How AJ Jacobs Documented Failure & Became A New York Times Bestselling Author

Listen to this episode
iTunesGoogle PlayStitcherClammr ItShare Leave a ReviewListen in a New WindowDownloadSoundCloudSubscribe on AndroidSubscribe via RSSDownload Free eBookAnother Call to ActionOne More Call to Action

Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get our latest content by email.

Today, we get to learn from none other than A.J. Jacobs, a four time New York Times bestselling author whose work combines memoir, science, humor, and a dash of self-help. A.J. Jacobs is not only an author, but also a journalist, lecturer, and human guinea pig. He has appeared on Oprah, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, just to name a few, and has given several TED Talks.

On today’s podcast episode, I will be talking to A.J. about reframing moments of failure as amazing opportunities to tell a great story, being okay with failure while also being delusionally optimistic about your goal, how to manufacture confidence and belief when tackling a new project, and how to actually know when to give up and quit on a project that you are working on, and much, much more.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Find out what failure means to A.J. and why he believes it is hugely important in our lives.  
  • Hear the story of when A.J. went to the Oscars pretending to be a well-known actor.
  • Learn how to reframe failures into opportunities to tell a story in the future.
  • Understand why it is easier to act act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.
  • Find out how to actually know when to give up and quit on a project or endeavor.
  • A.J. shares how being grateful for everything can completely change you outlook on life.
  • Learn how to learn into failure and not be terrified of it.
  • Discover how A.J. pushes himself to get outside his comfort zone often in life.
  • Hear as A.J. shares about the person who has had the most profound impact on his life.
  • And much more!





Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:


A.J. Jacobs —

A.J. on Twitter —

A.J.’s Books —

Paul Ekman —

James Altucher —

Ancestry —

My Heritage —

The World Family Tree —


Read Full Transcript


“AJ: For me, you know, they say write about your life, write about what you know and for better or for worse, I did not have an interesting childhood. My childhood was very dull.”


[0:00:15.1] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Fail on Podcast where we explore the hardships and obstacles today’s industry leaders face on their journey to the top of their fields, through careful insight and thoughtful conversation. By embracing failure, we’ll show you how to build momentum without being consumed by the result.

Now please welcome your host, Rob Nunnery.


[0:00:52.1] RN: Hello and welcome to the podcast that believes, if you desire to create the life of your dreams then embracing failure by taking urgent and bold action is the only way. Today, you and I get to learn from none other than AJ Jacobs, a four time New York Times bestselling author. I’ll be talking to AJ about reframing moments of failure as amazing opportunities to tell a great story, being okay with failure while also being delusional optimistic about your goal, how to manufacture confidence and belief when tackling a new project, and how to actually know when to give up and quit on a project that you're working on and much, much more.

But first, if you’d like to stay up to date on all fail on podcast interviews and key takeaways from each guest, simply go to and sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the page.

Without further ado, AJ Jacobs


[0:01:44.4] RN: Hey there and welcome to The Fail On Podcast. Today I am sitting down with AJ Jacobs, a New York Times bestselling author, four times over and the ultimate human guinea pig. AJ, welcome to The Fail On Podcast.

[0:01:56.2] AJ: Thank you, I am a huge fan of failure so I’m honored to be here. It’s a great idea for a podcast.

[0:02:01.3] RN: I love it and just to give everybody some context, you're sitting in your New York apartment upper west side?

[0:02:07.2] AJ: That’s right.

[0:02:07.9] RN: 83rd central park west, beautiful spot. Do you actually want me to telling — do you care that I just mentioned where your house is?

[0:02:14.1] AJ: No, I mean, you don’t need the address and apartment number but yeah, general area.

[0:02:18.2] RN: Phone number, email?

[0:02:21.7] AJ: Yes, it is where I’ve done a lot of failing so I’m glad you're here.

[0:02:25.5] RN: On the note of failure, I usually wait to ask this question further in to the interview, conversation but you know, with you, a human guinea pig, self-experimenter, what does failure mean to you? How do you approach it?

[0:02:37.7] AJ: Well, failure I think is hugely important and I’m always telling my kids how important failure is and I always highlight all of my failures to them so I think they think I’m a total loser. I’ve got to remind that sometimes I do succeed. I’ve got to try to stress that so they have a little bit of respect for me. But in general, I think you know, of course, there’s no success without — oh sorry. See? This is a great podcast because you can screw up.

[0:03:07.3] RN: See, this is actually why I started the whole podcast and project, right? In the business. It gives me permission to just embody failure.

[0:03:16.8] AJ: Totally.

[0:03:18.4] RN: If I screw up, awesome, it’s good for my brand, right? If I win, it’s great because I’m winning.

[0:03:24.4] AJ: It is wonderful. You really cracked something there, it’s sort of like Larry David and how his brand is he’s a total jerk so he can like act like a jerk and everyone’s like, “Oh that’s so great.”

[0:03:36.4] RN: That’s who he is, right.

[0:03:38.2] AJ: He can be the worst person in the world and people love it.

[0:03:40.2] RN: I love it.

[0:03:41.7] AJ: Yeah, I think you can achieve anything with failure and anything I’ve done has been you know, 80 failures to one’s success and you talk to experts on creativity and how you know, Picasso, he’s got a bunch of crappy paintings you know? Everyone fails, everyone’s got — it’s a numbers game. You’ve got to just throw out so many ideas and so much product and some of it’s going to suck and some of it’s going to hit.

[0:04:18.6] RN: How did you first come to this realization that you have to kind of embrace failure and know that it’s part of life and know that it’s going to happen a lot? Were you always like, as a kid, were you always just trying crazy stuff, or did this come like later in life?

[0:04:31.9] AJ: A little bit. Certainly, when I started my career as a freelancer, it was, you’re going to get — it’s like being an actor, you’re going to get 99 failures for every one article and I have, there were some particularly humiliating ones. There was one where I had a book idea and I wrote a proposal, I sent it to an agent, he said a couple of publishers were interested, could I send a headshot? A photograph? I was like, “Oh, you know, a little weird but sure.”

He’s like, “Yeah, it’s just to make sure that you don’t have two heads so you can go on a talk show.” So I do that and I send out to them and then two days later, he’s like, “Well, they decided to pass,” and I’m like, “I’m not good looking enough to be an author? An author, you’re supposed to allow to be allowed to be…”

[0:05:20.6] RN: It’s just words, right.

[0:05:21.8] AJ: That’s like one of the few places you can be ugly. So yeah, that was unfortunate.

[0:05:28.1] RN: Was that before you had published a book before?

[0:05:30.1] AJ: That was my first book, yeah. I really — I don’t know what it was, but I decided I’m going to just be okay with failure and rejection and, you know, I’ll give it like three years and if I get no successes then I’m going to reevaluate and go, you know, do something, I don’t know.

[0:05:50.2] RN: In the traditional publishing world, you have to be okay with failure, right? Because you just hear all the stories of people sending out a million proposals and just getting destroyed.

[0:05:59.9] AJ: Exactly and I mean now, luckily I’ve had some measure of success but I still get rejected all the time. It’s hard but you really, you have to try not to take it personally and all that. Yeah, actually, one thing is a nice thing is to try and reframe it as “well I can tell a story about this failure”. Actually…

[0:06:23.5] RN: This is why I love talking to you about this because it’s my whole strategy right?

[0:06:28.2] AJ: Yeah, that’s your job.

[0:06:28.9] RN: How about this, for example? I interviewed a buddy, Nick Tarascio last night and I was telling him this story that I was interviewing James, right? For whatever reason, throughout the whole interview, this is brutal for me because I was a little bit intimidated and nervous to talk to James, even though I had talked to him before.

[0:06:45.0] AJ: Right.

[0:06:45.5] RN: But for whatever reason. We’re going to the interview and he starts calling me Ron. Just like, “Oh brutal.” Nick last time was like, “Man, you should have just started calling him Jake.”

[0:06:58.3] AJ: Nice.

[0:06:59.4] RN: I didn’t, hindsight but like that, that’s a bit of a failure because James just called me Ron the whole interview but I’m going to have to — I gave him a hard time after we got off the air but I didn’t correct him during the interview because I would have felt a little bit like an asshole, you know? It’s like, “My name’s Rob.” But, so like that, but now I’ve got a story about it.

[0:07:16.7] AJ: You have a story, that’s right.

[0:07:16.9] RN: I got a story, I can write an article about it and boom.

[0:07:18.9] AJ: I actually once wrote an essay on something called self-schadenfreude. You know, schadenfreude is when you take pleasure at other people’s pain. This is when you take pleasure at your own pain because you realize it will make a good story later. Even in the most awkward moments, and I’ve had many, at least in the back of your mind trying to remember, “Well, this is so horrible but it’s going to be a good story.”

[0:07:43.2] RN: What’s been one of your more awkward moments where it’s just been like, “Oh this is painful.”

[0:07:48.4] AJ: Well there’s been many. One was I was working at an entertainment magazine, entertainment weekly, this was a long time ago and I looked like a B list actor named Noah Taylor who was in a movie that was very popular at the time it was called — I can’t remember what it is, about a piano player.

Shine, it was called Shine. It was nominated for an Oscar and I looked exactly like this guy. We found out he wasn’t going to be at the Oscar so we were like, “You know what? Maybe I should go to the Oscars.” So I put on a tux, we did have a ticket but I got out of the limo and everyone’s like, “Oh my god, it’s Noah Taylor,” and I was like, waving and signing autograph.

[0:08:34.5] RN: Were you really?

[0:08:35.1] AJ: Yeah.

[0:08:35.2] RN: What year is this by the way, just for some context?

[0:08:38.1] AJ: This was late night, probably 99 or 2000, it’s almost 20 years ago, crazy. At one point I went up to his coast, I got so cocky, I went up to his costar.

[0:08:50.2] RN: No way. That far?

[0:08:51.7] AJ: Oh yeah. Jeffrey Rush, he was a really famous actor, you know? I was like — he was Australian so I had this bad Australian accent, it sounded sort of like the lucky charms leprechaun and I was like, “Hello Jeffrey, it’s me, Noah.” He just looked at me. He knew I wasn’t this guy.

[0:09:11.6] RN: Of course.

[0:09:13.6] AJ: He looked at me, backed away, he’s like calling for security and he’s just so horrible but even in that moment I’m like, “All right, this is really one of the worst moments in my life but I will be able to write about it.”

[0:09:27.7] RN: Were you doing it for the story? So you're doing it for the story, to have an amazing start to write about. Is anybody filming it or what?

[0:09:34.3] AJ: No, no one was filming but I was writing an article about it. I didn’t expect it to go that badly but when it did, it was kind of good and I actually, you know, you mentioned before I do a podcast and some of the best interviews I find are when I just make an idiot of myself and I ask them a terrible question and they kind of get angry at me and yell at me. That’s much better radio than just…

[0:10:06.3] RN: Canned answers that they’ve told everybody before.

[0:10:08.2] AJ: Exactly.

[0:10:08.9] RN: Yeah. This was in the late 90’s and it sound like an amazing stunt. Have you always been doing this crazy stunts to have something to write about?

[0:10:18.4] AJ: I think so, I think for me, you know, they say write about your life, write about what you know and for better or for worse, I did not have an interesting childhood. My childhood was very dull and relatively happy, not happy but uneventful.

Unhappy in a boring way. I figured if I’m going to write about something, I better make it myself. Put myself in interesting experiences and then I can write about that.

[0:10:48.2] RN: Got it. What was — do you remember the first time you did it? Well, not even the first time you did it but the first time you were like, “If I’m going to be a great writer, I’m going to have to create great circumstances and put myself in this situations.”

[0:10:59.6] AJ: Right, that’s like a great way to put it and I think one of the earlier ones was the Oscars. I also did one where I — while I was working in entertainment weekly and La-Z-Boy, the chair company, they come out with the newest highest tech La-Z-Boy ever. It’s like a butt massager, a beer fridge. Yeah.

The idea was, I don’t think I even came up with it, my editor was like, “You got to take this to the extreme, you’ve got to road test this and stay in there for 24 hours without moving.” It did not have a toilet so I did get up once or twice but other than that, it was like, extreme leisure, pushing my body to the limit of laziness. I was like, “This is a nice way to make a living.”

[0:11:50.6] RN: Sit in a La-Z-Boy, the highest tech La-Z-Boy?

[0:11:53.7] AJ: Yeah, not bad.

[0:11:55.8] RN: Beyond that, what made you, I’m sure you did a series or string of articles like this by pure experimentation. Take us back to the first book you did where you wanted to go explore that route?

[0:12:07.5] AJ: Yeah, When I was growing up, my dad, he loved reading and at one point, he started to read the Encyclopedia Britannica. But he didn’t get very far, he got up to like the B’s, Bolivia or something and then he realized he had a life and have probably should do something else.

[0:12:27.3] RN: Can’t read this whole thing, right?

[0:12:28.6] AJ: Yeah, but I just loved the idea of taking this extreme challenge. You know, I’m not very athletic and I don’t — I like oxygen, I like oxygen so I’m not going to climb you know K2. I get cold at around 72 degrees. That’s just not my thing. I like this intellectual Mount Everest’s or social Mount Everest’s. Take on this huge challenge and see what happens. It’s going to be interesting and know that, as you say, you very well might fail. That’s okay, that’s part of the experience.

[0:13:10.8] RN: Is that how you go into it with that kind of mindset of, “You know what? I’m okay if this doesn’t work out.” Were you okay starting that project? Where you read the entire encyclopedia Britannica if you actually weren’t going to get the whole way through?

[0:13:23.1] AJ: Right.

[0:13:23.6] RN: But you’re okay with that or was it just kind of like a do or die, you’re documenting it and writing about it.

[0:13:28.5] AJ: Right, well it’s interesting because I think there are two sort of warring ideas going on and our brains or my brain anyway and one is, being okay with failure and the other is this idea that you have to be delusionally and optimistic to undertake anything huge. If you're not delusionally optimistic and at least some part of you isn’t saying, “I could do this,” then you are more likely to fail because you’ll just give up.

It’s balancing this two parts of the brain; being okay with failure and when it happens, accepting it and turning it into a story and on the other hand, being like, you know, “I can go to the moon, it’s crazy.”

[0:14:13.2] RN: Self-belief that just kind of comes from nowhere. Or like, how do you manufacture that belief to where you feel like, “I can do this, I can stick with this and make it happen.”

[0:14:23.2] AJ: That’s a good question and I think that for me, the most effective method is to act delusionally optimistic. This whole idea I talk a lot about is like, it’s not my quote but it’s a great quote, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” For instance, when I was writing one of my books, this was about health and I knew nothing about health and I’m not very healthy and it’s such a huge topic.

So every day I would wake up and I’d be filled with despair, “Why am I doing this? This is never going to come out.” But I would act as if I was super confident so I would call this doctors, experts and say I need to interview you, I would call my publisher and be like, “When this book comes out, let’s throw a big party and we’ll serve kale martinis,” you know? So I was planning for success, even though the one side of me was totally insecure. Yeah, acting totally confident, I find is a very effective strategy.

[0:15:31.1] RN: Got you. So going into the, I mean, did the health book even interest you? Like you said, you didn’t really care about it too much. Sorry for the publisher there but…

[0:15:43.5] AJ: It’s true. I totally phoned it in. I had no interest, just wanted to make a buck.

[0:15:51.2] RN: For example, what made you take on that project? That actually was going to lead me to my next question, which is do you pick your projects or is it kind of driven on the publisher side? How do you come up with this?

[0:16:01.2] AJ: I do come up with all of them because I do have to be passionate about the topic or else, they take a year or two, so I can’t…

[0:16:08.5] RN: Yeah, these are small projects.

[0:16:09.4] AJ: Yeah, like you were telling me earlier, how you just had a successful business but you just weren’t passionate about it so you’re going to take a risk and do something you love which is, I love that.

[0:16:21.3] RN: Well thank you, I was actually reading a kind of a parallel that I was like, “Oh,, that’s similar to what I’m doing right now,” and it was. Have you seen Breaking Bad?

[0:16:30.7] AJ: I have.

[0:16:31.1] RN: Great show, right?

[0:16:33.2] AJ: So you’re Heisenberg?

[0:16:34.3] RN: It was basically Walter White. His whole goal is to support his family because he was going to die of cancer, so he wanted to put money away so they could live on and not worry about finances.

[0:16:45.0] AJ: Right. he had to come to a decision after he got that money, do you turn off the money machine or do you keep going down that route, which eventually led to his death and the deaths of a lot of people he cared about, right?

[0:16:56.6] RN: I love that he is your role model. Well not that I’m selling meth. Not that I’m creating and selling that, it’s kind of parallel, okay, it’s similar because I am turning off money to go to something that I actually care about which is you know, inspiring people to take action and embrace failures.

[0:17:14.3] AJ: Right, I got you. You’re doing the opposite of what he did.

[0:17:17.6] RN: Yeah, I’m trying not to kill myself and anybody that I like.

[0:17:18.8] AJ: I see, okay, I got confused there. I thought you were saying that you wanted to do the meth.

[0:17:24.0] RN: No, I’m doing the opposite.

[0:17:25.1] AJ: Got it, all right, that’s probably better. Yes. I would say, to just get back to your health question, one of the things I loved about it is it’s such a huge part of life and I was so ignorant and so just embracing your ignorance and trying to dive into a totally new topic because I think the way society is structured now and it’s out of necessity as many times as we’re very focused on very narrow disciplines. But I think some of the best ideas are interdisciplinary so I enjoyed trying to conquer my ignorance, which, you know, I’m still incredibly ignorant with health, but at least I’m better.

[0:18:07.1] RN: Right. What was the biggest challenge within the health space when you did that project that — like, I can imagine, you actually have this health and fitness gurus that could give you a hard time because you’re doing this experiment. Did you run into that at all? With people that were like, “You’re not a health expert, why are you doing this?”

[0:18:21.9] AJ: Interesting, I didn’t run into that much skepticism there. Another one of my books was about religion and I definitely got people who were like, “You are just a dabbler,” and I’m like, “Listen, dabbling should not have a negative connotation.” I think the best ideas as I say are interdisciplinary. By definition, you have to dabble in a bunch of different things to come up with new ideas. But yeah, anyway, I’m sure I got a lot of skepticism but not to my face.

[0:18:51.9] RN: Got it. As long as it’s not to your face, it’s fine, you could be ignorant about it right?

[0:18:55.7] AJ: Yeah, exactly.

[0:18:59.0] RN: What are some of the experiments you’ve done that you started that really became, and we talked about this before we got on the air, that became too overwhelming that you just couldn’t follow it through, or were there any?

[0:19:09.8] AJ: No, there’s always as you know, failure is a huge part of my day and I would say, well one, readers often suggest the ideas for me, which I love and one that I’ve gotten repeatedly is that people say that I should try to become the greatest lover of all time.

[0:19:29.4] RN: Challenge accepted.

[0:19:32.8] AJ: Well, not really because it was, you know, one idea was to do all the positions in the Kamasutra and I brought it up with my wife and she’s like, "That is not going to happen, that is exhausting,” you know? We have kids, maybe like…

[0:19:49.1] RN: They could see it, they could start seeing this book.

[0:19:51.5] AJ: Yeah, you don’t want them to see it.

[0:19:51.9] RN: Yeah, that would be nightmare.

[0:19:54.1] AJ: I don’t have the flexibility. Like I encourage any young writers out there, please feel free but I am not going to do it. I also did one where I tried to be a mind reader, I profiled this guy named Paul Ekman who is a very interesting psychologist and he talks a lot about micro expressions, which are when you can read people’s faces, they’re just like very quick flashes of anger and I don’t know how scientifically valid it is? I mean, he’s a legit scientist but I don’t know if his theories are real but it’s fascinating stuff.

So I started it but I realized it would take years to get to the proficiency that it would be interesting. I reluctantly just abandoned it.

[0:20:42.5] RN: Is that one of the requirements that allows you to decide whether or not it’s going to be a project you take on now? If it’s actually going to take, like they say, 10,000 hours actually become super proficient at it or world class in it, if it’s going to be something like that, is that something that you’re like, “Okay, that’s probably not a good fit.”?

[0:20:59.6] AJ: Well, I’m willing to devote — I mean, the health book took two years of my life so you know.

[0:21:04.6] RN: You’re willing to put in the hours.

[0:21:06.4] AJ: I can put in the hours but this one seemed to be maybe 10 years or if at all like you know, I don’t know.

[0:21:14.8] RN: You don’t want to give up a decade for it to maybe not work?

[0:21:17.2] AJ: Exactly, there is a limit to a failure. Sometimes that is the most, I think — I just reviewed a book where they talked about the importance of quitting and I liked that. I think that’s true. You hear some motivational speakers who say, “Never give up, never give up.” But it should give up sometimes or else.

[0:21:39.5] RN: Like when? How do you know when’s a good time to give up?

[0:21:42.5] AJ: I think that, well my decisions are mostly based on — I’ve become very, like a pro con list, I literally do make those lists and by the way, one of my heroes, Charles Darwin, when he was deciding whether or not to get married, he literally made a list, a pro con list for marriage. Like, “I won’t be able to hang out with my gentleman friends and drink as much. On the other hand, I won’t be alone when I die.” I love that and I tell my wife, you know? I try, I say on Valentine’s Day, “The advantages of being married to you outweigh the costs.”

[0:22:25.8] RN: Sure, that’s very romantic, I’m sure she loves it.

[0:22:28.5] AJ: That’s my romantic — I do try to decide with a very much at cost benefit analysis and if you’re doing something that A, is not going to make the world a better place and B, you’re not enjoying and C, it’s just, you know, 5% chance that it’s going to work, quit, there’s no shame in it.

[0:22:50.9] RN: Yeah, move on to something that’s a better fit.

[0:22:53.5] AJ: Right.

[0:22:53.8] RN: Got it. You mentioned your wife, I’m just curious to see, is she extremely supportive of all this crazy stuff you do?

[0:23:00.6] AJ: No.

[0:23:00.8] RN: How does it affect your relationship?

[0:23:02.3] AJ: Not at all and thank god because in my books, she is sort of the foil, she represents the skepticism of the reader, she is sort of that incarnate and without her skepticism, I think it would be a less interesting experience. Thankfully…

[0:23:19.1] RN: You’d probably do more ridiculous things than you probably should.

[0:23:22.8] AJ: Maybe, exactly, yeah.

[0:23:23.9] RN: If she was right there pushing you along, right?

[0:23:25.5] AJ: She might save me, yeah, with her skepticism. Thankfully no, she is not supportive and one of the hooks was about following all the rules of the bible as literally as possible and one of the rules in Leviticus is that you should not touch women during their time of month, during their menstrual cycle.

Even further, if you take it literally, you should not sit in a seat where a menstruating woman has sat because then the sit becomes impure and my wife found that offensive so when she was menstruating, she sat in every sit in our apartment. I had to stand for most of the year.

[0:24:04.7] RN: That is amazing, good for her.

[0:24:06.3] AJ: Yeah, it turned out when I did my health book, you know, sitting is very bad for you so standing…

[0:24:12.2] RN: how do you do your writing? I imagine you spend a lot of time writing so — actually I know you spend a lot of time writing. But are you standing or are you sitting or?

[0:24:21.0] AJ: Well I did for that health book, one of the few things I kept was that I do write on a treadmill desk.

[0:24:27.1] RN: Are you actually walking as you write, as you type?

[0:24:29.6] AJ: Yeah, very slowly like a grandpa.

[0:24:31.3] RN: Sure, but you’re moving.

[0:24:32.3] AJ: But I’m moving and it’s not even necessarily for the health, it’s more to keep me awake because if I’m sitting at a desk, I’m liable to just…

[0:24:40.6] RN: Doze off?

[0:24:41.6] AJ: Yeah, doze off. I’m getting that old that I just like, my head goes down on the keyboard so…

[0:24:47.5] RN: Is that one of the more enduring, I guess, lessons that have stuck with you through these experiments, obviously you took that from your health experiment, right?

[0:24:54.2] AJ: Yeah.

[0:24:54.7] RN: “I’m going to stand more because it’s obviously better for me,” and you won’t doze off. Are there any other lasting changes that have been in your life, from your experiments?

[0:25:03.8] AJ: The good thing is, every one of the experiments, even if they’re overall a failure, they do give me something that has continued in my life and for instance, in the bible, it talked about — I had to do a lot of crazy stuff. I had like a beard down to my navel and I was wearing robes and not wearing clothes mixed of different kinds of fiber.

Those I no longer do, but one thing I definitely took away was this idea of gratitude because in the bible, it talks about, you should be thankful for everything and they are. So I took that literally. I was being thankful nonstop, I’d press the elevator button and I’d be thankful the elevator came and then I get in the elevator, I’d be thankful it didn’t plummet to the basement.

So hundreds of times a day, just nonstop. It was a strange way to live but it was also wonderful because you realize there are hundreds of things to go right every day that we totally take for granted and we focused on the three or four that go wrong. So it was this radical shift in perspective and of course, it’s impossible to keep that up full time, but I really tried my best and that’s one of the things I’m actually proudest of is that I’ve been able to sort of change from, you know. I still get incredibly annoyed and frustrated by lots of things but I do try to do the opposite as well.

So even when like, this happens all the time at an airport. In some part of my mind, I believe that I always get the furthest gate. It just seems that way. Every time I get a gate, that’s where I close to the security, I make a mental note and I’m like, “All right, remember this, remember the fact.”

[0:26:47.8]RN: This is a good day.

[0:26:49.0] AJ: Yeah, “Don’t just forget it.” Because it’s easy to forget. Remember this and next time you’re walking to the gate two miles away and be like, “Oh yeah, this doesn’t happen all the time.”

[0:26:59.8] RN: Yeah, that’s a great lesson because one, it makes you stay in the present right? It makes you be grateful for the little things that people glance over most of the time.

[0:27:07.8] AJ: Right.

[0:27:08.3] RN: When you’re actually going into the project, like the elevator example right? Where you had to be thankful for everything, getting on and not plummeting to the bottom and killing everybody. How did you make, going into that project, how did you make that mindset shift to where you had to be hyper aware of this little things? Because I imagine you can’t just go from one day to the next and just hope to have this mindset where it just automatically works.

[0:27:30.4] AJ: That’s true. I’m not sure how I did it exactly, but I will say that over the last 20 years, I’ve really tried to think about thinking a lot and be aware of my thinking and meta cognition because I don’t trust my brain, I think my brain is a terrible — like, it’s a baby and it’s like greedy and petty and I hate it.

I traded as — I treat it like a baby and I am like, “My brain needs a baby sitter, it needs to be constantly watched.” So any time I can, I just try hundreds of times a day I stop and be like, what am I thinking about? Is that a good thing to be thinking about? Is that a diluted thing? Is it warped?

I guess the only answer I have is just practice and just try to start every day and a couple of times a day stopping and being like, “All right, what am I thinking about? Is this a good thing to be thinking?” Not just letting your mind go wherever it wants to go? Because my mind I don’t trust at all.

[0:28:39.2] RN: So if you don’t trust your mind, what do you, when you’re making decisions is do you have a lot of like intuition, gut feeling type stuff where you lean on a lot more than the intellect side?

[0:28:48.1] AJ: No. I am not — I think like my gut is as dumb as my brain.

[0:28:54.7] RN: Sure.

[0:28:5.1] AJ: My gut — I am much more into the pro/con list, the costs and benefits because I really do think that is the best way to make decisions and, you know, you’re going to make lots of terrible decisions but I find I make fewer terrible decisions like this.

[0:29:16.4] RN: Obviously you open yourself up to huge potential failures and embarrassment and with this being The Fail On Podcast, I believe that doing this and leaning into it is really where the growth happens. Have you always had the ability to really go into these situations just not giving a rip, or is this something that you’ve had to develop over time?

[0:29:32.7] AJ: No, well I definitely give a rip is a thing, I just have to work through it and be okay with it and try to — but at the end, I don’t know? I think that it’s partly that when you fail and you can turn it into a story, as I said, or you know, revel in the failure, and lean into it, just what you said. That is so important. Once you make that decision in your life, in your head, you're like, “You know what? Don’t be afraid of the failure.”

That certainly has helped and I’ll tell you my new book is about family and one of the chapters is all about failure, family failure. Because there is the most famous study in family history and like genealogy is the study from a couple of years ago by Emery University that said, “Kids who learn about their family history are happier, more well-adjusted and more successful than those who don’t.”

It’s not just knowing the dates and names of your grandparents, it’s the knowing the story of your family and not just the successes but the failures. The guy who did the study calls it the “oscillating narrative”, the idea that here is our family succeeded here and then they were like, lost all their money and your uncle went to jail but they rebuilt their lives. So this idea of success, failure, success, failure.

[0:31:07.2] RN: Across generations?

[0:31:908.1] AJ: Yeah, cross generations and that is so crucial to equipping your kids to having grit.

[0:31:15.8] RN: Is there enough documentation out there to truly do that for most families? Are most families well documented enough to where you can actually trace that back and pull that narrative out to learn from it?

[0:31:26.1] AJ: That’s a good question, I mean, I can speak for myself that there has been a nice amount of failure in my family. So even my grandfather who is very successful, he was a lawyer but he invested in some terrible ideas like a midget pony farm. I don’t even know what that is, but he lost a lot of money and then his father ran for political office on the Bull Moose Party, which was Teddy Roosevelt’s party, and he failed. So I love to bring that up to my kids and just say look at all of the failures in here.

[0:32:03.8] RN: That’s a bigger bat though, even running for office.

[0:32:06.4] AJ: But it is interesting about politics, I would never run for office but you do have to have that delusional optimism if you run for office and I think you have to, if I were going to do that and stay sane, I would have to do what I see some of these politicians doing where they say, “Even though we lost, we got our message out there and made a difference.”

So sort of reframing it not as a black and white total failure but you actually did something you had your voice heard and maybe that will, in the future, have some good impact.

[0:32:39.6] RN: I think that’s the beaus lesson of all really is taking something away from everything you try. Whether it’s a failure or success, it’s not a failure if you walk away with a learning experience.

[0:32:51.4] AJ: Exactly. There was some Oscar Wilde quote, I think I quoted it in my year book in like eight grade.

[0:33:00.1] RN: What do we got?

[0:33:01.3] AJ: Which I’m going to mangle, but it’s something like experience is the — wait, look up Oscar Wilde and…

[0:33:07.0] RN: Yeah, I’ll look it up.

[0:33:07.8] AJ: Failure.

[0:33:06.8] RN: You don’t want to butcher it, do you?

[0:33:11.6] AJ: Yeah, it could be the exact opposite of what we’re trying to say, he could be making follow up — “Experience is the name everyone gives to their failure.” Is that it? Hold on. This is not…

[0:33:22.5] RN: I was trying to — no, it’s great. I was trying to Google it on my laptop but I realized I don’t even connected to the Wi-Fi.

[0:33:28.8] AJ: Here it is. “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes,” which is true. It sounds like he’s kind of making fun of that but I disagree with him. I think it is what we should call our mistakes, is experience.

[0:33:44.9] RN: No, I totally agree. What would you recommend for somebody that’s listening that wants to create something more than what they’re doing now? Maybe they’re nine to five job but they’re scared of the potential failure and embarrassment of trying something new.

[0:33:58.5] AJ: Right.

[0:33:59.7] RN: For your kids, for example, how would you teach them to lean in to failure and not be terrified of it?

[0:34:05.3] AJ: Yeah, I just try to remind them of all the great people and all of the failures that they had so, as I said, Mozart wrote tons of crappy opera and then I had a section in one of my books on all of the people I read about in the encyclopedia who had failed, like the inventor of the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson, who got rejected 42 times. Or J.K. Rowling, didn’t she get rejected like 83 times? I don’t know the statistics.

[0:34:38.3] RN: Jake Altuchur.

[0:34:39.7] AJ: Jake Altuchur.

[0:34:41.8] RN: Who’s got 17 failed businesses.

[0:34:44.8] AJ: So I try to remind of that and then I would say, one of the things that I’m an evangelist for is just people trying to experiment with their life and not, obviously since I do this for a living, not everyone can grow a beard and walk around looking like Moses but you can do smaller, more manageable experiments like try not to gossip for a week or try to thank 20 people who helped you in your life that you haven’t even talked to.

I did that once and just called up people, I hadn’t talked to and just thanked them for being a mentor and it was awkward and, you know, they were embarrassed and I was embarrassed but it was good.

[0:35:32.3] RN: You reconnected with people who probably haven’t talked in a while.

[0:35:34.3] AJ: No, someone is talking about how it’s good to like, every day, just call someone. Speaking of failure, this is great because now, the podcast is just a disaster.

[0:35:46.7] RN: It’s all good.

[0:35:48.0] AJ: Like I said, fail on, we’ll roll with it.

[0:35:50.0] RN: All right, that’s very good. Oh, they’re home early. Do you want to move to a different area or do you want to finish up here? Whatever you want. You tell me. I’m okay if you’re okay.

[0:36:01.9]AJ: All right, let’s do it, that will make…

[0:36:03.4] RN: Nothing wrong with little kids running around the background.

[0:36:05.1] AJ: Exactly. Make it interesting.

[0:36:08.3] RN: That’s part of it. When you were first getting in to writing and doing all of these experiments, what was your biggest fear? Did you have one?

[0:36:17.1] AJ: Well, I think just, “Will I be able to make a living out of this?”

[0:36:21.3] RN: And when you started to do like the free-lance stuff, did you have a full time job at the time or were you…

[0:36:26.9] AJ: Hi Lucas.

[0:36:28.7] RN: It’s all good.

[0:36:31.1] AJ: I started with a — I worked at a tiny, tiny newspaper in California, Antioch, California. i=It doesn’t even exist anymore. It was a circulation like, you know, 12,000. You know, I did the worst. It was just not a thing — it was hard to be thankful for the job. I cover it like sewage, a lot of sewage issues and, you know, there was someone was throwing a ball at the mall and that was a story that I had to cover. So yeah, I guess the idea was I could have been like you, stayed there my whole life easily with inertia. But I decided to take a risk and a friend of mine wrote a book where he talked about this Italian concept of “sprezzatura”, I think I am pronouncing that totally wrong.

[0:37:29.6] RN: But you said it would be like gusto.

[0:37:32.0] AJ: I did, yeah I try to commit. You know what? I will send you the actually word but it’s an Italian idea that perfection is boring. He was an editor at Esquire so if you are right, taking a picture of a guy wearing a suit, you don’t want the pocket square to be perfectly symmetrical. You want it just a little bit off because that’s interesting. So never be perfect, perfection is boring.

[0:38:04.1] RN: And this podcast is not boring. It is definitely not perfect.

[0:38:08.3] AJ: Exactly, it’s sprezzatura, studied carelessness.

[0:38:12.5] RN: I like that.

[0:38:13.5] AJ: A characteristic quality of style and art or literature, well studied seems to indicate like you are trying to be careless but I just think not when you are doing some project being okay with that its’s not perfect.

[0:38:29.3] RN: That’s a good point because I know for me anyways when I was just trying to figure out how to get in the business I was doing a lot of reading, reading business books, reading self-development books, self-growth books, and I think a lot of people get paralyzed actually by too much information consumption, right?

[0:38:44.6] AJ: Totally.

[0:38:45.0] RN: Rather than just going and trying and doing and taking action.

[0:38:48.6] AJ: Right, well as a writer I feel that all the time because I am like, “Well, I should do more research because I am not an expert on this,” and if I did that, if I give into that temptation I would never write anything because I would just be doing research on one book for the rest of my life as you can.

[0:39:06.2] RN: Because you can never have enough information, right? There is so much

[0:39:09.6] AJ: Right and I have to remind myself every time I write, there is going to be people who say, “You forgot about this, you forgot about that,” and I’m like, “This is my effort,” and there is a nice, I read about in the encyclopedia the word “essay” and where it came from and it was the French writer Montaigne and essay means “to try. I try”.

[0:39:33.3] RN: I didn’t know that, that’s nice.

[0:39:36.2] AJ: Yeah, so the idea is essays are just attempts, they’re just trying. You just give it a shot.

[0:39:40.9] RN: Yeah is that what you actually remembered from doing the project?

[0:39:44.6] AJ: Yes, I remember 12 actual facts. I’m like, “Well…”

[0:39:50.9] RN: It’s actually funny but essay is one because it is actually relevant, right?

[0:39:55.5] AJ: Yeah, it definitely struck a chord with me and also possums have 13 nipples, that’s the kinds of things. I don’t know if that’s really helpful.

[0:40:06.1] RN: You know what? We are just talking random stuff right now but I was listening to you in Jake Altucher’s podcast and I loved it because something you said is you are talking to him about peeing in the sink.

[0:40:16.5] AJ: Oh my, yeah.

[0:40:18.1] RN: And that’s something I do as well.

[0:40:19.4] AJ: Really? All right.

[0:40:21.3] RN: Bump on that.

[0:40:22.3] AJ: Look at that. All right but I think wait until you leave before going to the bathroom.

[0:40:26.6] RN: I was just going to ask you, I don’t need a bathroom, I just need a sink.

[0:40:31.1] AJ: In the kitchen, all right.

[0:40:32.2] RN: No but you said you do it in the bathroom sink.

[0:40:35.0] AJ: Yeah, that’s true.

[0:40:36.0] RN: But I sometimes do it in the kitchen sink.

[0:40:37.3] AJ: Wow, good for you. You’re bold, you commit.

[0:40:40.4] RN: I don’t think my wife even knows that, so sorry Jacqueline. I definitely hadn’t told her that actually, so well.

[0:40:47.0] AJ: Well it is technically this, what’s the word I’m looking?

[0:40:51.9] RN: Sanitary.

[0:40:52.5] AJ: Yeah, it’s sanitary so hopefully you’re not…

[0:40:56.8] RN: I’m cleaning them, I am cleaning the sink.

[0:40:58.6] AJ: You are doing a favor to everybody.

[0:41:02.1] RN: So what’s the last thing that you have done recently to get outside of your comfort zone? Do you actually make concerted efforts to say, “I’m going to put myself out there today”?

[0:41:10.4] AJ: Yeah, I think I try to do that every day and I did a podcast with Gimlet and that was totally outside my comfort zone.

[0:41:19.4] RN: Why? Because you’re used to just the written word?

[0:41:22.4] AJ: Yeah, the written word and it is a totally — it was a very interesting company because they are all about story telling. They are sort of this American Life, they’re all this American Life refugees. I love doing podcast but usually it’s like this one where it’s just two people talking but this was more like making a movie, a sounds movie. Like every hour it was only five hour long episodes but each one took literally months. It was nuts.

[0:41:54.6] RN: Wow, I didn’t realize that.

[0:41:55.7] AJ: Yeah and then just learning how to interview for a radio was different than interviewing for — one thing, when I interview for writing it was just a little thing, I’m always going, “Yeah, that’s right. Oh that is interesting,” just so the people know that I am listening but on radio that is really irritating. So I had to…

[0:42:21.0] RN: I do the same thing all the time just because it’s more engaging on a conversation but I’ve got to cut it all out when I’m actually editing right? It’s a little annoying. It creates extra work but I’d rather do that and have to edit later so we have a more flowing conversation rather than me being a mute over here and just nodding my head.

[0:42:40.7] AJ: Interesting, so you cut it later. I like that.

[0:42:43.0] RN: Yeah, but most people I see just stay silent, which to me is a little weird. It’s hard to have a normal conversation.

[0:42:51.2] AJ: I did have one producer who said to me right upfront like, “I am going to be nodding. I normally would be saying yes but I am just going to nod and know that I am paying attention.”

[0:43:00.6] RN: Sure it is easier, I guess, than having to do it in post-production. In what ways are you taking the lessons that you’ve learned to create new projects like what are you looking to do in the future in terms of experiments?

[0:43:13.7] AJ: Well I think that it is, as I said, I only can really commit to something if I am really fascinated by it but luckily I think the world is crazy fascinating and I mean it is so — and it just gets weirder and weirder and so I am now looking to do more stuff that is, I don’t know how to say this. I am not even going to say it, but it is more like you know…

[0:43:44.3] RN: Why? Where are you going?

[0:43:47.4] AJ: That I am very old now so I am not looking, well you’re nice to say, I’m 49.

[0:43:53.5] RN: You’re not even 50, you’ve got another 50 to go.

[0:43:56.6] AJ: Yeah, I hope so but yeah just the whole idea of making the world a better place, it’s such a cliché but it is really, I feel I’ve been so crazy fortunate that I have lived, I’ve had moments of happiness and they slightly outweigh the moments of unhappiness. So overall I feel that I should be grateful. So any project I do, I do try to think, “Will this make the world a better place?” Which was definitely not something I thought about in my 20’s.

[0:44:32.1] RN: So that’s something that’s come with time?

[0:44:34.1] AJ: Yeah because yeah I think I did some stuff that even just for making fun, doing like a throwaway joke about David Arquette or some not great actor but right there I just slammed them. I just went back, I’m a hypocrite. But anyway he’s a lovely man. A lovely actor but I am tempted to do that when I’m writing this and then I try to go back and think, “Is this really worth it? Is it worth a little pleasure, the tiny pleasure I get and maybe some readers get from making fun of this guy is that worth it?”

[0:45:16.4] RN: The pros and cons list.

[0:45:18.3] AJ: Yes, it’s all about the pros and cons, it really is.

[0:45:21.2] RN: Got it, who’s had the most profound impact on your life if you had to look back and you say, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without their influence.”?

[0:45:29.0] AJ: Well that’s good. That is the first time, I think it’s a long list because I really do — that is another thing I’ve tried to remind myself is that A, luck is a huge part of life. On some level you do make your own luck. I do think that you can, things don’t happen unless you really work hard and are optimistic but on the other hand there are millions of incredibly talented people who just did not succeed in their field just because they got bad breaks.

They got bad breaks and I think that is a good way, it makes you more compassionate and less cocky. So I realized that my book, say my book comes out in November or one of my books came out two years ago, say that same month there were hundreds of other books that came out that were just as good, if not better, but didn’t sell as much just because of luck.

So anyway, I try to keep that in mind because it makes you more grateful and compassionate I think. But the usual my dad gas a great work ethic is really hard. He’s the one who started to read the encyclopedia.

[0:46:42.1] RN: Truly an inspiration for your project.

[0:46:43.7] AJ: Yeah, exactly and my grandfather, I think he was delusionally optimistic. He’s the one who did all of those crazy businesses and many of which failed.

[0:46:52.6] RN: So you’ve taken positive things from both of those guys to do what you do.

[0:46:57.3] AJ: I think so yeah.

[0:46:58.5] RN: That’s cool. So being on the Fail On Podcast where we believe in pushing people outside their comfort zone and embracing fear and failure and you obviously being the ultimate human guinea pig that does crazy experiments.

[0:47:09.5] AJ: Aside from Tim Ferriss.

[0:47:10.7] RN: Yes, aside from Tim Ferriss, he’s right there with you but I love for you to extend a challenge to us that we can actually fail on and document and come back to you and share the results.

[0:47:22.1] AJ: Well I love that and I love encouraging people to try things out. Yeah, one thing that occurred to me while we were talking is we discussed being grateful and thanking people. So maybe even though it is embarrassing, try calling 10 people or emailing at least 10 people that you haven’t talked to in a long time who had a very positive influence on your life and just say, “I know this is a lot and out of the blue but I’ve been trying to think of who’s helped my life,” and tell them an anecdote or whatever, I think it will make your life happier and theirs too.

[0:48:01.6] RN: Accepted, done.

[0:48:02.2] AJ: All right, I want to hear what happens.

[0:48:05.1] RN: So you’ve got the book coming out on November. You’re actually on deadline right now but you have to get the draft done by Friday is that right?

[0:48:12.5] AJ: Yeah, I have to after all my changes. I finished the book but there is a lot of edits and honestly fact checking because I do try to when I am writing, I get all excited and I don’t want to check like, “Was it 1903 or 1908?”

[0:48:28.6] RN: Sure, just for flow right?

[0:48:30.8] AJ: Right just for flow.

[0:48:32.0] RN: Just keep ripping through it.

[0:48:32.7] AJ: So then I have to go back and do all of that.

[0:48:34.7] RN: Got it. So can you tell us a little bit about the book? Obviously you’ve done a lot of genealogy?

[0:48:40.7] AJ: Right, well the book is on this idea of that there is a group of people, scientists and researchers who are building a big family tree like the biggest, the ultimate, 7 billion people all on one family tree and I love that idea. It is not done yet. It won’t be done. It’s like a moon shot, it may not be done for 10, 20 years. Right now, the biggest one is like 200 million people all on one tree, all connected. I’m on that tree so, you can figure out how you’re connected to people like Barack Obama is my fifth grade aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh grade nephew.

[0:49:19.3] RN: That’s amazing.

[0:49:20.5] AJ: I love that, it’s like six degrees with Kevin Bacon.

[0:49:22.2] RN: Yeah, exactly.

[0:49:24.2] AJ: We’re all Kevin Bacon. My book is about that and how I took that idea and I was like, “Well, you know, if we’re all one big family, why not throw a family reunion for everyone in the world.” A couple of years ago, I did that.

[0:49:36.7] RN: It’s a big party?

[0:49:37.4] AJ: Big party.

[0:49:38.4] RN: Love it.

[0:49:38.6] AJ: I didn’t get all seven billion.

[0:49:40.5] RN: Not yet. There’s still time.

[0:49:42.4] AJ: Yeah, all right, yeah, exactly.

[0:49:44.7] RN: For people that are actually interested in, like you said, it’s learning about your generation’s past narrative, their successes, their failures, it makes your family happier, right?

[0:49:55.0] AJ: Yeah, for sure.

[0:49:55.8] RN: So for people that are interested in that, how would you recommend they go about learning about the genealogy of their family?

[0:50:01.0] AJ: I think that these services now are just getting better and better because they’re getting more documents online, there are some good ones, Ancestry is probably the most famous but there’s also My Heritage. The one, if you want to get on the world family tree is called, that will hook you up to everyone, you know.

[0:50:22.7] RN: And you can actually see who all you’re related to or how does that work?

[0:50:25.6] AJ: Well you can type in to the search bar, you know, Albert Einstein and then it will say how you’re related to him like you know, it will be like 14 people but it will be…

[0:50:34.9] RN: That’s too cool.

[0:50:34.8] AJ: Yeah, it’s fun.

[0:50:36.5] RN: Creating an interconnected world, we’re all related.

[0:50:39.6] AJ: That’s that.

[0:50:40.3] RN: Love it. Well, I don’t want to take too much more of your time so thanks so much for…

[0:50:43.4] AJ: Thank you cousin, yeah.

[0:50:44.4] RN: Thanks for joining us on the Fail On Podcast, it was a lot of fun.

[0:50:46.9] AJ: Well as I say, I love the idea and I am excited for you to either succeed or fail, either way, it’s a win.

[0:50:55.0] RN: It’s win. Love it. Well I’ll come back and share the challenge.

[0:50:58.7] AJ: I’d love that.

[0:50:59.5] RN: Thanks A.J.


[0:51:03.5] RN: You could find A.J. at and you could also connect to A.J. on Twitter, he’s @ajjacobs on Twitter and he’s super active. All the links and resources A,J. and I discussed including more information on his latest books and experiments can be found at the page created especially for this episode, you’ll find it all at

Finally, as I’m creating this project with the simple goal of getting people to take action through embracing failure, if you could do one thing to support my mission, I would greatly appreciate it. If you’d be so kind to rate and review the podcast, I would be ever so grateful. This will actually help the podcast be visible to more people and if you feel it deserves a five star rating and you leave a review I’ll be sure to mention you by name in an upcoming episode as simply a small way to say thanks. To rate and review the podcast you can simply go to or


[0:52:04.1] ANNOUNCER: That’s all for this episode of The Fail On Podcast. For more resources, show notes and action items to help you find success in your failures, sign up for our mailing list at

For more actionable inspiration, we’ll catch you next time right here on The Fail On Podcast.


Leave a Comment