AJ Jacobs gives us a glimpse into his new book, The Puzzler, in which he embarks on a quest to solve the worlds most baffling puzzles. With curiosity and courage, AJ tackles everything from jigsaws to mazes and even the puzzle that has befuddled mankind for centuries- the meaning of life.
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Transcript with typos corrected
AJ Jacobs: That's good. I always love your opening questions. So I was waiting. What's going to be? I would say I was a bit of a floater. I liked to go between the different cliques. So there were the theater people, the nerds, the jocks, the druggies, and I liked to dip in and out.
And I think that is very telling because that's what I like to do as an adult. I love almost an anthropological look at the world and I think that different groups and different tribes can contribute so much and you can take from them to make your own life better. So I guess I was yeah, I would I was a little bit of a nomad and I think that served me well.
Srini: So how did that end up shaping what you ended up doing as a writer? If I remember correctly, you said your dad was an attorney, right?
AJ Jacobs: Yeah. My dad was a lawyer and my mom was a science teacher and they both loved learning. They were huge in my day. I got my idea for my first book from my dad because when I was a kid, he started to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. He didn't finish. He didn't get very far. He got into the bees, like Apis or something. So I thought, maybe I should finish what he began, but he gave me that love of learning and curiosity. And my mom was a science teacher who I think was very into it. She could have been a good entrepreneur because she really tried to engage the students on their level. To teach them about the Big Bang she had them make muffins with raisins in them so that when the muffin expanded like those are the galaxies, that is a much better way. And you're going to remember that more than just someone telling you on the blackboard, the galaxies expand.
Srini: Did they encourage any particular career paths? It sounds like a relatively stable career. It's funny because you and I are both children of educators, and I think that we both probably share similar views on education, given the careers that we've had. But I'm curious, were they encouraging when you told them you were going to be a journalist and a writer? Because you and I both know, you're signing up for a life in which nothing is guaranteed. Anything is possible. And I don't remember, I was reading this book called Why We Write, and I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was something like there are a million people who want to publish a book, and one of those out of every million will get published. And I remember when I got my book deal with Penguin, I told my dad, because my sister's a doctor, I was like, that the odds of getting a book deal are lower than they are of getting into med school. Just for my own sort of redemption. I'm curious, did your parents encourage you or discourage you? What did they teach you about making your way?
AJ Jacobs: They were encouraging overall but also concerned, so I think they wanted me to experiment with trying to be a writer for a couple of years. And then if that didn't work out, go to law school or something respectable. And luckily I was able to get a job early on out of college, not a good job. It was a terrible job. Cause I was at a tiny newspaper, with a circulation of 5,000, covering sewage disputes and things like that. So it wasn't my dream job, but it was a foot in, and I was able to make a living ever since. If I had been doing this for a while, I think the pressure would have come down and there would have been some ultimatums.
Srini: So what I wonder about is this sort of insatiable curiosity that you seem to have retained throughout your life, just based on the way that you pick the subjects for your books.
And I wonder why so many people lose that because Steven Kotler had this quote about what are the essential skills for thriving in the 21st century and the art of the impossible. He said your creativity, critical thinking, cooperation, and collaboration. And of course, our school system is not designed to actually help us develop any of those skills.
At least the way that you and I were educated were probably quite closed in.
AJ Jacobs: First of all, I love that curiosity and gratitude are my two favorite emotions that drive me. And I feel that you are a fellow curiosity addict, which is partly why I love your podcast. Who else was I interviewed once? Alex Trebek, the late great "Jeopardy" host. Remember that in the book? Oh, you remember his quote? His quote was, and it made no sense on the surface, but it really makes sense to me anyway, on a deep level, he said, "I'm curious about everything. Even those things that don't interest me." I totally love it and I totally get it.
I am curious about everything, and when I'm at a dinner party I just like to interview the guests and learn from them. And they're always going to have something that I didn't know. And speaking of, we were speaking earlier of books that we want to write in the future. I have this idea that I'll never do because no one's going to publish it.
But what if I took the most boring topic, allegedly boring, like stereotyped, like I don't know what it would be? We can do a survey on accounting. Accounting always gets
Srini: I know how you could make that interesting. You could interview the accountant for a cocaine cartel.
AJ Jacobs: Exactly. That was the show with Jason Bateman.
Srini: There's a book called "Narcoconomics" that this guy wrote for Vice News. It was really interesting. He said, "What you don't realize is that drug cartels run just like Fortune 500 corporations. Their operations are incredibly sophisticated." And yes, that would be a starting point. What I wondered is, as a parent, particularly one who's had this very diverse, sort of multihyphenate career, how has that influenced the way that you're advising your kids to make their way into work? Particularly when they're headed into a world where they're probably going to have five jobs at the same time and half those jobs probably don't even exist today.
AJ Jacobs: That is a great question. And it's one I think about all the time, because I think, and I think you, and I agree with this. I, when I give advice, I'm always thinking to myself, is this true? How do I know this? Does the data back this up? Where am I just parroting stuff that I heard as a kid? And in a sense, I feel for my kids because a lot of my advice I think there's a 70% chance that you should drop out of soccer and pursue it, but I can't be sure. There's nothing certain in this world. Maybe it's a mistake. And they're like, thanks, dad. So I find it very hard. But it's worth it. I think I'm trying to train them to be okay with uncertainty and the discomfort of uncertainty and lean into it because the world is so uncertain and people who are certain of their beliefs are not only bad for society, I think, but they're also, in the end, going to be less happy and less connected to the real world. So I guess that's one main lesson I teach my kids is to hold their beliefs loosely and be okay with uncertainty, but try everything they can and see what
Srini: Well, you mean that, that makes a perfect segue into talking about one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is this, you said, "I have one core belief: don't be an asshole. Be kind to others; that one's written in pen. The rest of my beliefs are all in pencil. They are hypotheses waiting for updates on new evidence, ready for the erasers. So I would ask, what did you believe when you were 20 that you think is bullshit now?"
AJ Jacobs: Oh, that's a good question. Give me a second to think about it because I have changed my mind about so many things. Okay. I'll give you one example. I was pretty snobby about people's intelligence levels. So for instance, if someone was a creationist, which, I think, is something like 40% of America is a young earth creationist. They believe the world was created 5,000 years ago. To me, that was automatically a litmus test. Like they were dumb. How could you believe that? But then one of my books was about the Bible and how much should we take literally and how much metaphorically. So I interviewed all these creationists. They are some, not dumb. They, some of them I'm sure are just like everyone, but some of them are geniuses. And the problem though is that they have latched onto this hypothesis and they've refused to, they have this motivated reasoning and whatever they see confirms, oh yes, the earth is 5,000 years old, but they're not dumb. And they can't be convinced by berating them and giving them factual evidence. You have to use other strategies to convince people, like deep listening and treating
Srini: This is what I jokingly call it. Prestige bias. You were raised in an Indian family. You start to believe that just because somebody went to some elite university that they're smart. And I was like, no, I'm like, I went to Berkeley. There were a lot of people who are idiots there.
I think that the funny thing is it's not only the willingness to question other people's beliefs but your own. I think it is so important. Like being willing to change your mind and consider the possibility that what you're saying is nonsense. And so many of us are unwilling to do that and we have unwavering convictions.
I feel like. And what was interesting was that quote just let off this flurry of thoughts that I had. I was telling you this morning, I was writing this blog post as a goal. If your beliefs aren't going to be in pencil, then why the hell are they going to be written in pencil? Why would you write a life plan?
And Pat and I thought about this and I'm curious, like what your view is on this. When we're young, this is one of the dumbest questions
AJ Jacobs: This? I love that question and two thoughts occur to me. The first is just like you said, don't write your life plan in pen, do a lot of experiments. And now there's a great book. I think he's been on your podcast, David Epstein. Yeah, so he talked in Range, his book Range about how we should experiment with different fields when we're young and try things out, try it out for a year, try it out for six months.
So that is one important one. I also love the advice. I once saw a speech that Obama gave to the White House interns, and he said, one key he believes is don't try to, don't set your goal to become a certain position, don't say, I want to be Senator, I want to be governor, I want to be president. Instead set your goals according to your principles. Say, I am really interested in climate change. So I'm going to explore different ways that I can make the most impact. And that way you don't lose your moral compass and you'll have more of an impact and you'll be happier. So I love it. And my friend, Tim Urban, also makes a
Srini: Absolutely. Yeah. That's like I said, I'm baffled by the fact that I made this life plan. I was like, "Okay, all I've learned is that life almost never goes according to plan." So we had to add Stephen Shapiro here who wrote a book called "Goal-Free Living." And he said, "Choose a direction, not a destination." And I liked that.
AJ Jacobs: And I will say, it also made me think of how I try to write my books because I do. In one sense, I have an endpoint. I want to come to a realization at the end, so I know the path that I want to end on, but the actual road that I take there is full of unexpected twists and turns. So it's to me, a balance between improv and having a goal. Let's
Srini: Talk specifically about writing and creative careers, because one of the things that I always enjoy about talking to people like you is that your work predates the era of sort of social media, the internet, and technology. And I feel like having access to all these tools, resources, and distribution channels is a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, it gives you opportunity; on the other, it's also the thing that inhibits people from doing their damn work. And you predate all of this. As far as habits and just overall craft, have you noticed what has changed for people who are struggling with this, and in general when it comes to this?
AJ Jacobs: Yeah, no, you're right. And I don't have all the answers. I'm certainly not. I wish I were better at social media than I am. And I've tried to...
Srini: Maybe you don't need to be. It's Cal Newport's argument; basically, he's okay with asking, "Does this help me accomplish my primary goals?" He uses Michael Lewis as an example. You've been prolific and had a successful writing career, so maybe social media would actually be a deterrent.
AJ Jacobs: Of that. That is true, but I think it's a tool like everything else, so it can be used for incredible good. And I, and there are ways, and I can talk about that, that I think it has been wonderful for me. Just to give you one example, I wrote a column for a while that I loved for Esquire magazine called "My Something Like Crowdsourced Advice Column". And so people would ask me questions like, "How do you deal with someone on the plane who takes up the whole armrest?" And I said, "I have an opinion, but I don't know if it's right. Let's see." So I have 70,000 followers on Facebook. So I would put it out to my followers and I would get hundreds of answers, and I'd have to sift through all these answers to find the wisdom, but it was great. It was a great way to engage with the audience and learn something.
But I would say one thing I do, which is this is not going to be a revelation but stopping my access to the internet for 25-minute chunks. I put my Freedom software on, which won't allow me to get to the internet. And then I
Srini: Speaking of public discourse, we had Cal Fussman here. And I remember asking him about the state of media today versus when he was growing up. And one of the things that he said was when he was growing up, Walter Cronkite was the source of truth. And now it takes us back to the whole idea that the internet is a double-edged sword.
You have all these sorts of different sources of information, and I personally think information overload is making us incredibly stupid. And I said, I mean, I said, mistaking information for knowledge is actually a deterrent to critical thinking because we get into this just endless consumption mode.
Not only that, we have these very myopic viewpoints because we end up in an echo chamber. So I noticed something really interesting on Medium of all places. Because I had written so many articles about productivity. I would look into my feed and I thought, why have I not discovered anything new or interesting? I feel like I'm literally just going through a productivity porn feed.
And then when I logged out, I was like, oh, there's actually some interesting stuff here. And as somebody who has been a longtime journalist, what are the
AJ Jacobs: Yeah. It, as we said before, it is the best of times, and the worst of times. You have the best information out there. The problem is finding it. And sometimes I try to think of it as a food metaphor. Like before the Walter Cronkite era, you had a grocery store that sold, eh, okay food, but it was reliable and everyone ate it. Now you have thousands of groceries selling the weirdest food ever. And a lot of it is terrible for you, but you can also find, in addition to the mid-level grocery, you can find the highest quality food ever, like just the amazing peaches from Tahiti or whatever. So the question is finding that, and that is the big challenge. And I think the key is finding places that you can trust. And I have some devices that I use, some strategies I use to figure out whom I should trust. And one big one is what we talked about before, which is to find sites that admit when they are wrong and change their mind. That is huge. I'm a big fan of this group's effective altruism. And they have a whole section on their site, things we got wrong and it's just a hilarious list of
Srini: What's so fascinating about that is even on a site like YouTube, you can find someone who has hundreds of millions of followers and peddle bullshit, but because of the number of people who believe what they're saying is true, it actually starts to spread as truth, which is amazing to me. I think in Sapiens, the guy wrote about that, right? He said basically when a group of people collectively believe something that is true, then it just becomes a universal truth, even though it might not be true. Dollars are useful because we all universally agree that they're good for buying something.
And one of my friends said, if the US dollar is no longer the de facto currency by which the world measures currency, then he said, you should run for the hills. Rushkoff actually did a talk with a group of billionaires. There's an article on Medium about this called The Richest, where he actually asked them the question, “What do we do when our money becomes worthless?”
AJ Jacobs: Interesting. And how did they react to the billionaires? He told
Srini: Then he was like, "Take care of the people who are basically making your lives possible. Like your chauffeurs, your drivers, all these people. Don't just build bunkers and go hide out in them because those are the people that are going to revolt."
AJ Jacobs: Yeah, you. That is when people talk about survivalism and extending their life. For hundreds of years, my issue is always that the people who are doing that are not people I want to hang out with. So I think I'd rather die than hang out with these annoying people who have drank the blood of a 14-year-old, healthy male.
Srini: Know Alec Ross told me, he said, unfortunately, he said, we've started to build a society that's becoming increasingly individualistic. And I, this is something that I said is in a lot of ways, we're constantly pushing self-interest to the point of diminishing returns. You see it on an individual level, you see it on an organizational level. It's like Travis at Uber, with relentless ambition until controversy erupts.
AJ Jacobs: I love that. 'Cause in my book about the living, by all the rules of the Bible, that was one of my big takeaways. I stopped a lot of the activities that I reckon I should stop, like stoning adulterers for instance, and I did shave my beard. So there were many things that I stopped, but a few of the takeaways included this balance between the common good and individualism. I am certainly an individualist, and I do think that overall it's produced well for the world, but it goes way too far and we have to balance the good of society with that. And because in biblical times there was, they weren't individualists. It was all about your tribe, all about your family. And that was too much the other way.
Srini: Adam Smith said in the Wealth of Nations that self-interest is the engine of prosperity that has always stayed with me. And my roommate used to say, "Any good society is driven by some level of self-interest."
I think there's a grain of truth to that because if people had no self-interest, nobody would do anything. We wouldn't build companies. You and I wouldn't be having this conversation. Of course, you're here to promote a book. I'm here to basically get good content for my show and hopefully, other people get value from it.
But there's no question, there's a level of self-interest in every, no, I mean every interaction.
AJ Jacobs: Agree. I think capitalism has a lot of flaws and needs reforms, but overall, I remember I'm old, so I went to the Eastern block before the wall fell and I visited Czechoslovakia, which doesn't even exist anymore, but it was hilarious because I would, in the middle of the day, go to a bar and there would be all these people there, engineers and garbage men. And they would say, "Hey, let me take you on a tour of the city." And I'd say, "Don't you have to work?" And they'd say, "I get paid either way. I don't care." So it didn't seem like a flawless system and, it did, it ended up collapsing. Thank God.
Srini: You, but the pandemic definitely messed with my ability to sleep a lot. And you've heard a lot of people on our show talk about the role that sleep plays in everything from our mental health to our performance. A fun fact, while I was doing research for my second book, Audience of One, I discovered that a good night's sleep improved Andre Iguodala, the NBA basketball player's, shooting percentage substantially.
So how do we actually improve? The folks at BiOptimizers have done it again. They've just released their new and improved formula for Magnesium Breakthrough, the most powerful magnesium supplement on the market today. And this new fourth-generation formula means Magnesium Breakthrough is now even more potent and effective for reducing stress and for the deepest healing of many health problems.
Dr. Mark says there's only going to be one answer and that answer is magnesium. So why does he say that? There are apparently two very important reasons. First, magnesium is involved in 80% of the body's metabolic reactions. And second, about 75% of people are not getting enough magnesium. Before I learned about BiOptimizers, I wasn't even taking magnesium
AJ Jacobs: I have always been a huge puzzle fan. So as a kid, I did puzzles. I loved making pencil mazes, so I would make these elaborate mazes the size of my living room floor. And I think it informed my worldview because I think I see the world as a series of puzzles and it makes it more fun, makes it more challenging.
And I think my previous books have been puzzles and disguises, like the year of living biblically was about the puzzle of religion. I wrote one about thanking a thousand people for my coffee, and that was the puzzle of how do you be grateful in a world where it's very hard to be grateful. And so when I was trying to figure out a new book, I thought maybe I should stop with the metaphorical puzzles and actually dive into my passion for puzzles and try to figure out why I love them, why don't millions of people love them? And what can they teach us? How can they teach us to be better thinkers and better people and can the little puzzles help solve the big puzzles? And I do believe that they definitely can.
Srini: It's funny you say that because I just brought up a memory from a conversation I had with Jim Quick. And he said that he had Quincy Jones in the audience at one of his events. And he was like, "How do you deal with your problems?" And he said, "I don't have problems, just puzzles." That's what Quincy Jones replied. I'll send you the clip, Jim Quick.
AJ Jacobs: I will take that as a compliment, that's basically he just summed up my book because I do try, I love regular puzzles. I love crosswords as I write about it. And the book is a lot about my adventures with these hilarious, wonderfully eccentric subcultures. Like the jigsaw puzzle. We'll talk about that.
Srini: Those are correct.
AJ Jacobs: There, but part of it is, yeah, about reframing your life as puzzles.
Srini: One of the things that you say in the opening of the book is that puzzles vary wildly in format, but almost all seem to share this: they provide an aha moment of tension leading to an almost euphoric ending. And it's funny because I remember reading the sections of the Rubik's cube and I remember I also read Ernő Rubik's book. And after reading that book, I was adamant that I would not go look at a YouTube video to figure out how to solve this because he said that defeats the entire purpose. He said the answer is not to solve it. It's to think. And I, to this day, can't solve a fucking Rubik's cube. It pisses me off like I've managed to get two sides and I'm just like, okay, I don't want to find the algorithm. And it's funny 'cause we have a, my brother-in-law has a nephew who can solve a Rubik's cube in two minutes. He'll just sit down and do it. And you're just like, I hate this kid.
AJ Jacobs: That's interesting.
Srini: A lot of people. I, the reason I brought that up was that I think that struggle and difficulty is the place that stops most people, not just in puzzles, but in pretty much anything in life. And what it took me a long time to realize is that struggle, difficulty, and frustration are actually signs of progress in disguise.
AJ Jacobs: Yes. I love that. Oh, let me, there are two things that occur. First of all, don't get too scorched because Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik's cube, took him one month, basically full time to solve the Rubik's cube.
You might have to quit podcasting, but you can do this. The second thing is also, I'm not going to give you my only big hint is maybe it's not that you solve one side then another side. Maybe forgive the pun, but you have to think outside the box and maybe you don't solve it side by side.
But anyway, the oh, now I've forgotten the oh, frustration. Yes. I, part of what I tried to do in this book is to lean into the idea of being confused, frustrated, not uncertain about things, and try to enjoy that because that is a lot of life and yes, we love them, as I say, orgasmic ending when you have that aha moment, but try to enjoy the process of solving a puzzle.
And I've gotten much better at that. So if I am struggling with a
Srini: Yeah, it's funny because even puzzle games, like all of these things, I feel like have been lost as part of the internet. And you talk about the fact that play is such an important part of our well-being.
I remember very distinctly like I think it was about probably sometime in the middle of the pandemic, my sister and my brother-in-law were going home. And my parents started playing board games with my sister and my brother-in-law. It turns out my dad is really good at Scrabble. And my sister was like, "Oh, you'll be great at this."
She was like, "You read so much, you have an extensive vocabulary. I've yet to beat the man at Scrabble. He's undefeated. He's the undisputed champion, and he's a college professor who doesn't read."
AJ Jacobs: Ooh, interesting. Yeah. Yeah. First of all, a friend of mine wrote a very good book about the play that just came out. It's called Play by Catherine Price.
Srini: What I think I've seen that book.
AJ Jacobs: Yeah, I'm a fan. So anyway, I just throw that out. But it's, I guess a couple of points. Yeah. I am a big fan of play and board games because I think they do they teach you how to think. They teach you how to think in new ways. And you're bringing up the Scrabble example is very interesting because one of the lessons I learned in puzzles is don't just think that your first instinct is the correct one. So my first instinct, when I think about Scrabble is okay. Yeah. Someone who has a huge vocabulary and is totally literate and reads all the time. They're going to be the best, but you know what, the person who memorizes the 50 or 62-letter words that are legal in Scrabble like "za" for "pizza" is so much more valuable than having read Moby Dick or Dante's Inferno. So you've got to step back and say, what strategies in what situations are useful. And it's not always the ones that you. So I.
Srini: I learned from my dad when I played the first time. I was winning for three or four turns and I was like, "I got this. There's no way you're gonna beat me," and he was like, "Don't get so cocky. We just started playing. You got one word with three letters in it and got a hundred points. And that was the end of it. And to this day, I have not beaten him. It's like the ongoing joke in my family." Let's talk about a couple of specific portals that I know you went through--all sorts of different types of puzzles ranging from anagrams to jigsaws--but I want to hit a few of them in particular that I just thought were hilarious. Let's talk about the jigsaw puzzle because that whole story about the jigsaw competition just blew my mind. I was like, "Okay, I knew there were tribes for all sorts of weird things, but you've got to share this story!"
AJ Jacobs: Yeah. That was one of my favorite adventures. And it was weird because jigsaw puzzles were originally one of my least favorite genres, I was a little bit snobby. I thought that they didn't take much subtlety or skill. I was totally wrong. I totally got schooled on that. Because first there are incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzles that will blow your mind. But second, even your regular ones that have the Nova cat hanging from a tree or whatever, if you do them at the highest level can take incredible ingenuity and skill. But anyway, I wasn't into the jigsaw. I started researching them. I ran across on the fifth page of Google the world jigsaw puzzle championship coming up in two months in Spain.
And I looked at the contenders and the 40 countries, Mexico, Thailand, Uganda, but no USA. So I'm like maybe I should try. So I fill out the form, figuring this is the first step in a rigorous process. No, I get an email the next day. You are team USA show up in Spain in two months. So I'm a little freaked out, it's a four-person event.
So you get four people
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