I have interviewed A. J. Jacobs for most of his books because I love how he goes all in. For example, instead of just writing about how some parts of the Bible are still followed and others are not he instead tried to follow all the literal rules of the Bible for one year, the result being The Year of Living Biblically. Similarly, he read the multi-volume Encylopedia Brittanica in hopes of becoming smarter and talked about the experiences in The Know-It-All. For this interview I talked to him about Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, which has just come out, and It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.
The idea for Thanks a Thousand was that Jacobs wanted to thank every single person involved in making his morning cup of coffee, from the obvious folks like the barrista to the person who designed the cup and the lid.
The idea for It’s All Relative came from an email he received from a stranger: “You don’t know me, but I’m your eighth cousin. And we have over 80,000 relatives of yours in our database.” Jacobs notes that’s enough family members to fill Madison Square Garden four times over. The book explores who some of those relatives are, as well as the bigger implications of people learning of all of their relatives.
Why did you embark on this quest to express gratitude to everyone involved – 1,000 people – in making you a good cup of coffee?
It started a couple of years ago. I’d read about all the many health benefits of gratitude – both mental and physical health – so I decided to say a prayer of thanksgiving before meals. But I’m not religious. So instead of thanking God, I would thanks some of the people involved in my meal.
I’d say, “I’d like to thank the tomato farmer, and the cashier at the grocery store who sold me the tomato.” And one day, my 10-year-old son said, “You know, dad, those people can’t hear you. If you really cared, you’d go thank them in person.” And I thought, that’s a great idea. That would make a lovely book. So that sparked the journey.
What did your son and wife think of you actually doing this?
My wife liked it better than when I grew a Moses-style beard for my book on living by the rules of the Bible. I think she was overall okay with it, except that it required a good deal of travel. It doesn’t take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.
Had you conceived how hard of a challenge this might be?
I decided to embrace six degrees of gratitude. So I thanked the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. But he couldn’t have done his job without the road, so I thanked the folks who paved the road. And the folks who painted the yellow lines in the road so the truck with my coffee beans didn’t veer into oncoming traffic. By the end, I thanked more than a thousand people. I had no idea going in it would be that expansive.
I notice this book is being published near Thanksgiving. Was that an intentional plan?
It was! I’m thankful for the publishers for scheduling it then.
How has this experience changed you?
In the book, I talk about how we all have a Larry David side and a Mr. Rogers side. The Larry David side is the cynical, grumpy pessimist side, and the Mr. Rogers is the optimistic hopeful side. I think I was born with a very strong Larry David side. So this experience has helped me bulk up the Mr. Rogers side. It’s a better way to live. I’d rather watch a Larry David TV show, but I don’t want to that to be my mental default.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I’m hoping they’ll get some good stories, but also some practical tips on how to practice gratitude. One of my favorites is to use gratitude to go to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, I recommend counting things you’re thankful for. And to give it structure, it’s good to do it alphabetically.
Start with A and be grateful for, say, the apple pancakes your husband made last weekend. Then go to B and thank the producers of Barry, the HBO show, for casting Henry Winkler. I do it every night and never make it to Z.
I noticed in the promotional material for your books you’re being referred to as an “experimental journalist.” How would you describe what that entails?
I try to dive deep into my topics. So for religion, I lived by all the rules of the Bible. For health, I tried to follow all the health advice I could find. I like the feeling of total immersion.
In the promotional material for the paperback version of It’s All Relative you mention “Prepare for increasing controversy over what constitutes race and ethnicity. If you have 7 percent Native American DNA, can you call yourself Native American?”
I read It’s All Relative the week Elizabeth Warren took a DNA test to try to quiet Trump’s allegations she’s not truly Native American. As someone who just wrote this book, what was your take on that, what with Native Americans challenging that a blood test is insufficient to prove that and what it means to claim to be part of a population that one hasn’t historically helped.
As I said in my book, DNA ancestry testing could be good for society or bad. The good part is when people discover they are a mix of cultures and races and it lowers their racism and makes them more tolerant and erodes this idea of purity. T
he bad part, though, is when people become obsessed with their percentages. I’ve read about White Nationalists competing to see who has a higher percentage of European DNA. I think the battles over what percentage qualifies you as a particular ethnicity – those battles could be distracting and just increase the divisions between people.
What is the good and the bad of people learning all of their relationships and relatives and links? Should we anticipate bigger family reunions?
For the book, I helped with the project of building a World Family Tree – a tree that will one day connect every single person on earth in a single family tree. The idea is to show that we’re all one big family. When we’re finished, maybe we could one day have a reunion of all seven billion cousins, which is a lot of mac and cheese, I know. (Right now, the World Family Tree connects about 120 million people, so we have a ways to go). I hope we focus on that and not on our divisions.
What are you working on next? If memory serves, when you started your book you were full time at, I think, Esquire and did these books on the side. Are you still doing that or have you switched to freelancing?
I’m a contributing editor at Esquire, so I write for them but don’t go to the office. As part of Thanks a Thousand, I pledged to write a thousand handwritten, personalized thank you notes to readers of my books and articles. So that’s what I’m busy doing now. Carpal tunnel be damned!