: Oh wow.
A.J. Jacobs: I mean, I would be careful. You might also want to have that once a week you can violate this. And there are websites that I think are still around where you can sign up and do this anti-charity strategy. But I found it incredibly effective.
Keiran Harris: Would you recommend it for people in the effective altruism community? Because I was thinking of them more than most people would be very against this idea of their money being misused.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh yeah. That would really just tear them up. Or maybe they could just make a check out to an ineffective charity.
Keiran Harris: Do you think that the good would outweigh the bad?
A.J. Jacobs: I think so. I mean it’s dangerous. Luckily, I think the effective altruism community… My guess is that they have more willpower than the average population. I think that it would be good. I mean, it is a dangerous strategy because if it’s going to work, you really do have to mail that check if you blow it.
Keiran Harris: Do you still meditate?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh man. Yes and no. I know intellectually how important it is. And I try to do… whenever I’m sitting alone, like waiting for someone at a restaurant, I will try. I will say the way I comfort myself is that I do think I’m pretty good at metacognition. I am pretty good at thinking about what I’m thinking and is this a healthy thing and catching myself as I go down dark alleys. And I think that is one of the advantages of meditation. So I think with or without meditation, I do do okay at that. But I wish I did more. But you: you meditate?
Keiran Harris: I do.
A.J. Jacobs: Every day?
Keiran Harris: Every day.
A.J. Jacobs: For how long?
Keiran Harris: 10 minutes.
A.J. Jacobs: And what do you use? Do you use an app?
Keiran Harris: I use Sam Harris’s app.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, you do?
Keiran Harris: So the Waking Up app. Well, actually you know what’s very helpful is that Chloe and I do it together. So obviously it’s very easy to just forget about this, but we have alarms set and then if one of us doesn’t feel like it, the other one will say, “Do you want to meditate”? And then you are just dragged into it. So every day we sit down 10 minutes and we do that together and it’s… Obviously people do the same thing for gym buddies or something like that. But yeah, I found that to be very helpful.
A.J. Jacobs: Is it one particular program on the Sam Harris app?
Keiran Harris: So we do the daily meditations. So it starts off with… There’s 50 and then it comes into this sort of cycle of meditations where it’s more or less the same thing. Then there’ll be different introductions and slight differences here and there. So it changes every day.
A.J. Jacobs: All right. I mean, I’m going to try it.
Keiran Harris: I recommend it. I really do. I think it’s another way into what we were talking about earlier, which is these ideas about the self. Within meditation, maybe you’re just focusing on the breathing and then your mind will wander to the last Friends episode you saw, and then you come back and you realize that you’re thinking and so you’ll have a mental note of, “Okay, thinking, thinking”. And Sam, unlike other apps, he’ll constantly try and get you to ask the further question which is, “Where is the thinker”? So you’re like, where did that thought arise? And I found that to be very effective, because if you ask yourself that question, the answer is, or it should be like, “Oh, it’s not coming from anywhere”.
Keiran Harris: Thoughts simply arise and you don’t know where they came from. And it’s just a series of thoughts over and over again. And you just sit there for 10 minutes and you realize that the more you pay attention, the more thoughts you catch. And noticing that is very helpful. And to be a little bit more practical about it, it’s very helpful in day-to-day life to reduce negative emotions. Using anger as an easy example. If you find yourself being angry at anything, whether that’s yourself or the external world or Trump or whatever it is, if you find yourself being angry, if you actually just make the mental note of just anger, it just cuts through it. It’s very difficult to continue to be angry, or continue to be caught up in this actual emotion if you keep labeling it just anger, anger, anger.
A.J. Jacobs: Even without meditation, I try to do that. Absolutely. Labeling your emotions. I think that is powerful. But all right, I’m sold. I’m going to try it.
The Know-It-All [01:03:00]
Keiran Harris: Beautiful. Moving on to your earliest book. So in 2004 you wrote “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” after spending 18 months reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. So I just wanted to ask, what was the inspiration for this project and for our younger listeners, what is the Encyclopedia Britannica?
A.J. Jacobs: Excellent questions. Yeah, they don’t print it anymore. It’s the encyclopedia. So every volume had a different letter and it was Wikipedia, but before Wikipedia. And they stopped printing it soon after I read it, but it was a crazy long book. It’s 33,000 pages. 44 million words. And I was inspired because my dad, he loves knowledge and reading and he decided that he wanted to read the encyclopedia to learn everything and he didn’t quite finish. He made it up to the middle of the Bs, like Borneo or boomerang, somewhere in there. And then he realized he had a life. But I thought it might be an interesting idea to try to finish what he began, remove that dark stain on our family history.
A.J. Jacobs: But also, I wanted to talk about knowledge versus wisdom and also just fill in the enormous gaps in my education. So I’m never going to climb Mount Everest. I’m not a particularly physical person, but I thought this might be a fun intellectual version of Mount Everest.
Keiran Harris: I think it’s a great idea. Did you struggle to convince the publisher that this was a great idea for a book?
A.J. Jacobs: Weirdly, no. The publisher liked it from the start. It was more of my family who I think suffered because as you can imagine, I had a little too much enthusiasm for the knowledge I was gaining and I inserted it into conversation and my wife started to penalize me $1 for every irrelevant fact. So the idea was, you know, she said, “I have a headache,” and I would say, “Well, did you know that the Bayer aspirin company invented heroin because it was thought of as a cough suppressant initially. And it turned out to have some negative side effects”. And then, at that point she’d be like, “Okay, that’s another dollar”. So yeah, I guess that was part of the plot: was how ridiculously irritating I became.
Keiran Harris: So in the book you wrote that a question you hated getting at the time was, “How much of the information are you retaining”? Which brings me to a question from one of our listeners, Rob Wiblin, who asks, “How much of the encyclopedia do you remember”?
A.J. Jacobs: I’m furious. I would say certainly less than 1%. Probably less than half a percent. But even that is better than I was. And I can’t really control what I remember. So that’s the problem. Sometimes it’s things like opossums have 13 nipples, which is not a piece of information that I think will make the world a better place, but I just can’t get it out of my mind. So yeah, I did not retain everything. I will say though there were a couple of takeaways from the book that did make my life better. So it was not a completely ridiculous way to spend a year and a half. Just mostly ridiculous.
Keiran Harris: And what were those takeaways?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I’d say there were two big ones. One is, we had mentioned epistemic humility, this idea that we know so little and this really drove that home. Just realizing how much of history that I was unaware of and how warped my view was. So I remember reading in the T section about the Taiping Rebellion in China, and that occurred at about the same time as the US Civil War. And it’s a fascinating story. It was a man who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus and he created a cult and he marched on the emperor and it was a huge civil war in China and 20 million people died during the Taiping Rebellion. Who knows how accurate that estimate is?
A.J. Jacobs: But certainly that is multiple times more than the US civil war, which is about 700,000-800,000. And the fact that I had maybe vaguely heard of the Taiping Rebellion, it just showed me how warped my view was and how certain things were totally out of… which is I think a very effective altruism idea. We focus on what’s geographically close, whereas this happened and it was just in terms of human lives, such a bigger deal. So there was that lesson of epistemic humility. And then the second big lesson was, this was before Steven Pinker wrote all of his books and essays about the idea of progress is real, the enlightenment values are good. But that was one of my takeaways is that either the good old days were not good. The good old days were terrible. They were disease-ridden, violent, sexist, homophobic, filthy, and smelly.
A.J. Jacobs: You couldn’t believe just reading about it. Looking at a New York street now, if this were in the 1800s, the horse manure would literally be piled. They would sweep it to the side and it would be up to at least our waists. So it is astounding how in some ways the world has gotten better. I think that there’s nuances. Factory farming is an obvious counterexample and the threat of nuclear war and other existential threats. If something does go wrong, it’s going to be a lot worse. But it definitely taught me not to be nostalgic, not to glorify the past. And I think that that is a very dangerous bias. And I think that’s part of the reason Donald Trump is President, you know, “Make America Great Again” is this whole nostalgia myth. So reading the encyclopedia really helped to cure me of that.
Keiran Harris: Did you come close to giving up on reading the complete encyclopedia?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, absolutely. I think one thing that kept me going is the threat of public humiliation, which I think is a great motivator.
Keiran Harris: Powerful.
A.J. Jacobs: Maybe underused. I try to use it now. I used to be a little secretive about my projects in case they didn’t work out, but now I’m just out there, “Here’s what I’m doing,” because it really does motivate me to finish. Otherwise, when people are like, “What happened, why…”. So I do recommend using public humiliation to motivate yourself and that played a big part in this one.
Keiran Harris: Do you keep a list of favorite entries?
A.J. Jacobs: One of the favorite little traditions or habits that I have is I keep a file on my computer called “One Thing”. And after every podcast or book or movie, I try to write down one thing that I loved. Because otherwise I find if I try to remember more than that, then I forget everything. But if I don’t do that, then it’s all a blur. So having this one little nugget that I can go back to and look. And I love going back to… I have it on my phone, and so it could be, yeah, I listened to a podcast about Michelangelo and how much he hated painting the Sistine Chapel and how much self-doubt he had. And he’s like, “I’m a sculptor, not a painter.” And he wrote to his friends, “This is going to be the end of me. This is such a disaster.”
A.J. Jacobs: And this is one of the great works of Western civilization. So if he can have self-doubt and think it’s going to be a disaster, that gives me a little bit more hope that when I’m in the depths of despair, maybe I’m deluding myself a bit.
Keiran Harris: Did you find that the increased knowledge came in handy much or was it mostly just interesting?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that’s very generous of you to have that as the two choices because I’m not sure either of them.
Keiran Harris: You have two choices!
A.J. Jacobs: That is very nice. I would say there was three times where it came in actually handy when my friend who hates cilantro and the recipe called for coriander and I knew from the encyclopedia that coriander is the British way of saying cilantro and it saved the day and it was a heroic moment. But that’s sort of few and far between and the fact that it was not a life-and-death situation tells you something. But I’d say, occasionally I will be able to say things that are of interest to other people, but I try to be much more restrained. I think one thing that it made me more excited about how much fascinating knowledge there is.
A.J. Jacobs: So it really stoked my curiosity. So reading about someone like Victoria Woodhull who I’d never heard of, but she was a 19th century early feminist, first woman to run for President, first female stockbroker, renowned psychic, which I always thought was great combination: psychic stockbroker, you want that.
Keiran Harris: It makes sense.
A.J. Jacobs: And there’re just three paragraphs on her. But it inspired me to dig deeper and read a biography of her. So it was inspiring in that there is so much interesting knowledge out there.
Keiran Harris: I love that. Could you tell us about the experience of the weeks following the release of your first book? What was that like?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, it’s interesting because as a writer, a lot of your job is marketing, which I didn’t realize and they’re totally different skill sets. 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.
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
Keiran Harris: Okay. So overall, your first book, it was warmly embraced by most major media outlets, including Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. But sometimes you get negative reviews. And I wanted to ask you about, how do you respond to these negative reviews or how have you in the past, and maybe has your attitude to negative reviews changed over the past 15 years as you’ve gone through further projects, including your Gratitude project?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh yeah, I’ve definitely gotten positive and negative reviews. I’ve gotten slammed and slammed hard. In the beginning, it was even harder. It’s still hard. It’s still really an unpleasant feeling. I think I have gotten better. I think I’ve gotten a slightly thicker skin. And part of that is, I think, I’ve changed my philosophy a bit. I do try to, when I’m envisioning a project, how will this affect the world? Will this help the world overall or will it harm the world overall? So knowing that, I do think encouraging people to be more grateful and aware of all that goes into all the other people in their life, I think that’s a positive message.
A.J. Jacobs: So there were some snarky reviews and I’m like, well, that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s overall going to hopefully have a good effect. And also, I’ve become very aware of course, of the negative bias where you hear a hundred compliments and a single insult. And I think we are wired to remember that insult because it did have evolutionary value. When you were on the Savannah, you wanted to remember that one poisonous mushroom. But now it’s just a terrible way to go through life and warping and defeating. So yeah, I don’t want negative reviews, but I do feel I’m a little better equipped to handle them than I was. But please don’t give a negative review to this podcast because it will crush me. I will curl up into a fetal position.
Keiran Harris: Okay. So talking about experimentation more broadly, do you think that other people should experiment more on themselves?
A.J. Jacobs: My gut reaction is yes. And I’ll tell you what I think are the advantages and then I’ll say a little about the possible perils.
Keiran Harris: Great.
A.J. Jacobs: But the advantages to me are, I think we have a tendency to just settle into ruts when experimenting could make us happier. And I’m not talking about growing a beard and stoning adulterers. I’m talking more about small things in life, like trying a new toothpaste that might taste better, trying a new route to school, trying different strategies to get yourself to exercise. And I do think that’s part of the EA DNA. We’re very much about experimenting and seeing what works and to try things and see what works and then switch if it does. So I think overall we should experiment more with our lives.
A.J. Jacobs: I think that the dangers are that you can be too quick to abandon something because I do think some of the problems in the world are so technical that specialization is a good thing. Like specialize in AI early so you can go as deep as possible to help prevent a possible existential disaster. But I’m very torn. I’m very torn. I don’t know. You’ve thought about this, so I’d love your thoughts. How much should we experiment, and in what ways?
Keiran Harris: I mean, I would say that one way that this comes up is in career choices. So exploring and exploiting career choices. So we’ve had a podcast about this, Brian Christian. So in terms of careers, it seems right that you should definitely experiment to some extent. It’s unlikely that the first, you know, if you’re in high school and you’re deciding, “Oh, I want to major and I want to be a biologist” or maybe you want to be an archaeologist, let’s say, or maybe you want to be a painter or whatever it might be. And then you just go headfirst into that. And then that’s your job forever. That seems like it’s probably a mistake.
Keiran Harris: Rather, you should try and take these cheap tests if you can and try and find out where you are a really good fit. We’ve been doing this anonymous advice series lately and one of the pieces of advice was that people are too hesitant to abandon projects actually and certainly jobs. So you feel sort of a debt to a company who’ve taken you on and trained you up. But if you’re not enjoying the work, if you don’t feel like this is your perfect fit, then this person was saying, well, after about six months you should probably be looking at an exit strategy. You should be willing to say that, well, for the greater good, if you’re trying to do the most good in the world, certainly for an altruist or if you have that kind of mindset, you shouldn’t worry about wasting these people’s times.
Keiran Harris: It’s like everyone will be better off if you quit that job and find something where you’re a better fit. But it still doesn’t mean that it was a waste of your time and there’s this enormous value of information where you say like, “Okay, well, now I know that X job wasn’t the right fit for me,” or even there’s these specific tasks. And that allows you to try and get more information about what this next job might be and maybe even it’s fantastic if you can talk to a lot of people in that field and get a sense for what their day-to-day lives are like. But at some point, you should find something and then commit to it. So it definitely isn’t the case that you want to just be experimenting with these career choice decisions forever. But yeah, it’s certainly an interesting question.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s a balance in life, like everything else. And I have abandoned projects and I will tell you, when you abandon a project that’s not working, it is a great feeling. That’s one of the best feelings.
Keiran Harris: This was a question that was going to come up later. I was going to ask you, have you ever had a major project that you’ve begun and then abandoned? Let’s say you’d started “The Year of Living Under Water” and then you’re in–
A.J. Jacobs: Writing that down for my next book.
Keiran Harris: You’re in your scuba tank. You’re building your underwater house and then two minutes in you think, “You know what, I’ve made a huge mistake”. Was there any moments–
A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely, and it was very recent. I’ve had a few of them, and the most recent one was I signed up to do a book called “Fact Checking My Life” or “Fact Checking the World”. And it was all about epistemology and what do we know and why do we know it? How do we know that the Earth revolves around the sun? How much can we trust our memory? And it was all tied to this fake news crisis. And I still think it’s a fascinating topic and relevant. And maybe it would have done more good than my current puzzle book, but I was so miserable for two reasons. One, a lot of it was very navel-gazing . So I was trying to figure out how much of my memory was true. So it would involve interviewing all my ex-girlfriends and get their point of view and that would have just been painful to see.
A.J. Jacobs: Because as I said, I don’t like my former self. And then the worry I had that actually kept me up at night is that I do think I am incredibly pro-science, but science has biases, corruption, mistakes. So if you dig in, it’s a very subtle message. So be pro-science but also be very skeptical of science. You’ve got the replication crisis. So I was worried that the takeaway was going to be people would read it and be like, “Oh yeah, we can’t trust anything. It’s all competing narratives. There is no truth”! Because that’s an easier takeaway. That’s an easier story to sell than “Yes, there is a truth, but we can only approach it probabilistically and we can only have models that are increasingly accurate, but–”
Keiran Harris: And I think even you as a younger man was attracted to moral relativism.
A.J. Jacobs: There you go. I was, yeah, and this is epistemic relativism. But yeah, I think it’s a dangerous… So I thought maybe this book would do more harm than good. But on the other hand, I think it’s a very important topic. And I do love wrestling with this idea on how do we know what we know and constantly questioning all of my beliefs. But in this time, I worry it’s a dangerous message.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, that makes sense. How far into the process did you get?
A.J. Jacobs: I’ve been working on it for months. Like three or four months. And I still have, I wrote thousands of words about it. I hope to someday write articles or use it somehow. And it also clarified my thinking in a lot of ways. So financially it was not good, but I do love what I learned from it. So in that sense, it was okay. But it was, yeah, the feeling of when I decided to abandon it, it was such a feeling of relief.
Keiran Harris: Relief. I mean, that seems like a reasonable heuristic to have. If you’re miserable… I mean, given that you are, and I think you’ll be happy for me to say this, you’ve been so lucky to be able to stumble into this life where you get to do these incredible projects. This would be the dream of so many people. You shouldn’t be spending a day of being miserable in one of your projects really. If you’re spending months going like “This is just not for me”, you have the fortune to be able to say, “No, I don’t want to do this”.
A.J. Jacobs: True. I think ideally if I were doing something that made me miserable but that was going to improve–
Keiran Harris: That was great for the world.
A.J. Jacobs: … Then I should suck it up.
Keiran Harris: Although even then, as we’ve discussed, if it made you too miserable, it might lead to you being less likely to do something that does good for the world in the future.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. There you go.
Keiran Harris: You might burn out, and ultimately you might have less of a social impact with your career.
A.J. Jacobs: Because Will MacAskill has… We’ve talked about maybe I should do a book, or I should try to be the most effective altruist and do the most good in the world. And I’m attracted to the idea. I think I’m too much of a coward than a hypocrite to do it because I think to really do it, I would have to give away 99% of my money. I might have to move to a developing country, maybe not. I could make the argument I could do more good by writing instead of digging wells. But it would radically change my life in a way that, at this point, I’m too scared to do. So I hope there’s someone out there who’s more courageous than me who would be willing to undertake being the most effective altruist in the world because I certainly would read that book.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, that would be fascinating actually. And I think that’s right. I mean, my thoughts are obviously that you absolutely shouldn’t be doing that sort of project if it would make you absolutely miserable. I think in your case, you wouldn’t have to move to a developing country because I think you have this status as a writer. You have people who, whether you acknowledge it or not, who do respect you and will pay attention to the podcasts and your books and will be influenced. And I think you wouldn’t need to be on the ground. You wouldn’t need to be digging wells or anything. So I think probably you would have to focus all of your projects around these big ideas, which would be okay for you. But the big one is, yeah, you’d probably have to give up this beautiful apartment.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s very true. No, I think about that all the time. And yeah, that is the story I tell myself is that I could do better in writing than I could anything else. So hopefully that’s a true story.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. And even then, I mean, I think obviously this is the thing that runs through all of my stuff about not feeling guilty and things, but yeah, having an impact through your writing is enough. I really want to stress this. You should never feel guilty about the fact that you don’t give away 99% of your money. If you give away any of your money and you dedicate any of your time to thinking about these important topics, that’s fantastic. And if you’re not the kind of person who’s going to donate all your money, which almost no one is, that’s fine. No one should feel guilty.
A.J. Jacobs: I love it. I think you’re too nice to me, but I will take it. Thank you for relieving my guilt.
Keiran Harris: Well, maybe people will disagree, will get a little angry. Some people will say “No, A.J. should feel more guilty”.
A.J. Jacobs: I do struggle with it. So it’s there. It’s there people. Don’t worry.
Keiran Harris: Oh, I wanted to ask you, have you read “The Dice Man”?
A.J. Jacobs: I did. I loved that book.
Keiran Harris: Okay. Beautiful.
A.J. Jacobs: Wow. What a crazy book.
Keiran Harris: It’s one of my favorite novels. And so for anyone who hasn’t read it or heard of it, tells a story of a psychiatrist who makes all these major life decisions based on the casting of this dice. And I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but things get dark pretty quickly. And so as much as I think an A.J. Jacob’s version of “The Dice Man” would be fascinating reading, I think that’s probably a step too far for your family’s welfare sake. I think I wouldn’t want to encourage you to do anything that extreme. But I did want to ask, I was curious, what are the most extreme ideas that you’ve seriously, sincerely considered taking on?
A.J. Jacobs: First of all, I love the idea of randomness and luck and how much it plays a part in our lives. So Dice Man is a lot about that. I read about this, I forget what this… but it’s a political philosophy, I think it’s called randomocracy where instead of electing someone–
Keiran Harris: Are they just chosen randomly?
A.J. Jacobs: Randomly, like by lottery.
Keiran Harris: Oh wow.
A.J. Jacobs: And the benefits would be there would be no campaign finance and scandals.
Keiran Harris: We’d have a better president, statistically?
A.J. Jacobs: Statistically we would, I know! Literally, I’ve heard the phrase kakocracy. Have you heard that word?
Keiran Harris: No.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s the rule by the worst possible person. And I do think we have a couple of those in the world right now, including this country. But anyway, so to answer your question, a lot of readers have suggested that I try to become the greatest lover in the world and do all the positions in the Kama Sutra. And I did bring it up with my wife and she quickly shot it down. And I think wisely, first of all, I’m too old. I don’t have the flexibility for most of those. And two, I wouldn’t want to read that book. I don’t think other people need to. So there was that one.
A.J. Jacobs: One thing I thought of when I read Peter Singer is the idea that there’s a geographical distance and that’s a pretty arbitrary reason not to act on something. So what if technologically, I could reduce that geographic distance to nothing. So I would have say a live feed of someone in the developing country–
Keiran Harris: Oh interesting.
A.J. Jacobs: And what their life is like. So every time I walked into Starbucks, I would have, in my face, the two choices. I could spend $3 on a Frappuccino or I could spend $3 helping this person eat. And I really did give some thought to that. In the end I decided not to. I thought it would be too flippant. It’s too flippant a way to address this moral issue. Maybe it’s cowardice as well that I didn’t do it.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I suppose you would have the same dilemma as the radical effective altruist.
A.J. Jacobs: You would have to give every single decision.
Keiran Harris: You would just keep giving until their lives were at a point where they no longer needed your help.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. How could you not? But yeah, and I also think… I’m not sure it would be received well. There would be like white savior criticisms.
Keiran Harris: Sure.
A.J. Jacobs: So I decided not to, but I think it’s a very interesting idea, not necessarily for an article, but just for a way of life.
Keiran Harris: No, that is interesting.
A.J. Jacobs: How can we make this geographic distance disappear so that our decisions are more rational?
Keiran Harris: Are there any favorite stories from your experiments that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into any of your books?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I will say sometimes what would make a good story I felt is a little bit of a cheap shot. So when I was doing “The Year of Living Biblically”, I went to a place called “The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida”. And this is a Disney World version, but religious. So instead of Mickey Mouse, you have Jesus. And Jesus is in a robe. He’s got a little head microphone and he’s crucified every two or three hours and they have actors playing lepers on the street asking for your money. It was surreal and entertaining and interesting. But I also thought this is a cheap shot. This is taking the worst of the evangelical community and just making fun of them and does it really improve my book? So I never ended up writing it, but I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget my Holy Land experience.
Effective altruism [01:31:38]
Keiran Harris: So let’s move on to your thoughts on doing good. Can you tell us how you first got introduced to effective altruism?
A.J. Jacobs: Sure. I pitched an article idea to Esquire Magazine and the idea was if I took my writing fee or a couple thousand dollars, what would be the most good I could do with that amount of money? And through the research, naturally I ended up reading a lot of Will’s book, “Doing Good Better”, I believe, and Peter Singer. And I found their arguments incredibly compelling. So I ended up in the end, I think I did donate most… I did donate some to a GiveWell charity; I think against malaria…
Keiran Harris: Against Malaria Foundation.
A.J. Jacobs: Against Malaria Foundation. But I also thought that donating to effective altruism itself was an effective way because it’s a meta charity. So if it works, $1 to effective altruism has a multiplier effect.
Keiran Harris: To the Centre for Effective Altruism. To CEA?
A.J. Jacobs: I believe I did it to CEA.
A.J. Jacobs: But yeah, the idea was, they are spreading the word that people should give more and should give more efficiently. I mean, at one point, I thought maybe the best use of that couple thousand dollars would be to hire a publicist who would get me on the Today Show so I could talk about effective altruism, but I also thought the optics of that are not great. Spending all my money to hire a publicist does not look like it’s doing the most good, even though you could make an argument it is.
Keiran Harris: I think you could make that argument. Well, if you really take these ideas seriously, you’ve got to maybe put away the concerns about optics and say, “What does the most good?”
A.J. Jacobs: There you go. From now on, I’m going to put all my money into hiring publicists.
Keiran Harris: I sincerely think that’s a good idea. Not necessarily publicists, but going on the Today Show, that would have been incredible.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, it would have been huge. But who knows if that would have even happened. Probably not. But anyway, I loved it, and I liked the article because I went through all of the arguments against effective altruism and got the responses from smart people like Will and Peter Singer, because there are compelling arguments against it, but I still, in the end, come down on the side of effective altruism.
Keiran Harris: Would you say that you were immediately drawn to these ideas, or did it take some convincing?
A.J. Jacobs: I think I’ve been a utilitarian for a long time. I don’t know if I had the right words. Or I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it, and maybe I still don’t. But I am very much in that mindset of how can we do the most good for the most people without cutting someone up for their body parts.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s a rule of utilitarianism: the sign thing. But yeah, so it didn’t take a huge amount of convincing. I was already leaning that way, but I loved the rigor of the thought that these people had put into it, and also just the research on where, specifically, that money should go.
A.J. Jacobs: And then after that, I wrote the article, and I was invited to speak at the Effective Altruism Global Conference in San Francisco a few years ago, and I just loved meeting people in the community, and I loved the diversity of the thought.
A.J. Jacobs: You’ve got the people who’ve compassion for animals: factory farming. You’ve got developing nations, and then you’ve got this part, which I definitely had not given a lot of thought to, but the existential risk people. So, I loved being exposed to the diversity of… I think it’s a strength and a weakness of EA, but overall, I think it’s a strength, that you’ve got so many different viewpoints on how to do good.
Keiran Harris: Normally, we might talk about… well, I mean, I’m going to ask you what your biggest concerns are with effective altruism, but we rarely get someone to speak just openly about the positives of the EA community. Just wondering if you wanted to say a little bit about what do you think are the good things about this community and what would you be excited about telling people?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I love talking about it, and I think the strength is everyone I’ve met in the EA community is so thoughtful, and they are trying to do good in the best way possible. That alone is astounding as opposed to a worldview that it’s a jungle and you’re only out for yourselves.
A.J. Jacobs: I would say, when I talk about the EA community, I’ve learned some lessons because sometimes I get so excited about some of the more unusual ideas, like AI risks or wild animal suffering. I mean, as such to me, a really compelling idea, but I find if you start with someone who knows nothing about effective altruism, I mean you start by telling them, “Well, they’re trying to do the most good possible and think outside the box, and maybe we should engineer it so there are no carnivores”, and they just look at you blankly.
A.J. Jacobs: They’ll walk away. They do not engage. It’s just too crazy. So I’ve learned to start just with the least controversial, which is this is a group of people trying to do the most good. That’s hard to argue with.
Keiran Harris: Seems good.
A.J. Jacobs: That seems good.
A.J. Jacobs: And then I do think, to get people into EA who know nothing about it, talking about development and poverty is probably the most effective way, because that was my journey. I was brought in thinking about how can we make a more fair world where there’s not a billion people starving. And then, that brought in my circle of moral concern to that, and then that broadened to nonhuman animals. Then that broadens to future people, maybe even non carbon based life. But it took a while; that progression took a while. So I’ve learned to really hold back from pitching what I find the most interesting ideas to the ones that I think will engage people and not dismiss the movement as a bunch of lunatics. Paranoid lunatics.
Keiran Harris: That seems very sensible. Do you ever talk about effective altruism to friends and family who have never heard about it, and how do they tend to react?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, again, I’ve learned to start with the more relatable premises. And I do pitch… There’s a meeting every year where all of my in-laws, and there are about 20 of them, and we take a vote on what charity to give to. And I’ve brought up effective altruism or EA related causes.
A.J. Jacobs: I got to say I’m not doing a great job, because the other challenge is, I think, people are so swayed by emotions, and EA is a little bit more intellectual. So, the charities that have won the votes within the family are very emotional ones: helping refugees and immigration because we’re Jews, and we were once refugees and immigrated.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s hard to argue that that’s a good cause, but it’s also very hard to argue against as it emotionally resonates. So, I got to figure out… That’s one of my big challenges when talking about EA, is how do you properly harness emotions. Because the EA logo, I think, is awesome. I’m a big fan of the logo: the light bulb with a heart inside. So it’s the ideas and the compassion. The mind and the emotions. But I don’t think I’ve been successful in tapping into the emotions.
Keiran Harris: Have you tried Will’s thought experiment of, “Imagine that you had the opportunity to run into a burning building and rescue a child. You have that opportunity with X thousands of dollars, and that this is a chance for you to be a hero”. Have you pitched that to your family?
A.J. Jacobs: Not in so many words, so, all right. That’s for next. It just passed, so I’m screwed for this year. But yeah, no, I think that’s good. And I think there are ways to do it, and that is one thing that I wanted to talk about with you, is what strategies can we use to make it more compelling; the idea of EA?
Keiran Harris: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. That introducing the wild animal suffering as a first off is not going to win the vote.
A.J. Jacobs: No. Well, I’m sure you’ve read those studies more than I have, but about how people are more likely to give to a single person that they see a video about than to thousands of people, because I guess it’s overwhelming, and our brains are wired for stories. And I have mixed feelings about this. One is we should fight this. That’s part of human nature, but not all parts of human nature are good. So, we should not give into this, and we should try to encourage people to think more statistically.
A.J. Jacobs: On the other hand, maybe it’s so deeply built in that we should play to it. We should take advantage of that quirk in our thinking, and the key would be to align the stories with the bigger problems. So, you can tell a story about a girl who fell into a well, but there are three kids who fall into wells or whatever, but it’s a very compelling story. But align the stories with… Tell the story of one of the 2000 people a day who die from malaria. Tell that story, and make it vivid, as opposed to telling the story of a shark attack, which is also very vivid, but happens so rarely.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also been thinking lately… So, we’re in New York, and on the weekend, there was an event, which I had never heard before: SantaCon. Never heard of it and my girlfriend and I were just walking the streets. Everyone was dressed as Santa around us, and I didn’t know what was happening. It was just a couple of people at first who were out in the morning, and then suddenly it just became every second person, then suddenly it was everyone on the street around us. We’re in the East village, so we’re just surrounded by it.
A.J. Jacobs: That’s SantaCon central.
Keiran Harris: And then we went home, and we Googled it, and we found out what was going on. I’m like, “Okay, we understand. It’s this big event”.
Keiran Harris: But people were just talking about this, and saying like, “Oh well, it’s good because we’re raising money for charity.” And they weren’t even specific. They weren’t even saying what they’re raising it for. It’s just, “Well, it’s for charity”. And I think there are so many things like that where people are just invested in this cause. They want to have fun too, but they are just excited about the idea of charity just generally. And I wonder if we could do more to try and speak to the organizers of events like this, who are just raising decent amounts of money, and just get people who don’t really necessarily care that much about where their money goes, and just divert it to these most effective causes.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that idea.
Keiran Harris: So, if you knew someone who was running SantaCon, keep SantaCon going, by all means, but just have it be raising money for AMF. That seems good. And it seems like there’s probably so many causes. The ice bucket challenge was ridiculous, but no one doing that was thinking like, “Oh, I really care about ALS. That’s what I’m really passionate about”. They wanted to be part of this social phenomenon. There’s no reason in principle why you couldn’t devote these things to effective altruism themed charities, and I wonder if we could do more work there and whether ever anyone would actually really be bothered, because they could still say, “I’m doing this for charity. I’m doing this for kids in Africa”.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. And in fact, there are a couple of people I met at EAG who started this app called Momentum. Which, I think it’s a great idea, and it’s basically trying to get people to donate more to charity, but I think they do guide them to EA charities. And the idea is that you tie your donations to an event.
A.J. Jacobs: So, for instance, every time Donald Trump tweets, I automatically donate 50 cents to a pro-get-out-the-vote democracy organization. So it sort of gamifies charity, which I think is fine. I love your idea because I’m not doing that because I am obsessed with the charity. I’m doing it because… Well, in my case, I am very interested in democracy reforms, but it’s mostly a fun game that I can tell people, “Every time Trump tweets…” and it makes me feel a tiny bit better.
Keiran Harris: And not to say that you ought not to be donating to that cause, but you could also do the same thing for a longtermist charity. Could do the same thing for saying like, “Well, I think that Donald Trump is increasing existential risk, so I’m going to donate to a charity that works to prevent nuclear war” or something like that. Still works.
A.J. Jacobs: Totally.
Keiran Harris: It’s both true and the game still works.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. Well that’s… I mean, sometimes when I talk about EA, I say it is the opposite of Trump, because he has no concept of long-term, and he is all about moment-to-moment gratification. If he did the marshmallow test, he would just be gobbling it up and God knows what.
Keiran Harris: That’s probably pretty good marketing for us; the opposite of Donald Trump.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I mean, you’ve talked about this on other episodes; do you want to align with a particular political party? There are dangers in that, but to me it seems this goes beyond political parties.
Keiran Harris: Agree, absolutely. So, do you have any thoughts on how these ideas could better appeal to a broader range of talented folks?
A.J. Jacobs: I think it’s a good question. I think you guys are probably better at it than I am. I mean, one thing I’ve done, I’ve written a few EA related articles, and I do try this bait-and-switch method which, A) is a speciesist term, and B) has its downsides, but I think that it’s overall good.
A.J. Jacobs: So, for instance, I wrote an article. Leah Garcés wrote a book called “Grilled”, and it’s about how she was able to convince the poultry industry to make reforms so the chickens aren’t suffering too much. And the intro I used was something like, “Leah Garcés has been obsessed with dogs all her life. She has devoted herself to try to relieve the suffering of millions of dogs and has been successful”. And then, I had the little twist, which was, “Wait, did I say dogs? I meant chickens. She loves chicken, but maybe we should afford chickens the same amount of moral concern that we afford dogs because they too can feel pain”. So, my hope was that that would draw people in and actually make them think, “You know what, why do we treat dogs and chickens so radically differently”? And then they might be more likely to engage in the article.
Keiran Harris: That’s fantastic. No, I love that. So I wanted to ask you, we spoke earlier, that you didn’t have the nicest things to say about your former self. What about 25 year old A.J.? Do you think that effective altruism would have appealed to him, and what would have been the best way of presenting these ideas to your younger self?
A.J. Jacobs: I think, no. I think, as I say, I’m not a fan of my former self. I did not think about others, but I think the best way to pitch it to my younger self would have been the fact that doing good for others makes you feel better. I mean, it’s one of the great, delightful paradoxes and coincidences of human nature that we are happiest when we are helping others, and that’s the way I found to get out of depression. So, if I drove that home, appealing to my selfish side, and say, “Listen, you’re very unhappy. Try going outside of yourself and thinking of others. Thinking of the long-term future, thinking of humanity. Maybe you’ll be happier. Just experiment with it. Who knows? Just try it for a month.” That might’ve made some headway. So, appealing to my selfish desires.
Keiran Harris: Do you think once you had committed to just doing something for others… So, that could be charity, generally. Do you think once you’re committed to giving away something to charity or to donating some of your time, do you think you then could have been convinced to work on effective altruist type causes? Or do you think you would have been more tied to more traditional charities?
A.J. Jacobs: I think I would have bought the effective altruism reasoning. Sure. In the beginning I would probably do something related. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, so I should do something Alzheimer’s related. But I think if I could convince myself that just because someone is related by accident of DNA, maybe that’s not the best reason to focus on that. I don’t know. I don’t trust my former self.
Keiran Harris: Given that you felt like you don’t trust your former self, you’re not a big fan, do you think that, if we had the opportunity, let’s say that he existed today, do you think he would have been someone who we’d want in the community? Would we even have wanted that arrogant jerk?
Keiran Harris: Is it better to potentially allow people time to mature and to develop their ideas a little bit more, and now, you could be an enormous help for effective altruism. But if we had approached you at that age, maybe you would have been turned off by these ideas, and then you would have had, you know, a bad association? So, do you think there’s anything to the idea of being careful about getting people when they’re too young interested in these ideas?
A.J. Jacobs: First of all, I have indoctrinated my kids into it, so I am definitely going with the route of… And one of my sons is like fully onboard with effective altruism, which I love.
A.J. Jacobs: It’s such an interesting dynamic, because on the one hand, if you get people young enough to introduce these ideas, it really is deep in their core. On the other hand, I feel like as I aged, I became more open to these ideas. But I worry I could have just as easily been the other way. I could have hardened my ideas, and your worldview hardens, and it’s very hard to change it. So, I don’t know the answer, basically. I’m going to plead epistemic humility and say, “I don’t know”. I do think teaching them very young is a good idea, and I think a lot about the education system, and if I were going to change anything I would teach a lot more epistemology: how do we know what we know, and also teach a lot more about looking rationally at how does this action affect the world? So yeah, get it into the school curriculum.
Keiran Harris: That would be amazing. While we talked about this earlier, have you considered taking on any other particular effective altruism themed running projects yourself? Have you considered taking on anything beyond Will’s idea of the radical altruist?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, actually I have a couple. One, I’m friends with Spencer Greenberg, former guest on your podcast. And he had this great thought experiment that he says he tries to do when he wakes up in the morning, which is that it’s just by pure luck that you are who you are. The odds are just as equal that you would be any one of the other seven and a half billion people on Earth, so he tries to imagine every morning, what if he was born a papaya farmer in the Philippines or a taxi driver in Ecuador? What would his life be like then? So we thought maybe this would be an interesting app or an email, a daily email, sort of life roulette, and you would get it, and it would randomly choose from hundreds of other lives and say, “Here’s what you are today”.
Keiran Harris: I love that.
A.J. Jacobs: I think it’s a lovely idea. Again, the whole idea is trying to expand your circle of moral concern. The downsides are maybe people would say it’s sort of trivializing, but overall I think it’s a nice idea. We never did anything. We sort of started, but if it appeals to anyone, we would gladly donate it.
Keiran Harris: Oh, wonderful.
A.J. Jacobs: If anyone wants to follow up. Oh, I once talked to Will about an idea called “The Reality Times”, because I think that the media is one of the major hurdles to doing more good, because it is just one big availability bias. It is. You read about the two people who are eaten by sharks as opposed to A), what’s really killing people, and B), that life is getting better in many ways. So this would be the reality times: I mean, you could go a couple of different ways. One would be instead of… You could have an article on this person who was eaten by a shark, but then you contextualize it and have a little box saying, “And here are the number of people yesterday who died of heart disease, of malnutrition, whatever”.
A.J. Jacobs: So you give that. Or, you could say, “Five people died in a private jet crash”, and then you have a box that says, “And here were 400 million people, whatever it is, landed safely in this flying machine. Can you believe that? That is remarkable.” So, it’s sort of along the lines of Steven Pinker’s argument that if you just had one newspaper come out every 50 years, it would all be amazing. Humans landed on the moon. They cured polio. It’s crazy. So, it will be trying to get that long view in there into everyday news.
Keiran Harris: That’s fantastic. Have you actually made any progress on this?
A.J. Jacobs: No progress whatsoever. But again, I’m happy to–
Keiran Harris: Are you happy for other people in the community–
A.J. Jacobs: Of course!
Keiran Harris: … For them to take this on?
A.J. Jacobs: And I’ll help in any way I can. Oh, and one last idea I had, that’s sort of EA adjacent, is I want to be a utilitarian movie reviewer, because I feel that there’s this bias for deontology in movies. For instance, “The Martian” with Matt Damon: you could make a very good argument that he’s one of the great villains of history if he were real. It must’ve cost billions and billions of dollars to rescue him.
A.J. Jacobs: So, a true hero would have said, “Listen, I’m fine. I lived a good life. Don’t rescue me. Use those billions of dollars to do something good. Whether it’s bed nets or for the long-term future”. So, he was an example of the worst decision making. But that’s, I think, just symptomatic of a lot of movies where you have this idea that saving one person is the greatest feat.
Keiran Harris: Are there any movies that do this well?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, the one that I do think of is “Casablanca” which is a very utilitarian movie because he basically gave up his happiness for the betterment of the world. He’s… Oh, spoiler alert. Sorry if you haven’t seen it.
Keiran Harris: Sorry. I think that was 1942, was that?
A.J. Jacobs: It’s been a couple, maybe. It’s an old one.
Keiran Harris: Wonderful film, though. We recommended it.
A.J. Jacobs: And from an EA point of view, it’s great. He’s a true hero, that he sacrificed his personal happiness and…
Keiran Harris: And that’s true.
A.J. Jacobs: And love of his life so that she could do good and accompany this guy who was…
Keiran Harris: That’s a great example. And also, you could point to it for saying… If anyone said like, “Well, this isn’t going to play,” you say, “Casablanca!”
A.J. Jacobs: There you go. Exactly.
Keiran Harris: Often voted the best movie of all time.
A.J. Jacobs: So, that was it. Those are the EA related ideas I have, but have not executed on.
Keiran Harris: Well, I love that. So, one of the key ideas of 80,000 Hours is longtermism: that in expectation, there’ll be a huge number of future generations. And because we think future generations clearly matter, then what’s most important about our actions is their potential effects on these future generations. So, if this reasoning is correct, it implies that approaches to improving the world should be evaluated mainly in terms of their potential long-term impact of thousands, millions, or even billions of years.
Keiran Harris: So, in other words, the question, “How can I have a positive impact”, should mostly be replaced with, “How can I best make the very long-term future go better”? So, my question for you, A.J., is have you bought into the arguments for longtermism?
A.J. Jacobs: I have bought into the arguments for longtermism. I think it’s a great way to see the world. This idea has been around a little bit. There’s the Native American saying that “I love seven generations” that for every action, you should think about how it affects the seventh generation.
A.J. Jacobs: But longtermism is like the 70th generation, the 700,000th generation, so I love that. Also, I’m embarrassed by the way I know the Native American saying is because it’s a brand of eco-friendly diapers. So, it’s not like I’m an intellectual student of Native Americans. But anyway, I love the idea. I think it’s a challenging idea because it’s so abstract. I mean, you can see pictures of someone who’s geographically distant, but how do you get a picture of someone who’s so far away in time? So, it’s a challenge to get across, but intellectually, it definitely makes sense.
Keiran Harris: Was there anything, beyond it being, obviously, so abstract, was there anything specific that made you resistant to these ideas? Could we have got you interested in longtermism earlier if these ideas had been framed a different way?
A.J. Jacobs: Maybe. You and I have talked about this when we met; how do you get the idea across in a sort of a visceral way? And you and I talked about movies or stories. How do you tell a story about someone in the far future? I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a good story, but I love your idea about instead of attacking it head on, that you set a show or a movie or a book within a longtermist group like basically “The Office”, but instead of making paper, they do EA. They do longtermism. You can explain it better.
Keiran Harris: Okay. Yeah, sure. So, I think that the best way, if we’re going to create good longtermist fiction, is to create an independently great show. So, it could be a comedy. it could be like “The Office”, but you happen to work at GiveWell or something. And you keep the effective altruism stuff pretty subtle.
Keiran Harris: I was thinking more along the lines of a drama. So, I was thinking something along the lines of Mad Men, but instead of advertising, they happen to work at a longtermist org. So, when watching Mad Men, you learn about the best techniques for making an ad successful. You start to understand the dynamics between the beans team and the ketchup team at Heinz, but ultimately, it’s a show about these characters. And if you love that show, if you love Mad Men, and you loved, or at least you were intrigued by these characters, maybe you’d start to get interested in these effective altruism ideas that they were always going on about at work.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, I love that idea. I think that is the best. Because yeah, if you go about it too head on, it might turn people off. But I do like that idea. As I mentioned earlier, I have very conflicted feelings towards stories, because I do think what makes a good story is often not only untrue, but at odds with the truth. So, a good story is a zero sum game where the good guys beat the bad guys. Whereas, in reality, you can often have both sides winning. A good story is like a revelation where everything turns around. Whereas, in reality, often incremental steps towards progress are the best way. And also, individualism. A good story is not about 40 people working together on the committee. It’s about the one maverick who makes everything happen. So I have very mixed feelings about stories, but I do think they’re super powerful. And so, if you can align the stories with reality and real problems, then it’s a really effective tool. I like “1984”, which my kids are reading now. I mean, that drives home the dangers of an authoritarian state…
Keiran Harris: Or Animal Farm.
A.J. Jacobs: Animal Farm: another great one. So, the danger is there’s also white supremacist fiction that tells a very compelling story. I think Steve Bannon was very influenced by a white supremacist novel. So, the danger is since it’s not based on evidence, you can take fiction to promote whatever cause you want. But, use it for longtermism: that’d be awesome. And I think your idea… I can’t come up with a better idea. I am not even going to try. Setting something in a “Future of Humanity”, but as a drama, and you get to see the lives of these people. Hopefully, most of them are good. You don’t want the villains, but that, I think, would go a long way.
It’s All Relative [02:01:00]
Keiran Harris: Okay, so there’s a serious problem with longtermism, which is that you’ve got to try and get people to buy into this idea, and it’s so abstract. So, that brings me to “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree”, which you released in 2017. And just for those in the audience who haven’t read it, could you give a brief overview of what that book was about?
A.J. Jacobs: Sure. I got a very strange email a few years ago from a guy who said, “You don’t know me, but I’m your 12th cousin, and here’s how.” And I thought he was of course going to ask me to wire $10,000 to Nigeria, but it turned out he was legitimate, and he’s part of this group of researchers and scientists who are trying to build what they call a global family tree. So, to prove that every human on Earth is related and how, and now that we have tools like DNA and the internet where you can build multiple family trees and combine them, almost like Wikipedia for family trees. So, there is this global family tree now with, I think it’s about 150-200 million people on it, and it’s amazing.
A.J. Jacobs: It just blew my mind, and you can see how you’re related to all these people. Almost anyone. You can put in Barack Obama. My relation to Barack Obama, the one I know is through marriage. But it is, officially, he is my wife’s fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew. Something like that. I think that’s right, but it’s very close to that. And I loved this idea, just because it makes it so clear that this cliche we were told as kids, that humankind is one big family: now it’s concrete. Now you can actually see it, and it hits you on a more gut level.
A.J. Jacobs: So, I thought this would be an interesting book, and that was sort of the thesis: can we use this new technology to, again, widen our circle of moral concern so we see everyone as family? And there is a little bit of evidence that it might be effective. There’s the anecdotal evidence. Like for me, for instance, there’s this TV personality named Judge Judy, and I always hated Judge Judy because she’s so shrill and abrasive. But then I found out she’s my seventh cousin and I’m like, “You know what, she’s not so bad”. So, it’s not rational, but taking this bias towards family and hijacking it to broaden it to everyone, it could be effective.
A.J. Jacobs: There was one study, maybe more, it was a Harvard study where they took Israelis and Palestinians, and in one group they showed them how they were related genetically, and in the other they didn’t. And the ones who were genetically related were more open to negotiation, more compassionate. As we know with the replication crisis, it’s good to be a little skeptical, but it was a nice start. So that is my hope. That seeing the world as one big family would help us with our compassion. And likewise, it leads right into longtermism because you want to ensure not just your kids or your nieces and nephews, but you’re 14th great nephews. Let’s try to think about them.
Keiran Harris: One of the key takeaways is the benefit of thinking of yourself as part of something bigger. Do you have any favorite historical stories that emphasize this idea?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, one I talked about, I think it was in my Gratitude book where… And it’s apparently not apocryphal. I looked into it, but JFK, when he was president, took a tour of the NASA headquarters. So, he met with the scientists and the astronauts, but he was walking down the hall and he saw a janitor and said, “What do you do”?
A.J. Jacobs: And the janitor said, “Mr. President, I am helping to put a man on the moon”. And I thought that was lovely, because he was able to have the big picture. Because it’s true. If an astronaut slips in the hall because there’s a spill and breaks his neck, he’s not going to go to the moon. So, being part of something larger was lovely.
A.J. Jacobs: Now, of course this has its downsides because the people in the Nuremberg rallies were part of something bigger. So you’ve got to make sure that what you’re part of is something good. But I do feel that this book, “It’s All Relative”, also helped me feel like I’m part of something bigger like this. Trying to expand the tribe to encompass everyone.
A.J. Jacobs: And one scientist named George Church, he’s a biologist, and he told me the easiest way to get people to cohere is a common enemy. So, maybe the secret is something like Watchmen, the movie, where, you know, a threat of alien invasion will bring us all together.
A.J. Jacobs: I mean, my hope is that we can make climate change our common enemy. Like somehow personalize it so it’s like an evil villain and we’re all working together to stop it. I don’t know if that’s going to work.
Keiran Harris: Do you think that people need to see faces or stories? Or could this idea of literally everyone being connected start to really mean something moving forward into the future? Could it be an abstract idea or do we need to really make it concrete for people?
A.J. Jacobs: I think, naturally, the more concrete the better. So, even something like seeing on a chart how I was related to someone I didn’t like. Just seeing the lines and the pictures of the people that connect us. There was something about that that triggered this compassion. So, I wish it weren’t the case. It would be nice if we could just abstractly embrace everyone, but I think, we are wired to. So, the more visual the better. And my family, we went on a trip to Japan, and we went to the science museum there and they had an interesting exhibit where they had letters from the future. And you put in some information about yourself and then they had an algorithm that would generate these letters saying, “Dear A.J.. This is your 14th great grandson. Here’s what life is like”. And basically, maybe try to do better so that my life is better.
Keiran Harris: Life isn’t great?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. And you could… They would, sort of, randomly select these horrible scenarios in the future. I thought it was interesting, I don’t know how effective it is for other people but I was like, “I like that, I like trying to make it as real as possible.” But these people are real. Because yeah, it’s hard. You can’t see them. You can’t see it.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. So, I know you have mixed feelings about this, but do you think, overall, the effective altruism community should be more focused on storytelling?
A.J. Jacobs: As you say, very mixed emotions. I think as long as the stories align perfectly with reality and what our real problems are, then that’s good. So yes, I guess.
Keiran Harris: But you’re skeptical that we could actually do that.
A.J. Jacobs: But I’m skeptical because it can just go so seriously wrong because it’s so easy to tell a story about the one person who was killed by sharks. So, yes. Overall, I think it’s a good idea. And I mean, I try to do that. For instance, Leah Garcés, in her book about relieving animal suffering, the way she told it was a very personal story of her battle and her relationship with these big poultry farms. So, it became like a story you wanted to follow. How did she make an alliance with the Head of Perdue Farms? And she tells you, and again, it’s very personal. They started talking about their kids and the various challenges of being a parent. And so, they found one little bit that they had in common and, from that, they were able to build out and she was able to make real substantial change to these chickens’ lives. So that I thought was an excellent example of using a story for good.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. No, I was just thinking, presumably, you could do the same thing with a longtermist cause. You could, for example, you could write a similar book about climate change and about trying to deal with different organizations or governments and you could still have it be delivered through this lens of a personal story, but just happened to have this cause differ. Do you think that’s…?
A.J. Jacobs: I love that idea, yeah. I mean, I think wrestling, being open about wrestling with your doubts. And when you’re talking to climate change deniers, how can you say with certainty that this is happening when everything is probabilistic? But how important it is nonetheless to act on it now. So, telling that story from a very personal perspective; I like that, I’m in.
Keiran Harris: All right, beautiful. So, we’re solving the world one topic at a time.
A.J. Jacobs: Done.
Keiran Harris: So, you’re also involved in the world of journalism which we’ve talked about a few times on the podcast. Rob’s said, on the show, that he feels like the media has mostly gotten worse. That the sharper competition between outlets has led to a degradation in quality and that the transfer of discussions to the internet seems to have mostly made things worse. Do you tend to agree with Rob here or do you have different views on the current state of journalism?
A.J. Jacobs: I agree. Overall it’s gotten worse. It’s just terrible. We’ve talked about it, so I won’t repeat. But there are bright spots. And your former guests, Kelsey Piper and Dylan Matthew: I’m just really huge fans of what they’re doing. So I think it’s not all bleak. It’s pretty bleak, but I would love to see more EAs in journalism because I think you can make a huge difference.
Keiran Harris: I know that you had some concerns about, given that it might be, at least a shrinking industry, or would you have some reservations about sending talented 20 year old EAs into the world of journalism?
A.J. Jacobs: I definitely do. I feel guilty because there is a very good chance that you won’t get a job or you’ll get a job and you’ll be fired because it’s a shrinking industry. But I also think that it’s incredibly important because information is so powerful and getting the EA point of view out and writing about big causes as opposed to following every little dip and every little twist and turn of daily politics is necessary. I think it’s good. I want some people to be obsessed with it. But Rob wrote on Facebook, he has a policy of not reading about terrorist attacks and I have adopted that and I’m like, “You know what? That’s true, I’m not learning anything. I’ll read at the end of the year the total number of terrible attacks.”
A.J. Jacobs: But, just reading about it every day, it’s time consuming, it’s dispiriting. So I’d rather devote my time to reading articles that Dylan or Kelsey would write. There’s something called solutions-based journalism where, instead of writing about how horrible things are, we write how horrible things are, here are three solutions which are going to work best. I like that. I mean, it’s a challenge because, I think, unfortunately human beings are wired to love, and I am to, like love just the worst. We just love to read about horror, our schadenfreude. Schadenfreude, I think, is one of the worst emotions ever and I try not to experience it but what I certainly do. Anyway, I hope that more EAs will go into journalism because we need them. But please proceed with caution.
Keiran Harris: So, as you mentioned, Vox has created this vertical focused on effective altruism topics called “Future Perfect”. And one of our previous guests, Kelsey Piper who was on episode 53, is responsible for some great work there. The BBC has also started to publish work on the long-term future featuring articles from people like Anders Sandberg, who was another great previous guest, he was on episodes 29 and 33. I was wondering, what do you think of the idea of trying to start new effective altruism focused verticals in major outlets? So, how valuable would it be to see these topics being discussed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic?
A.J. Jacobs: I would love it. Are you kidding? I mean, I don’t know. I’m not in a position where I know whether it’s going to make them a lot of money, but I certainly hope so. And I will say, I showed you this right before we started taping, I sometimes blurb books. So I write little positive comments and I’ve sent books before they put them on the back cover.
Keiran Harris: So, for the listeners, A.J. is holding this book.
A.J. Jacobs: I’m holding a book and it’s called “How To Live A Good Life”, and this book was sent, and I did blurb and it’s basically 12 or 13 grand philosophies of life including Buddhism and Judaism and one of those 12 is effective altruism.
Keiran Harris: Amazing.
A.J. Jacobs: I love it. So, it’s right up there with Judaism and Buddhism and Epicureanism. So, that to me was such an exciting thing to see. And Kelsey Piper–
Keiran Harris: That was Kelsey?
A.J. Jacobs: She wrote the chapter. It’s an excellent chapter. So that to me was like, “Wow, you guys really are making some amazing inroads”. That’s a nice stamp of approval. So, yeah. I’m mildly optimistic about more effective altruism in the media.
Keiran Harris: And do you think if it happened it would be… It’s obviously hard to quantify, but do you think that it would be very valuable to have this content?
A.J. Jacobs: Super, super valuable.
Keiran Harris: Would you be happy for some of the more talented people in the community to go out and just… All right, they work in The New York Times now. They were working, let’s say an effective altruism organization, but now they’re at The New York Times. Would you say that that is something that you’d be excited about?
A.J. Jacobs: Very excited. I think that that could have a huge impact. And not just… In all media. So, like you said, I want a TV show. I want an effective altruism TV show. And I try my part. I pledge, right here, to write more effective altruism related articles.
Keiran Harris: Beautiful. What about starting new effective altruism focused verticals in conservative outlets? So, how valuable do you think this kind of work would be in places like The Wall Street Journal and National Review, places like this?
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a tough one. I don’t know the answer. I’m going to plead epistemic humility. But, I guess one thing is, a lot of these are about the preservation of humanity.
Keiran Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Which seems very conservative.
A.J. Jacobs: Which seems conservative. Exactly. Conserving human life. I mean, there is a section of the right wing, and I met them during the year of “Living Biblically”, that does not care about the future of humanity because–
Keiran Harris: And actively want to bring about the end times.
A.J. Jacobs: Right, exactly. So they don’t care about the environment. But from what I can tell, originally, for instance, environmentalism was not a partisan issue and that it was bipartisan. Some people blame Al Gore for politicizing it. I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard that several times that he has done more damage by making it a democratic cause. But, I think that, talking to Christians, there’s this idea of stewardship of the Earth. God has given us Earth and we have to be its stewards. So, that can line up with environmentalism. I imagine that conservatives want to be very careful with AI because they don’t–
Keiran Harris: Of course.
A.J. Jacobs: I think they would privilege humans over non-carbon based life.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, and they wouldn’t want to see this, kind of, extraordinary rapid change.
A.J. Jacobs: Right, there you go. They’d be a little more conservative. So, yeah, I think there’s room for that if you angle it in the right way.
Writing careers [02:17:15]
Keiran Harris: So moving onto a little bit about writing careers now. For talented young writers who mostly care about the long-term future, do you have any thoughts about their best career paths?
A.J. Jacobs: Well again, I want more EAs in journalism. It’s a dangerous path, but it would be great. Luckily, I think, in this world you have a lot more outlets. They’re not necessarily going to pay you a lot, but blogs or even something on LinkedIn or Medium just gives you an opportunity to write. And, to me, writing is a great way to clarify your thinking. Regardless of even if it’s published. So, I think in general, putting things into words. I do have this habit of talking to myself and trying to work out… I’ll listen to an 80,000 Hours podcast and I’ll argue with myself out loud while I’m walking my dog: here’s what I think of that and maybe this. And, it just… It allows you to have more clarity when you hear the words. So, I am all for writing, even if you don’t publish it. I’m all for writing even if you don’t have a big readership.
Keiran Harris: Do you talk to yourself around the house as well or is it just when you’re walking the dog? Because I noticed that… I used to live alone for a couple of years and I would talk to myself constantly and then I moved in with my girlfriend and then suddenly that just goes away because it’s like, “Well, this is too weird.” And now I’ve found that when I’m in the house alone, I don’t talk to myself anymore.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh no, I think you should start again. I’m a big fan…
Keiran Harris: I believe it.
A.J. Jacobs: I mean luckily my wife talks to herself so she doesn’t think it’s weird. She definitely has conversations. And the other advantage is we live in a world where people have Bluetooth microphones, so when you’re talking to yourself on the street–
Keiran Harris: You don’t look crazy.
A.J. Jacobs: You don’t look necessarily crazy. So yeah, I’m a big fan. That is one of the life hacks that I recommend most: talking to yourself.
Keiran Harris: How can a talented writer best realize that they are a talented writer?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, it was interesting listening to Kelsey because she definitely said that some people are just born with the talent and she could be right. I think I’m a little more optimistic than she is that it can be picked up. I mean, I read a lot of books on writing and I was very conscious in reading other writers and trying to see what worked and if I could incorporate it into my writing. So, I think I’m a little more optimistic. I’m also hopeful that you can be an effective writer without being a master stylist. That maybe people will cling to the ideas if they’re really strong, even if they’re not written in beautiful flourishes.
Keiran Harris: Do you have any tips on getting honest feedback?
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
A.J. Jacobs: 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.
Keiran Harris: That’s what Will’s doing with his book.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh really?
Keiran Harris: Yeah. So he’s writing a book about the long-term future and, I mean, this’ll be in the past when we release this, but he’s just gone on a tour across the top colleges in the UK and the US and he’s doing it very quantitatively and getting people to take surveys of how convinced they were by the ideas and what worked, what didn’t work. And he’s using that in his writing process to improve the book in real time.
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. And I’ve actually had friends who are writers who use their book tours as research for their next book. So, they’ll try to get people to engage in conversation in what they find most interesting about the current book and then expand on that in the next book.
Keiran Harris: How valuable is getting pieces published in established outlets?
A.J. Jacobs: I do think it’s very valuable. I mean, I’ve been very lucky in that I feel I have access, two thirds of the time, when I ask someone for an interview, they will say yes. But, it’s partly because I’m an editor at Esquire or that I write for The New York Times and unfortunately people just latch onto that. They want to see the social proof that you are legitimate. So, just in terms of getting access, I think it’s important to even just publish one piece in The New York Times and say, “I’ve written for The New York Times”. It does make a difference.
Keiran Harris: And any tips about how people actually make that happen?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Well, I was an editor of the front section of Esquire so I actually was on the other side. I mean, I have a few tips. I don’t know how useful they are. One is, find out who is the decision maker. So who is the editor of that particular section? Get their email. Find out an article that they are proud of that they wrote or edited, compliment that article in the first couple of sentences. Because, I mean, at least me, I’m a weak man. So anyone who complimented my work, I was like, “Oh, this guy or this woman is pretty smart. I should probably read the rest of this pitch”. And then sum up your idea in a punchy paragraph or two because the leads of articles and books to me are the most important parts because people now, if they’re not hooked by the first couple of pages, it’s like, “See you later”.
A.J. Jacobs: So, hook them early and then attach your credits to… “Here’s the other people I’ve written for”. Also, unfortunately, whom you know is important. So any connection. You could say, “My barber’s third cousin that works at Esquire told me to get in touch with you.” I actually will say when I wrote the book on family, I did use this tactic all the time. So I would figure out how a reporter or a producer was related to me and say, “This may sound weird, but you are my fourth cousin three times removed. I had a family favor to ask”. And 20% of the time, they would be freaked out. But 80% of the time, weirdly, they’d be like, “Whoa, that’s so crazy, that’s so cool. What’s your idea”? And then I would have more success.
Keiran Harris: Also worked for interviews. You had an interview with George H.W. Bush, I believe.
A.J. Jacobs: I did. I used that cheap trick to get people that normally would not talk to me.
Keiran Harris: It’s fantastic. How did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
A.J. Jacobs: I think it was, again, I wish it were a more thoughtful decision. But I graduated college. I had a philosophy degree. There were not a lot of philosophy jobs. The Centre for Effective Altruism did not exist. So, the only other thing that I could sort of do was put a sentence together. So I started freelance writing and it was not a great way to make a living, but I eventually got hired to write for a small newspaper and write about the most mundane things like PTA meetings and a lot of sewage issues. That was a big deal, and it was in a small town outside of San Francisco. I had no other skills, so luckily, I was able to sustain it for a long enough that now it’s working. At least for now.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. Who were your writing heroes?
A.J. Jacobs: I mean, I did love… I don’t read as much fiction as I used to, but I did love Mark Twain when I was growing up. He seemed crazy ahead of his time. He had a piece on Heaven. It was an essay on Heaven, and I think it might have… Some of his work was delayed and he didn’t publish it in his lifetime because he knew it would be too controversial. And this might’ve been one of them, but it was all about how horrible Heaven sounds. Because, first of all, he didn’t like the sound of the harp; “It’s not my favorite instrument. Why do I want to be subjected to that all the time”? And, intellectually, it didn’t seem that stimulating. There are no problems to solve. And, he talked about sex. He was ahead of his time. He was like “I never read about sex in Heaven; what’s up with that”? So, I thought he was a remarkable thinker.
Keiran Harris: One thing that I really related to was within “The Know-it-All”, you wrote about thinking that you were the smartest boy in the world at one point.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. That’s embarrassing.
Keiran Harris: And I loved this. One, because it’s just great to have this sort of candor and obviously it’s embarrassing. But two, I really related to it because I had my own story that’s sort of similar to this, but not exactly. So I was wondering if you wanted to tell your version of the story, and then I can tell mine.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. This was quite the delusion and I don’t know where it came from. I think my mom just gave me too many compliments and I really, until I was like 11, I thought I was possibly the smartest person in the world. And then I was going to save–
Keiran Harris: Smartest person? Not just smartest boy?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that’s true. But I had the potential to become.
Keiran Harris: Potential to become, yeah.
A.J. Jacobs: And then it was actually quite a burden because I was so smart, I had to solve all of the world’s problems. And, it was a tremendous relief when I realized that I do think I’m on the bell curve more towards the right, but I am not the smartest person in the world and that is such a relief.
Keiran Harris: There’d have been so much responsibility!
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. It was way too much. And the fact that I thought that I was, is partly ironically proof that I’m not. Because I was basing it on no evidence. And I’ve gone the other way. I’ve gone to the importance of epistemic humility. I do think I am an outlier in terms of, sort of, metacognition and being aware of my faults and my cognitive biases. I do think I’m sort of in the 90 percentile on that. But intelligence, I no longer think that I’m an extraordinarily brilliant mind. And as I say, I’m good with that. That’s nice.
Keiran Harris: What made you think you were the smartest boy in the world?
A.J. Jacobs: That’s a mystery. Again, I think it’s proof that I wasn’t, that I believed that. But, I think it was the… There’s the Lake Wobegon bias–
Keiran Harris: Do you want to explain that?
A.J. Jacobs: Lake Wobegon is based on a radio show where everyone in this town thought that they were above average or everyone was above average, and you see it in when you do surveys of drivers, everyone–
Keiran Harris: Everyone thinks they’re above average.
A.J. Jacobs: Thinks they’re above average. So, I think that bias just spun out of control and I really can’t explain it. But I’m interested that you had a similar experience. So, what about that?
Keiran Harris: So, I didn’t exactly think I was the smartest boy in the world, but I will say that my future wife, Chloe, is never more delighted than when she’s making fun of me for talking about myself as a child. Because apparently, I will crowbar the fact that I happened to skip the fourth grade into basically, every conversation. So basically, my story is that, this is only partially joking, that I feel like I kind of intellectually peaked when I was 10 years old.
Keiran Harris: I feel like I was very bright then and since then it’s like, “Yeah, you accumulate more facts.” But, basically I could do what I’m doing now when I was 10. Just give that kid whatever I have to do now, he could have done it. So I do sort of feel that way. But at the time, I thought it too. I felt like I was more or less an adult. Not just trapped in a 10 year old’s body but, unfortunately, who was trapped in a toddler’s body because I looked like I was a baby when I was 10 to 12 years old. I mean, I was looking at photos the other day. I was showing Chloe and I really do look like a baby. That was just the case. But in my head, I was an adult. I had fully formed thoughts, I was thinking about philosophy. I had these fully formed crushes where I was thinking like, “Well, maybe she’s the one”. I thought that! At 13 I was thinking, “She might be the one. She might genuinely be the one. I don’t know”.
Keiran Harris: And then, to look back and be aware that the other girls in my class would have been like, “Oh, I’m not going to date the baby. That’s not going to happen”. But I was kind of trapped in this body. But now, I find myself in the effective altruism community and you’re surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world, and I still have in the back of my mind this deception as a boy of being like, “Well, I’m kind of the smartest person in the room. Yeah, my classmates, no one’s even close to me there”. But I know I’m not as smart as these people. And it’s humbling to be around some of the brightest minds we have. And I felt like it was just, yeah… I loved reading that because I knew that, as a boy, and even now, I look back and think like, “Oh yeah, I thought I was the smartest boy in the world”.
A.J. Jacobs: That is so funny. I love that you had that experience. I wonder how many people do.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. I never really had thought about it, but I imagine that’s a common experience, especially if you grew up in a small town.
A.J. Jacobs: Right.
Keiran Harris: Why did you decide to record yourself for three months? And what was it like basically living an episode of Black Mirror?
A.J. Jacobs: It was. This is a long time before that. I’d say this was about eight years ago, and I ran across this movement called “Lifelogging” where they try to record everything in their lives. So they save every scrap of paper, and most of them have a little thing around their neck that takes pictures every 30 seconds. But some of them, the more extreme, record every moment. So I bought a little lipstick camera and I put it behind my ear and I wore it every moment of the day for about three months and recorded everything from the most mundane to the most exciting. So I have hundreds of hours of video. And it was a fascinating experiment, as you say, Black Mirror. And it has got great upsides and terrifying downsides. I’m very nervous about the future because I do see this as very likely that this will happen on a big scale and it’s already happening a bit.
A.J. Jacobs: But I mean the upsides to start with are positive. I loved that I had footage of my kids doing things for the first time and I love being able to look at that. It was actually good for disciplining the kids. Because you know one of my kids, I was playing chess with them, he must’ve been like six years old and he totally cheated. He knew he cheated and I said, “You just cheated”. And he said, “No I didn’t”. I was like, “Dude, I have it on video. We can rewind”. And I rewound it and I was like, “You just moved twice”. He’s like, “All right”. So it does have a positive discipline. I mean, it might very well cut down on crime. I wasn’t mugged, but if I were, then I would have that.
A.J. Jacobs: So, those are some of the positives. Some of the negatives are, it’s not great for the marriage, for one thing. Because my idea was if we had a disagreement, a lot of our disagreements are, “No, you told me that”. “I didn’t say that”. And I actually did do that once and we replayed the part and I was videotaping us while we were replaying a fight and that just caused a bigger fight and it was really disastrous. Not even in a joking “This is for the article” way. It was really unpleasant. And, of course, a lot of people were totally offended.
A.J. Jacobs: Like, “Why are you videotaping me? This is outrageous”. Because I do think privacy is something that, I can’t tell whether it’s inherent to humans or whether, but I do think the world would not be great if every moment of our lives was videotaped. So, again, I think it’s like radical honesty. There are some good parts; I might encourage us to do some lifelogging but not full on lifelogging.
Keiran Harris: Well, as expected, this was an absolute delight: to be able to spend the day with you. I’m so thankful that you’ve come on the 80,000 Hours Podcast. Thank you so much, A.J..
A.J. Jacobs: Are you kidding? It was my pleasure. I’m a big fan as I say. And the good of this conversation far outweighed the bad: at least for me.
Rob’s outro [02:34:37]
Robert Wiblin: Hey listeners, I hope you found that episode as fun as I did.
As promised in the intro, here are some personal tips on listening to podcasts.
I listen to about 20 hours of audio on my phone each week, and have done for over a decade, so I really care a lot about making sure I’m absorbing what I’m hearing as efficiently as possible.
If you listen to more than just one or two podcasts you should invest in setting up a proper podcast app on your phone that you like using.
Once you subscribe to podcasts on a phone app, you’ll be able to customise the speed at which it plays each show, so it’s not so slow you get bored, but also not so fast you can’t keep up.
The densest podcasts I listen to at 1.2x and the fluffiest at 2.3x or so.
Doing this has effectively allowed me to save something like four months of my life. Or alternatively, to listen to four more months of podcasts. That’s four months, 24 hours a day, no sleep.
Personally I use a pretty obscure app called BeyondPod Podcast Manager on Android, which amazingly I bought all the way back in November 2010 and have been using since.
A more popular option on Android is Podcast Addict. And there’s Google Podcasts, though that one doesn’t support ‘chapters’ which we use and which let you skip to the part of an episode you’d like to listen to.
Apple recently upgraded its default podcasting app so it’s pretty good, but if you don’t love it, many iPhones users prefer an app called Overcast.
Overcast has this neat feature of letting you chop out any silences, though rather than do that I prefer to just play the episodes a bit faster.
Spotify’s app now also supports podcasts on Android, iPhone and desktop computers too, and is growing in popularity.
It works fine and does let you speed up episodes, which is the most important thing. But unfortunately like Google Podcasts it doesn’t support chapters, so you can’t skip to the section of a long episode that you’re actually interested in.
It also doesn’t even support links in the show notes, which is pretty strange. So if you use Spotify and want to see the extra links or transcript for an episode, you’ll have to manually find the episode page on our site.
To be clear none of these apps have paid for an ad here, I’m just trying to help you out.
In addition to listening to podcasts I also use Pocket, an app which grabs articles from the internet for you to read on your phone later. I don’t like to read on my phone because I get sore hands, and am easily distracted.
Fortunately the Pocket app is able to read it to you from your phone, so you can listen to articles from blogs or the New York Times almost as though they were podcasts. The voice is surprisingly good, though it occasionally pronounces something wrong.
Basically whenever I encounter an article I’d like to absorb but don’t have time to read, I click a button in my browser that sends it to my Pocket app on my phone, to listen to on my headphones when I’m out and about.
For audiobooks I use Audible, but you probably already know about that one.
Regardless of what I’m listening to, I pay close attention to the speed so I don’t waste time listening to something less quickly than I could handle. You might like to do the same! Over they years it could save you literally months of time.
And limit how much your attention wanders.
If you were thinking of following up and trying some of these apps, maybe go and do that now.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced, and indeed in this case hosted, by Keiran Harris. Audio mastering by Ben Cordell. Transcripts by Zakee Ulhaq.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.