The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #177 - A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, lecturer and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor and a dash of self-help. Among his books are The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All.
He has given several TED talks that have amassed over 10 million views.
His latest book is “The Puzzler,” which Booklist called “ridiculously entertaining,” and The New York Times called “A romp, both fun and funny.”
He was the answer to 1 Down in the March 8, 2014 New York Times crossword puzzle. He is owner of the world’s hardest and most time-consuming puzzle ever made.
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10:30 - AJ as a kid
12:40 - AJ's curiosities
16:10 - sleep exercises
18:20 - sincerity in gratitude
22:30 - changing "thank you" to "i am grateful for..."
24:30 - writing the puzzler
27:30 - Logic puzzles
29:30 - the rubix cube
31:00 - Team USA Jigsaw Puzzle Championship
38:35 - masochism in puzzles
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42:40 - jigsaw puzzles vs life puzzles
44:40 - crosswords
50:50 - brain benefits of puzzles and games
54:10 - The Sleeping Beauty Puzzle/The Monty Hall Puzzle
1:00:25 - solving Counterintuitive puzzles
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1:09:45 - melanie's life puzzle
1:12:40 - sneaking into MENSA
1:14:50 - the MENSA meetings
1:19:40 - escape rooms
1:21:45 - unifying people through puzzles
Melanie Avalon: Hi, friends, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I am about to have. I'm like genuinely really looking forward to this. The back story behind today's conversation is, friends might have listened to an episode I did with Jon Levy, who wrote a book called You're Invited and also runs The Influencers Dinner. Jon basically just knows everybody and he knows the coolest people. A few months ago, he was like, "You've got to interview my friend, A.J. Jacobs, he has this new book out called The Puzzler: The subtitle is One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. That obviously looked very very intriguing. And I immediately booked AJ, got the book and, "Oh, my goodness, it was so incredible, so eye-opening, so funny." I immediately was like, "I just want to read all of his stuff."
So, I read also The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I read Thanks, A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. Next on the list, I really want to read Drop Dead Healthy and also, The Know-It-All, which is probably his most well-known work. In any case, I don't even know where this interview is going to go because there is so much content and so much that we could talk about. But, AJ, thank you so much for being here.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, my God. That was what a delightful introduction. I have to say, I did not sleep well last night, so I need to listen to more of your show because I know you cover great health. I was a little low energy, but your energy and your enthusiasm, I am raring to go, thanks to you. So. Thank you, Melanie.
Melanie Avalon: See, I'm already laughing. When I was listening to your books, I was laughing so much. You're just incredible. For listeners who are not familiar, you're an author, a journalist, a lecturer, a human guinea pig, you've written for New York Times bestsellers, you have TED Talks, all the things. I'm going to ask you the first question that I ask every single guest on this show, but I've genuinely been looking forward to this question for so long.
Your back story, this isn't exactly the question I always ask. I'm changing it a little bit, but growing up, what were you doing as a kid? Were you just going on random adventures and trying random things? I'm so fascinated by you as a person because, in all of your work, you just try all of this stuff and you learn and you explore and you share it with us. So, what has your life been like?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that is I actually have been curious my whole life. I don't think-- I'm not the best athlete that's certain. I don't even think I'm the smartest person alive. I'm in the top 1% of most curious people, I do feel that and I've always been that way. Yeah, even as a kid. I grew up in New York, one block away from the Scientology Center in New York. It was forbidden. No one should go in there. I was like, I got to see what it's about. I went in there as a teenager. I did not convert to scientology, but I just love going to unusual places and learning. One of my favorite quotes, I interviewed Alex Trebek, the late, great Jeopardy host once and Esquire Magazine. I was working with Esquire, and he had a quote that he said, "I am curious about everything, even those subjects that don't interest me," which I loved. It doesn't make sense on the surface, but then it really does make sense. I am also curious about everything, even those things that seem like they would be boring on the surface.
Melanie Avalon: It's funny. When I lived in LA, I lived right by a Scientology Center and it was on my bucket list. I didn't do this but I remember they would have, like, pamphlets that you could go to a brunch there and I would tell my friends, I was like, "We got to go to brunch there someday. We just got to--" [chuckles]
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, free food [unintelligible [00:03:58].
Melanie Avalon: I know, I totally see what's going on in there. I love that so much. That's a good question. Out of all the books and topics that you've done, were you interested in them originally or was any of them something where you actually weren't interested originally, but you got curious about it?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that's a good question. Well, ironically, since I'm on your podcast, I was never as interested in health as other topics. I grew up a complete nerd. I almost saw my body as a way to carry around my brains from place to place, but I realized that was a bad way to look at the world. It's not like there's a brain and a body and they're totally separate, everything is connected and when you're in better health, you have a better outlook. You're able to think better. That was one, oddly, that I became much more interested in as I dove deeper.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, no. I really wish I had read Drop Dead Healthy. I'm going to have to bring you back for Part II.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, I happily, of course.
Melanie Avalon: From that book, from the health journeys, did anything really stick with you or stay with you that you practice daily?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, not everything, because I went all in. That's my MO, as you know, I talked to every-- except for you, I needed you in my life at that point. I talked to every trainer and doctor and nutritionist I could find and I just made a list of hundreds of pieces of health advice, some that were totally contradicting the others. I decided to try everything I could and see what worked for me. I didn't keep everything because it was like 24-hour-a-day job to follow all the health. I had no time for anything else, which is not that healthy. You have to have a little balance in your life. But the things I did keep, I still answer emails on my treadmill desk. I'm not on it now because I don't want to breathe heavily and scare your listeners. I love that.
I love the big nudges, the strategies of how to stay healthy, things like micro goals. I'm a big fan of micro goals that I discovered then. I'll say to myself, I don't have to get on the treadmill now, but I'm just going to put on my sneakers. I put on my sneakers and I'm like, okay, I got a little momentum. I'm just going to get on the treadmill for-- I'm not even going to turn it on. I'm just going to climb on it. I climb on and I'm like, okay, I can do a minute or two. You keep the momentum going and you're on there for half an hour. So, that has been a big change. I'm a big fan of micro goals and also other big strategies like instead of trying to plan every meal exactly, I try to have big rules of thumb. Things like "Stay away from the pantry and focus on the fridge because the fridge has real food because real food goes bad. Real fruits and vegetables, those do not stay in the pantry and stay good for six months. Trying to use these big rules of thumb to guide my behavior. Those are just a couple of random ones that I've kept.
Melanie Avalon: It's the grocery store, shop the perimeter rather than in the aisles.
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, I am a big fan of that except that I do Whole Foods online.
Melanie Avalon: Well, you can tell you're a person to go around the perimeter. I wonder if anybody's ever done that on the Instacart like give me whatever just from the perimeter.
A.J. Jacobs: That is a great idea. Yeah, they need more of an actual visual where you go in with your little avatar.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Any sleep things that stuck since you're not to bring up that you're sleep deprived again?
A.J. Jacobs: [laughs] Well, I'll tell you one that actually was from my book on gratitude, which is this exercise I use at night where I use the alphabet and I think of something to be grateful for every letter of the alphabet as I'm going to sleep. 'A,' could be, I'm grateful for the apple pancakes my son has made me over the weekend, or 'B,' I'm grateful for Barry, the show on HBO that I love. And I try to do different ones every day. It's calming because you're thinking of positive things and it's just mentally taxing enough that it tires your brain out, but it doesn't get you stressed. I am a big fan of using the alphabet. It's like counting sheep but counting your blessings.
Melanie Avalon: It's funny. After reading your Gratitude book, I had been doing a different word fall asleep trick, which was you think of a word and then you go through it and for each letter, you just think of three random things that start with that letter and you picture them. Apparently, it's supposed to create the same similar mumble-jumble brain state that happens when you're falling asleep. And it would work really well. After reading your book, I did my own twist on it. I was like, "Oh, I can add in and being grateful for these things."
A.J. Jacobs: Ooh, what an example? I love your idea. Maybe I'm going to try that tonight. So, you just pick a random word from the--
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, so you pick watermelon and then like 'W' and then you picture water, and then picture a whale, and then picture a wetsuit and you visualize them. You just go through the word and you see if you can make it to the end of the word.
A.J. Jacobs: Did you make it to the end of watermelon?
Melanie Avalon: I often don't. It's really really fascinating.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that's a good sign.
Melanie Avalon: I'm all about sleep. I could talk about sleep forever. Another question, actually, while we're talking about gratitude, one of the things I loved about it. In that book, basically, you made it your goal to thank every single person involved in making your daily cup of coffee, which was quite an endeavor to undertake. Did you find that there was a point of too much gratitude and what is the role of sincerity and gratitude? I constantly try to tell myself, like channel gratitude, say I'm thankful for things, tell people I'm thankful, but does it matter if you actually sincerely grateful or not? Or can you fake it till you make it and then the gratitude will seep into your body? What do you think is the role of sincerity there?
A.J. Jacobs: I love that. I love both. So, let me take the sincerity one first. I am a huge fan of the "Fake it till you feel it, fake it till you make it," That happened a lot because, as you said, the premise was every day I tried to thank them in person or over the phone or by email, and it was everyone from The Barista who made my coffee in my coffee shop to the farmer in South America. So, I flew to South America. I thanked everyone in between the logo designer and the person who drove the truck with the coffee beans, who couldn't have done his job without the street. I had to thank the people who paved the street. So, I kind of got carried away. But that was the point. The point was to show there are hundreds of people we totally take for granted. Yes, a lot of times I would wake up in a default cranky mood and I would force myself to be grateful.
I would force myself to write an email or call and by the act of doing that, just if you did that for an hour or even less, you trick your brain into becoming more grateful. I love this quote that I wish I had made up, but I didn't. That "It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting." By acting grateful, you eventually become more grateful. It's also this positive feedback loop because I would call, for instance, I would call the woman who did pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. I'd say, I know this is strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee. "There's a siren. I am in New York." She would say, yeah, that is odd. I didn't expect this but thank you. I don't get a lot of appreciation and that would in turn make me feel good, so sort of this two-way street of gratitude. In short, yes, I don't think sincerity-- sincerity can come later. You can grow into sincerity.
Melanie Avalon: And it really is a visceral experience. I think I tuned into it more since reading your book because you talk about the role of gratitude experiments and how people pay it forward when they experience gratitude. It's interesting because I guess in our daily lives we wouldn't really know if other people paid it forward. I think you can really feel it. The other day I was mailing something at the post office and there was a woman behind me and she needed a stamp I had just bought a stamp, so I just gave her a stamp so she wouldn't have to buy one. She was so grateful and I felt it in my bones and I just felt like we had this moment and I was like, I feel like I just want to change the world now. And she probably feels that too. I was like, "We just focused on this every day?"
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. I have to say that is one of the nicest things about human nature, which has its faults. One of the nicest things is that we get that warm and fuzzy feeling from helping other people. If I'm depressed that is the first thing I do, is try to help others because I know we are, I think, genetically programmed to get that warm and fuzzy feeling from helping our kin. I think of everyone as my kin. That was another one of my books.
Melanie Avalon: And that's one of your books? [laughs] One last gratitude piece because I love very specific implementable things. You said that it's beneficial or it can be to change saying thank you to somebody I am grateful for. Why is that?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, there was an actual study by Wharton that said that it's more effective for when people wrote thank you notes to potential job interviews. When they wrote "I am grateful for," they got a call back much more often. I don't think it has to be that reason. I think for me it's that sometimes "Thank you" can feel a little rote, but if you force yourself to say to mix it up, it doesn't have to be, "I am grateful." It could be like I just want to say "I am so thankful. I'm so filled with gratitude." And then the more specific the better. That to me is a key. One ritual I do is I write something every day to my mom that I'm grateful for and she writes me something. To me, the more specific it is, the more powerful. I could say, I'm grateful to my dog. That's good. I'm grateful to the way my dog lies on her back and rubs her head against the floor and it makes me laugh. That is just so much more vivid and has more meaning. So, yeah, anytime you can mix it up from the generalized thank you to I'm really grateful for X, with X being super specific.
Melanie Avalon: Gratitude specificity. I'm going to implement that into my life. Okay, so switching gears a little bit to your newest book, The Puzzler. Okay. You started rewriting this, was it during the pandemic?
A.J. Jacobs: I actually started right before the pandemic, which was weird because when the pandemic came a month or two later, puzzles, it was like the golden era of puzzles. Everyone was trying to get jigsaw puzzles. They couldn't find jigsaw puzzles. They were out at stores and then towards the end of the pandemic, there was the Wordle craze. So, it was totally coincidental. It turned out to be a pretty timely project to dive deep into the world of puzzles during this time when people needed them.
Melanie Avalon: Well, I love this book so much and it really made me open my mind to just, I think, how narrow of a definition I had of puzzles. Because when you think puzzles-- Okay, because puzzles cover such a broad array of topics, which is obvious from reading your book. I wonder if people when they think of puzzles, if they think, like, the type of puzzle that they normally engage in.
A.J. Jacobs: Right, yeah, that was a problem. Exactly. I love that you say because it is totally broad, but when I say I'm writing a book about puzzles, many people thought it was just jigsaw puzzles, which is a part of it, and I do enjoy them, but they're-- like you say, I think to me anything that requires insight and playfulness can be called a puzzle. What genre? What kind of puzzles do you like?
Melanie Avalon: When I first saw the title, I didn't think jigsaw puzzles. I thought word puzzles. It's more like a vague sense of, like, logic puzzles, probably, and like codes and cryptics and word-related puzzles is what I thought.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, that is my first love. I'm a word nerd, so that is where I started. And do you do puzzles? Do you do, like, the crossword or cryptics or anything like that? No shame if you don't. It's not a quiz.
Melanie Avalon: I did more growing up, not as much now although reading the book, I was like, I got to get back into this. My favorite puzzles growing up, I loved, I lived for these because I was in the-- I don't want to say with the smart kid group. I was in elementary school, like, this special program where they would take us out and teach us stuff. I don't know.
A.J. Jacobs: Sounds like the smart kid program, just saying.
Melanie Avalon: My favorite thing was the logic puzzles, where you "Anna has a hat that she gave to Sam on Tuesday and Fred gave it to her on Wednesday." You make the chart, and you do the axis, I lived for those.
A.J. Jacobs: That is so funny because I used to be intimidated by those. Now I feel okay because I have an algorithm. I have a strategy to do it, but before, I would try to do it in my head and I would just become overwhelmed. But I love that. I've spoken to a lot of lawyers who love logic problems. I don't know if you ever consider being a lawyer.
Melanie Avalon: Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer or I thought I might be a lawyer. I'm glad you mentioned algorithms because that's the thing I think that I liked about those puzzles, is when you see them, it looks like something you'd have to figure out without a system. Like, you would read it and you'd be like, "Oh, I got to figure this out." If you have a chart, you can figure it out. It doesn't actually require, I don't know, it doesn't even actually require that much logic because there's a system to it.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, you're going-- and that is one of the themes that I love exploring, is what in life can be done with an algorithm. I think it's an awesome way to solve problems. Not just puzzles, but life puzzles. Is there an algorithm for figuring-- I talked to a guy who was a Rubik's Cube. He was the first Rubik's Cube world champion. He became obsessed with pizza, so he went from cubes to pizza. He says it's the same type of thinking. He used an algorithm to create the greatest pizza, and he claims that he had the recipe. It's a crazy long 50-page recipe for the greatest pizza in the world. And it's all this incredibly detailed algorithm. So, I love that. The question is, "Are there algorithms for how to find a partner or find a job?" I think, to some extent, I don't think it's exactly like the logic puzzle or Rubik's Cube. It's a lot more complicated. There are strategies, I think, that can help us systematize life decisions.
Melanie Avalon: And that guy is in Atlanta, right?
A.J. Jacobs: He is. Are you in Atlanta?
Melanie Avalon: I am.
A.J. Jacobs: Have you been to Varasano’s pizza?
Melanie Avalon: No. Where is it?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, he's got three of them. I'm not sure where. But yeah, check it out. Because he claims it's the best pizza in the world. I haven't tasted it, but say, hi, if you go.
Melanie Avalon: I will. I know. I read that. I was like, I got to track this guy down. You took lessons, right, to learn how to do the Rubik's Cube?
A.J. Jacobs: Right, yeah. Rubik's was not like you said, I'm more of a word puzzle fan. So, I actually have terrible spatial reasoning. Rubik's is possibly the bestselling puzzle of all time. Hundreds of millions of them sold. I knew I had to have a Rubik's chapter, so I got a Rubik's lesson from one of the greatest cubers, Speed Cubers in the world, who actually has a very inspiring story. It was almost like, I don't know, Rudy, that movie, but Rudy with Rubik's Cubes instead of football because she had childhood arthritis and she became obsessed with Rubik's Cube. She did it so much that it helped her cure her arthritis. So, it was very uplifting. Yeah, she taught me how to do it. I'm not fast. Literally, the record is 3.5 seconds, less than 3--
Melanie Avalon: I read that. How is that possible?
A.J. Jacobs: I don't know, exactly.
Melanie Avalon: I read that and I have it in my notes from the book and I was like, "Did I miswrite that?" 3.5 seconds?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. It is not a typo. It is 3.5 seconds. I've done, like, four turns. But it's all about technique. They have this technique where you don't move your wrists, you flick your fingers, and yeah, it is just remarkable and they can look at it and figure out that it's only going to take these 18 moves, and then they do it. It's astounding, it's inspiring that people can-- because the Rubik's Cube has 43 quintillion possible combinations, which is such a mindboggling big number, it's more than the grains of sand on Earth. We can't even comprehend. Out of all those, 43 quintillions, there's one correct arrangement, and they are able to do it in 3.5 seconds.
Melanie Avalon: Basically, they can look at the cube. I'm assuming they get unlimited time to look at the cube. They look at it before they come up with the solution and then they just have to do the solution.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. I don't think it's unlimited. I forget how long it is, maybe it's a minute. And then the timer starts, they flick their fingers and they try to click it into place as quickly as possible. It's hilarious because it's like a sport. They have all this equipment. They have their specially designed cubes that have magnets to lock them into place, and they have Rubik's Cube lube to make the sides turn faster. It just shows humans are just so creative and can turn anything into competition or sport.
Melanie Avalon: With the 43 quintillion options, is it 43 quintillions separate pathways or are they branching off from a few different branches?
A.J. Jacobs: As far as I understand, I'm not a mathematician, the 43 quintillion just means there are 43 quintillion ways that those colored squares can be arranged. You could have one where it's all the right thing, but there's a yellow corner in the red side, and then another one has an orange corner in the red side. If you count all those up, which I have not done, you'll get to 43 quintillions.
Melanie Avalon: While we're talking about physical puzzles, can you tell listeners about being Team USA for the jigsaw puzzle with your family?
A.J. Jacobs: I would happily tell them, although it's a little embarrassing. What happened was I was, again, not a huge jigsaw fan, but I knew I had to cover it. I went online and I just typed in jigsaws to see what was out there. On the 6th page, I noticed an International Jigsaw Puzzle Championship, which was happening in Spain. I didn't even know that there were Speed Jigsaw Puzzle Championships, but I sent it in-- On a whim, I sent in the application figuring there's no way they'll accept me. Turns out no one else from the US had signed up. So, I was selected. Me and my two sons and my wife were selected as Team USA and we flew to Spain, there were 40 other countries, and we had 8 hours to complete four pretty big puzzles, like 1000 to 2000 pieces. We competed against these people who were the LeBron James' of jigsaw puzzles. They practiced all the time.
And we did come in second to last. That's the way my wife likes to put it when we tell friends. So, people are like, oh, second last. Yes, we're 39 out of the 40th. We did beat, I think it was Portugal, but we had a blast. I loved just seeing people at the peak of their skill, even if the skill is not one that's going to get them on primetime ESPN. Just to see these people and the way they attack a jigsaw puzzle. They have all these tactics that you would never think about, like sorting by shape instead of color. So, thinking outside the puzzle box. I was blown away. I had a great time despite humiliating our country. So, I apologize to our fellow Americans.
Melanie Avalon: Well, you got second to last, so I think you're good.
A.J. Jacobs: That's true. I thought that was a victory.
Melanie Avalon: I have some random questions about it. What was the actual puzzle? What did it look like?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, we had four that we had to do. So, one was a safari scene. One was all red, so it was very tricky. It had red fingernails, red fire hydrants, etc. So that was particularly tricky. I can't even remember the other two, partly because we didn't even get to them, we finished one and a quarter puzzles in the 8 hours, which that's not-- They were big puzzles. It turned out the Russian team was the dominant one. They finished all four puzzles in about 4 hours. And there were rumors of doping. I saw no evidence. And they were very nice actually. I congratulated the team and they gave me their mascot, little Teddy Bear. Yeah, as I say, I just love the fact that I guess what I like about jigsaws is you can do this crazy hardcore. I also think when I'm really stressed during the pandemic, it was like a meditation. I'm not a very good meditator. I wish I were better. Putting these it's almost like mindless meditation. You're just trying to put pieces together and go with the flow and not get frustrated. To me, they serve both purposes. I'm a convert. I used to not like jigsaws, now I'm a convert.
Melanie Avalon: Growing up for me, we would always-- we'd go to Sanibel Island in Florida. We always had a puzzle going and they're always like beach and sea and ocean scenes. It's a really warm memory for me. I'm just thinking about the strategies. We would sort by color.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, that is traditional, but apparently the only one, and I always thought you have to start with the edges. Not necessarily according to the experts, if it's a really colorful puzzle, then start with the inside colors. So, yeah, there are all sorts of these little hacks to being a top jigsaw puzzler. The other part of that jigsaws that I love is for every puzzle type, there were these people who wanted the Mount Everest of the triathlon of whatever that puzzle was, the hardest possible example. There are these puzzles that will drive you crazy. There's a company called Stave Puzzles and they're based in Vermont. They have beautiful woodcuts, super expensive puzzles. They lent them to me so I didn't have to pay. They are so frustrating because they're so tricky. The edges don't look like edges. They have pieces that look like they fit, but they don't. They throw in pieces from other puzzles just to mess with you.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, they don't even go in the finished puzzle?
A.J. Jacobs: No, they don't go in the finished puzzle.
Melanie Avalon: Red Herrings, man.
A.J. Jacobs: The guy who started it calls himself "Tormentor in Chief." He just loves and there is an element of that which is an interesting-- and I saw you made a note of that. There is an element of masochism and sadism in puzzles because true puzzlers love to be frustrated and then they love to be released from that frustration and get that aha moment. This relates to a lot of health activities because I talked to psychologist, Paul Bloom, a great psychologist. You might want to have him on the show, he's lovely. He wrote a book called The Sweet Spot and it's all about "Why do we do things that are sometimes painful? Why are we attracted to running a marathon or horror movies or doing crossword puzzles? He has a couple of theories, but one of them is "We are wired to do it because it is training for, it's how we were evolved to train for real problems." We are wired to try to seek that insight, that aha moment. In a puzzle, it would be the aha moment when these two pieces fit together. In real life, the aha moment, the ultimate puzzle was how do you get food or how do you find a mate? Those are the big puzzles. It's a weird phenomenon of humans that we do like some level of pain as long as we can be released from that pain.
Melanie Avalon: I would imagine there's probably like speaking to that something really beneficial with puzzles because aside from that guy you just mentioned who makes the puzzles where there's like Red Herrings and issues, in the normal puzzle world, you're trusting that there's actually a solution, compared to life where there may or may not be a solution. There's that anxiety that comes in where you don't know if it's solvable, but if you're doing an actual puzzle which is presumably solvable, then in theory is an answer that you can find.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. Yeah, a lot of people talk about that there is this-- In this world where there's a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, you can be certain there is one solution that is the right solution and that is making order out of chaos is a big theme to puzzlers. I do argue there is definitely a metaphor between life puzzles and word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. Because in life puzzles, there is no one perfect solution. There is always going to be several solutions and none of them are going to be perfect. Part of the puzzle is figuring out which solution is the best. I just like the idea of looking at life as a series of puzzles. This quote I actually ran across after the book came out. It wasn't in there, but maybe in the future one. It was by Quincy Jones, the musician. And he said his philosophy of life, he says, "I don't have problems, I have puzzles." By reframing life's problems as puzzles, I find that is so inspiring because a problem sounds so thorny and intractable and depressing and scary. A puzzle, that's like, all right there "That's solution oriented, you can even be playful." I do try to see, raising my kids, how do I work on that puzzle? Staying Married, how do I work on that puzzle? It's just a little more inspiring or a lot more inspiring.
Melanie Avalon: That was literally one of my questions, that was the difference between puzzles versus problems. So, crosswords, something that haunts me a little bit about crosswords and I think makes me hesitant or more hesitant to do them is the concept. I'm probably going to say it wrong, but is it A priori knowledge? I've always been a little bit haunted by the fact with a crossword puzzle, assuming you're not using Google and the dictionary and such, it might not be in your brain the answer to that puzzle or to that word question. So, what do we do with that?
A.J. Jacobs: I do have an answer, I do have an answer because I think there are two types of crossword clues. The facts like the biggest river in Bulgaria and then there's the Wordplay. The Wordplay is Will Shortz, who's the most famous crossword person alive. He's the New York Times Editor. I think his favorite clue is something along the lines of "It turns into another story." The answer is "Spiral staircase." Because it's wordplay, it's taking a pun or a play on words. British, if you like wordplay, I like the wordplay because, yeah, you're right. When I'm hit with the Bulgarian river and I don't know it, that's the end, that's no fun. British crosswords have a lot more wordplay. Some of them are just so crazy hard that it's not fun. But there are some and there was one I liked from last year that was, what was it? "First lady's residence." What is it? It's a four-letter word starting with E. "First lady's residence?" I don't want to put you on the spot, but your first thought is "First lady? Oh, like Michelle Obama?"
Melanie Avalon: Oh, Eve? Adam and Eve? Eden?
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. There you got it. That's more fun because most people do know Eden. It just takes that extra step to figure it out and then you get your aha moment.
Melanie Avalon: I did feel that. Like, I felt that aha moment, just now.
A.J. Jacobs: I can tell you. You got it.
Melanie Avalon: I'm this is like real-life experience. What was it like being the answer, not once, but twice to crossword puzzles?
A.J. Jacobs: Right? Well, this was how my book starts. I always like to start with an anecdote and this one was how I got back into puzzles. I've always loved puzzles since I was a kid, but a few years ago, maybe six years ago, I was the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It was one down. It said author AJ Blank. I thought this was the highlight of my life. My wedding was pretty good, but this I was so excited. And then my brother-in-law emailed me. He did congratulate me I will say that, but he also pointed out as brothers-in-law do that I was in a Saturday puzzle. If the New York Times puzzles, they get harder and harder and the hardest of the week is on Saturday and all the answers are totally obscure. His point was this is not a compliment. This is proof that you're totally obscure and no one knows who you are.
So, then I was crushed, roller coaster of emotion. I told a story about it on a podcast and it happened that one of the New York Times crossword makers was listening and he decided to save me and put me in a Tuesday puzzle where I do not belong because Tuesday is for really famous people like Lady Gaga. Gaga shows up there a lot. And he said I don't belong there. He wanted to rescue me from my obscurity and put me in there. So, I love that, that's how it starts, the book starts, and how I started to do the crossword puzzle every day hoping to reappear and then I finally did.
Melanie Avalon: That's amazing. What words were you crossed with?
A.J. Jacobs: That is a great question. I remember in one I was crossed with Judd Apatow, the great comedy director. I actually had a mutual acquaintance and I got his email and I said this might be the closest we'll ever come to working together, but just so you know we crossed and he wrote back a nice note.
Melanie Avalon: That's amazing. Did you frame it? It's on your wall?
A.J. Jacobs: It is on my wall. Although it is in the other room, so I can't, otherwise I would see what the other ones are.
Melanie Avalon: Were you able to solve the whole puzzle yourself?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, what's funny was the second one, which was the Tuesday, which is the easier one, I was so frazzled that I was in it, that it threw my game off and it took me much longer than it should have to solve it. I was too excited.
Melanie Avalon: Do you still do them? Do you do them daily?
A.J. Jacobs: I do, I do, and I love it. I think there is some evidence that it is good for the brain. I think sometimes it's overstated like it's not going to cure your dementia. It might slow down the onset of dementia a little. It's not just puzzles, it's not just crosswords, according to the research I read, any stimulating cognitive activity, learning a new language, learning a new instrument, those also help stave off dementia.But to me, I just love the way it engages my brain. I love the way it makes me think in different ways, which I try to apply to life. like the first lady's residence. I just think it makes my life more interesting. It makes me think in a more interesting way. I don't foresee ever giving it up. I'm going to just keep going until the final curtain.
Melanie Avalon: I've been really interested in the health benefits and cognitive benefits of all of this. I was reading a book and she was talking about a study and it was looking at the brain benefits of video games versus brain puzzles or puzzles specifically made to benefit your brain. I think there's an aspect to your enjoyment in what you're doing. It makes me wonder if, just for the cognitive stimulation for listeners, finding the type of puzzle that you enjoy doing is maybe more beneficial than sitting down and making yourself do like a brain game for that purpose.
A.J. Jacobs: You know what, I love that. I mean that's the way I feel about exercise. It's like you're not going to do exercise unless you love it. It's very hard to force yourself to. So, if it's gardening, then that's fine, that's your exercise. Yeah, like you said, there are so many different types of puzzles. I feel it's like dating. There's a puzzle out there for everyone, a puzzle type out there for everyone. Puzzles I never even heard of, like Japanese puzzle boxes where you have to open this wooden box that has all these secret compartments. Just to go back to your reading for 1 second, what did they say? Did they say that video games could also be beneficial? Or did they say the brain puzzles are better?
Melanie Avalon: I have to double check. I'm pretty sure, I think they were looking at Tetris actually and it was definitely at least comparable. I think it was better.
A.J. Jacobs: Ah, interesting. I like that. Well, I used to be a Tetris addict and I will say the line is quite blurred. My son taught me this because I have a teenage son and a lot of these games contain very sophisticated puzzles, a lot of the video games. I no longer-- He's lucky I did this book because I'm much [crosstalk]
Melanie Avalon: Accepting of his.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, exactly.
Melanie Avalon: I always loved MindSquare growing up.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, I don't know if I know that.
Melanie Avalon: It's the one where you mark bombs and flags.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yes. Wait, it is not mindcraft. I'm getting confused, but I know and this is embarrassing. Yeah, that's a great game, that's a good puzzle. Exactly. I know exactly what you mean.
Melanie Avalon: The thing that stresses me out about that puzzle that I would like as a young child to be stressed out about is, it's another one where it's an algorithm, like, it's logic, it's solvable, except when it's not. The first move is chance and then sometimes you reach points where it requires a chance again. That always stressed me out because it's like when you're starting it, you don't know if it's actually solvable or not.
A.J. Jacobs: Right, that is good. Yeah. I think that's interesting because a lot of puzzle makers, it is a total art that takes years to master. I've written some puzzles, but nowhere near, but good puzzle makers will say "A great puzzle would never have that." There's never a point where you have to take a chance that you can always figure it out logically and they give you like little breadcrumbs along the way. That's an important part of puzzling.
Melanie Avalon: Now I'm just thinking back. I wonder if they tell you the amount of bombs, so maybe you actually could always figure it out. Now I'm going to have to like, "I'm going to have to Google this afterwards." I've been having a life puzzle that's been popping up in my head in real life. It happens to me all the time and I think it's similar. I think I'm not sure, maybe I can ask you to the concept of the Sleeping Beauty puzzle. Would you like to tell listeners a little bit about the Sleeping Beauty?
A.J. Jacobs: Sure. The Sleeping Beauty is a crazy puzzle. It's a riddle and it is debated by mathematicians and philosophers and no one has really been able to say what is the definitive correct answer. I don't know if you remember Monty Python where they had a joke that was so funny that if you heard it, you would die laughing. This, to me, is sort of similar. It's such a puzzle that obsesses people for years. And it's actually, I'm not even going to say it has to do with flipping coins and Sleeping Beauty and amnesia drug. I will say that it's a cousin of the Monty Hall problem, which does have an answer and people have heard of that. Let me just do that one really quickly, which is the Monty Hall problem is based on the game show let's make a deal. And you're a contestant on a game show, there are three doors behind, two of the doors are goats and behind one of the doors is a brand-new car.
Assuming you want the car you have to make that assumption. Some people might prefer goats. You get two guesses. So, your first guess say you choose door number one and Monty Hall, who is the game show host, says, "All right, I'm going to open door number two and show you what's behind door number two." I'm not going to open door number one, your choice, but I'm opening door number two. He opens door number two and it's a goat. Now he says, "You get one more guess, do you want to switch your guess?" Do you want to switch it from door one to door three or stick with door one? What is the right thing to do?
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Doesn't it have to do with the fact that when you were initially guessing, it was out of three options, like now there are less options?
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, that's exactly it. It's out of two. It goes from being one out of two to, I think, two out of three. To me, it's so counterintuitive because it's like, "Why would I switch?" I made my guess and it's the same odds. Sort of on a surface level, it seems like it would be crazy to switch, but the correct answer is yes, you will increase your chances if you switch doors. And I love that people, this was like a big controversy when it first came out. This woman is named Marilyn vos Savant--
Melanie Avalon: I just have to say I read her column. I lived for her column as well growing up.
A.J. Jacobs: No way. That is hilarious.
Melanie Avalon: In Parade magazine. Yeah, I was all about it. My ten-year-old self, [chuckles] I had to read her column.
A.J. Jacobs: Do you remember the Monty Hall problem that she wrote about?
Melanie Avalon: It's funny, I was thinking about that while you were talking. I was like, I think I do. I think I remember when she answered. Do you know what year she answered it?
A.J. Jacobs: It was 1981 or something along those lines?
Melanie Avalon: No? Okay, never mind. No.
A.J. Jacobs: You were not alive? [laughs]
Melanie Avalon: I was not in existence.
A.J. Jacobs: You were not in existence. Well, that is funny. She wrote about it and said that you should switch and she got so much hate. This was whatever the early version of trolls where they trolled her and professional mathematicians wrote these condescending letters, like, she's ridiculous. And she was right, she was right. So, yeah, to me that is lovely, it's a lovely story. I think one of the things that show is, as you shouldn't always trust your first instinct that sometimes instinct can be great. Sometimes it can lead you astray. So just be careful.
Melanie Avalon: If you choose not to switch, you're choosing to stay. You're still making a choice out of two.
A.J. Jacobs: I know, it's funny. I think about it and I'm like okay, I understand it. All of a sudden, I don't. Here's one way that I think about it sometimes that helps, is imagine instead-- and this is a good problem-solving technique in general, is to take something and push it to the extreme, either to the extreme on the big end or the small end. Imagine instead of three doors, you had 100 doors. Monty Hall said, all right, pick a door. And he picked door 57. He says, okay, I'm not going to open that, but I'm going to open 98 other doors. He opens 98 other doors, and now you're just left with 57 and say 4. Say door 57 and door 4. Now, do you see why it makes sense to switch a little more or not really? [laughs] It's because Monty Hall is just not opening random doors. He knows where the car is and he knows where the goat is, so he is purposely giving you information by opening the goat doors. That's the difference. He knows. He's giving you a little hint by opening a door with a goat that eliminates that door and makes it more likely that it's one of the two left.
Melanie Avalon: Because the odds of you picking that door when there were 100 are not very good. But by switching you're picking it out of two.
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. You're picking out of two instead of picking out of 100. And now it makes more sense.
Melanie Avalon: This is why it relates to the Sleeping Beauty thing and the amnesia part of it, because part of me thinks it depends on if you knew your prior history or not.
A.J. Jacobs: Right. Yeah. I mean, these things I love them. There are puzzles that are so counterintuitive and baffling. There's one called Born on a Tuesday, this one is-- another one that's just mind-bogglingly counterintuitive. A man says "He has two children, and at least one of them is a boy born on a Tuesday." What is the probability that the man has two boys, and why does Tuesday have anything to do with it?
Melanie Avalon: Okay, wait, so he has two children, and one is a boy born on a Tuesday.
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, what is the probability the man has two boys? And why would Tuesday have anything to do with it? But it does. It's so mind boggling and hold on, I'm going to try to find the explanation because I have it. There's no way I could remember it. There's no way I would ever have gotten anything close to this, just so you know.
Melanie Avalon: Does it matter if the kids are like twins or not or anything like that?
A.J. Jacobs: No. While you're working on that, let me give you one that's similar but actually can be solved that you might have heard of, but I love it because it's a good lateral thinking puzzle, which is "There are two girls in a class, they were born to the same mother on the same day of the same month, of the same year, but they are not twins." Two girls born of the same mother, but not twins. What is going on?
Melanie Avalon: Same mother, same day, same year. Is it a time zone thing?
A.J. Jacobs: It is not a time zone thing. I like your theory. Now, that's one of my big lessons from The Puzzler. It's okay to try and fail. It is good to try and fail. You're never going to solve puzzles if you don't fail. All right. I'm looking up the Born on a Tuesday answer. Tuesday changes everything, okay.
Melanie Avalon: Does the Tuesday one have something to do with there being seven days in the week?
A.J. Jacobs: It does. Honestly, I'm going to read it to you, and I'm not sure it's going to make sense to either of us. Why? The answer is, but the answer is, oh, wait, let's finish the other one, in case people have to go.
Melanie Avalon: Is the other one a play on words or anything?
A.J. Jacobs: Kind of a play on words? It's more a lot of puzzles, I think word puzzles and life puzzles, I'm purposely withholding information, so I'm not telling you the whole story. "There are two girls and they are both born on the same day, same mother, but maybe there's something more going on?" Maybe, there's someone sitting next to them.
Melanie Avalon: They're triplets?
A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. They're triplets or quadruplets or quintuplets. Yes, that is a classic lateral thinking puzzle, they call it. All right, so, yes, I'm going to send this to you in case you want to post it, because it's a visual explanation. It has to do with the fact that-- I'm just trying to read. The explanation is five pages long. "It comes from the fact that we might imagine we had sliced the possible space, two genders seven weekdays into seven equally big slices. But did we? No, we did not because this is embarrassing." I did understand it at one point. Like, if you spend an hour looking at it, it makes sense. It is the fact that one of the boys was born on the Tuesday and not the other one and the other one was not born on a Tuesday. That makes a huge difference in the probability.
The point is, life is weird, [laughs] and sometimes these things just don't make sense to our intuition. Our brains are sometimes just not built to calculate probability correctly. And so, yeah, we're always being surprised. Let me give you one other one that's a much simpler example of this. So, this is a very classic one. "A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10 cents together." Together, a baseball bat and a baseball cost $1.10 cents, the bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Melanie Avalon: A $1.10, so a dollar more?
A.J. Jacobs: They cost $1.10 together and the bat costs $1 more than the ball. So how much does the ball cost? The trick is, your first instinct is wrong. The first instinct at least I had is that the ball cost 10 cents because 10 cents plus a dollar is $1.10 that makes sense. That's your gut instinct. But now that's not it because if the ball costs 10 cents then the bat costs a dollar more than that, a $1.10, so it's going to be $1.20. The answer is the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.5. So together they're $1.10. Again, it's just like our guts are not always built for tricky problems.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, I was like trying to run down in my head. I was like, well, it's not a $1.10 because of that reason. I was like, what if it was 9 cents? What if it was 8 cents, I was like going down the ladder.
A.J. Jacobs: That's a good way to do it. That works.
Melanie Avalon: The life problem I've been having that makes me think of the Sleeping Beauty is sometimes when I need to come and grab something from my apartment, they'll like boot you. Even though I live here, they'll boot you if you're just parked outside. Even though I can just run in really fast, this haunts me so bad. Sometimes I come when I do this, I try to make it in, like, in two minutes. I'll park, I run in for two minutes, I run out and I'm like, "What are the chances that I get booted?" But sometimes I come and I sit in my car for like five minutes first and then I'm like, okay, now I'm going to run in for two minutes. The fact that I sat here for five minutes means that the car will have been here for seven minutes. If I leave right now, it's still a two-minute possibility. If I had just come right now it would have just been a two-minute possibility, but the fact that I sat here for five minutes and I know that does that change the probability?
A.J. Jacobs: That is such a good puzzle.
Melanie Avalon: I think this every time I do this and I used to think it anyways and now I think about it and I think about your book and I think about Sleeping Beauty and I'm just like, what's happening?
A.J. Jacobs: I know because there is a right answer. I don't want to venture because it might be trickier than it appears. Because on the one hand, you're increasing the amount of chances that someone is going to come by because you're there for seven minutes, but on the other hand, you have been there for five minutes and no one has come. How is that extra two minutes any different than any random two minutes?
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, and if I just showed up at this time now and went in for two minutes, I feel like it should be the same probability of me just leaving from my car that's been sitting there for five minutes. I think that's why the amnesia part is important in Sleeping Beauty because it's like, if I know I've been here for five minutes, I feel like it's a different chance than if I don't know.
A.J. Jacobs: Totally.
Melanie Avalon: But then how can that be?
A.J. Jacobs: We have to send this to Marilyn vos Savant. She will figure it out.
Melanie Avalon: I'm going to do it. Does she still write her column?
A.J. Jacobs: I think she might, I think she might. I once did a book on trying to be as smart as humanly possible, as part of it I read the encyclopedia and I met with these super geniuses and I met this guy named Ron Hoeflin who was her boyfriend. She had a 280 IQ and he had a 279 IQ or something like that. So that's my only connection to Marilyn. I would say you know what though, I'm going to type this up and send it to some math nerd friends of mine and we're going to get you an answer because it's an important puzzle.
Melanie Avalon: I'm so excited. Okay, [laughs] so great. Speaking of IQ, I didn't read the note at all yet, but did you actually join Mensa or did you just sneak in?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, both. I'm not smart enough to get in by taking their super-hard test. But I was smart enough to read the website and see that you can get in on through a side door by your SAT scores. I think the minimum at the time I did at was 1250 and I happened to have gotten over 1250 and so I got in and even though I couldn't pass their test and part of it, I think they just wanted the membership dues. But it was hilarious, I got to hang out with some Mensa people and there were some I loved, it became clear that there's a difference between IQ and EQ, emotional quotient and sometimes they are not correlated, so you can have a very high IQ and not a very high EQ. They were wonderful quirky characters and that's what I like for my books is finding interesting people. I was very happy to have them in there.
Melanie Avalon: It's funny because-- So, when I was in LA, they are having a game show casting and they wanted people in Mensa. I joined because I had my scores from when I was like whenever they give you that test it was good enough to join.
A.J. Jacobs: So, you have a genius IQ? That's fantastic.
Melanie Avalon: Well, it's funny, a few things are funny. I joined so that I could apply for the game show casting, but I did not get in the game show because I had to track down my childhood scores. I didn't have them. In the meantime, I was like, well, "I'll take some of the practice IQ tests and maybe I can just take it again now." Taking it now, I realized, I know they say that the test doesn't change or it doesn't matter how old you are, but taking it, I was like, "I feel like there are a lot of patterns here. Like I could take this test a few times and learn how to take it."
A.J. Jacobs: Yes, absolutely. I agree. I don't think it is the end all be all. I think you can study and improve your IQ. Yeah, but I love that you are in a fit. Do you get like the Mensa magazine and all that?
Melanie Avalon: Well, I was going to say I was thinking about one of the reasons I was asking you that was "Yeah, I get the Mensa magazine, which I love, and then I get all the emails about all the meetups, I haven't gone to anything. They always have these meetups, and I'm always like, maybe I should go to just see what it's about someday. That's why I was curious about your experience.
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah, no, I went to a Mensa meeting. This was many years ago. I remember two big things. One was, it was like a convention, and when you got there, you could choose one of three stickers to put on your badge; green, yellow, or red. Green means I'm okay with hugging, yellow means ask before hugging, and red means no hugging, no hugging at all, which is very smart and especially now with COVID I think-- The other thing I remember is I was eating.
Melanie Avalon: What color did you put on?
A.J. Jacobs: I believe I was yellow. I didn't want to make a big statement. I remember also that I was eating dinner, and this guy had-- we all had soup, and he reached into his bag and got out a bunch of plastic spheres and dropped them, little plastic balls and dropped them into his soup. And I said, what's going on?
He's like, oh, those are to cool down the soup. I have these little frozen balls, plastic balls that I take from home. I was like why couldn't you just ask for a couple of cubes of ice from the restaurant? He says and he looks at me like I'm the biggest idiot ever. He's like because that would water it down. 'Duh.' [laughs] I was not smart enough to figure out why you needed frozen plastic balls. But listen, he's right. He's right. You don't want to water down your soup. This is the way to cool it down.
Melanie Avalon: That's so funny. Wow. Yeah. Also on my to-do list, go to Scientology brunch and go to one of these mixers, Mensa mixers.
A.J. Jacobs: I think you are-- Yeah, you've got a good social life path lined up for yourself.
Melanie Avalon: To-do list. Well, there're so many other questions I want to ask you, but I want to be respectful of your time. Like, you've talked about so many other things, like mazes versus labyrinths and the sculpture at the CIA and escape rooms. Oh, do you do escape rooms by the way?
A.J. Jacobs: I do. I love escape rooms. Are you a fan?
Melanie Avalon: Yes, they're the best. I love them.
A.J. Jacobs: That is nice to hear. And you know what's weird? I think Atlanta has some great ones. I don't know why I know that, but from talking to people in the escape room community, I think you're in a good place.
Melanie Avalon: There are so many.
A.J. Jacobs: My two favorite escape room facts are one and I learned these from talking to escape room owners. The first is that "Escape rooms are very popular with the nudist community because the nudist community, you'll meet them, they'll close the door, you take your clothes off, you solve the puzzles, you put your clothes back on, and you leave." You think you can't go bowling or go to the movie and take off your clothes. Then the other fun fact I thought was many people I talked to, there's a guy like they each have this guy who comes every week.
Melanie Avalon: Yes, I love this one. It's so great. This never occurred to me and I was like, "Oh."
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, just be careful. This is a public service announcement for single women. They all have this guy who comes every week or two and he always brings a new woman on a date and he pretends every time that it's his first time solving the escape room. Of course, he does it really quickly. His theory, I guess all these guys figure, "I'm going to show off by showing her how good I am at solving Sudoku or Morse Code, and then she's going to fall for me." So, it is ridiculously sleazy. But I guess, if all these guys are doing it, it is effective. I want to get that out there to anyone who goes on a first date.
Melanie Avalon: If you're on a first date and it's an escape room, run. "Red flag. Red flag." [laughs]
A.J. Jacobs: Well, only if he solves it quickly. If he loses, then it's fine.
Melanie Avalon: True. It's so funny. Well, maybe just one last quick topic to end on. Something that has really stuck with me from reading The Puzzler was and I'm just feeling it right now, like thinking through these puzzles with you in this moment, you talk about how puzzles, in theory, you could possibly solve the world because what is the one thing that can unify people of different--
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. There was a great study where they took people from different sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals and they had them do all these activities and the one activity that united them was they all did crossword puzzles and just this idea of having a common goal to work towards, they were able to bond over that. Yeah, it is possible, puzzles could save the world if we give them to Congress, I don't know or we give them to both sides of the Red States and the Blue States and we all work together. I mean that really is, all kidding aside, the idea of working together on a problem, uniting against a common threat is one of the best ways to unify people. So, I'm all for it. Regarding that cultural divide, I have found it so helpful to try to think of that as a puzzle.
If I'm talking to someone from the other side of the political spectrum, I happen to be a liberal. Down the line, I have some differing views but mostly liberal. If I'm talking to someone who's a Trump supporter, instead of trying to see it as a fight, as a war of words, I try to see it as a puzzle. I try to say, "Let's try to solve it together what do we really disagree on? What evidence is there that could convince one of us that they might be wrong? What is the crux of our difference? What can we do if we don't agree? Is there a way forward?" All of these are cooperative puzzles, mysteries and I find it a much better way to engage with someone I disagree with. It's just more productive. It's more pleasant. You don't get-- My blood pressure doesn't go through the roof and I learn more and there's a better chance that I'm going to come to some productive agreement. When you're at the Thanksgiving table and your uncle is saying crazy things that you don't like, just try to engage him as if he's a puzzle and you're working on a puzzle together, what can you figure out?
Melanie Avalon: Now I think listeners can see why they've got to get The Puzzler if they've enjoyed this conversation. I mean, really, any of your books. I'm going to work my way through the rest of your catalog because you're just incredible. The last question I ask every single guest on this show and it's appropriate based on what we've talked about, but it's just because I realize more and more each day how important mindset is. What is something that you're grateful for? It's perfect, end with that.
A.J. Jacobs: Well, absolutely perfect. Well, I'm going to come up with something else. I just want to say I am grateful to you, because as I said I did not sleep well. I was in a low mood, but your energy and enthusiasm has lifted me. I'm smiling. I'm having a great time. So, I'm thankful for that. I guess in line with my book, I just want to thank the hundreds of things that went right for this interview to happen. The fact that I have a microphone that wasn't working when we first started, but we were able to make it work. I want to thank the people in Chile and the miners who went underground and got the copper for the microphone so that it could work and whoever designed this little green dots on the side that show the volume, all of these hundreds of things that went into this microphone working, just so I can have a lovely conversation with you that makes me grateful.
Melanie Avalon: Well, thank you so much. I'm just so grateful for you as well. I think I'm getting some clarity about something which-- because when I first was exposed to your work, I was like, he's all over the place. There's like, "Where am I going to go with this, there's so much stuff." The unifying thing is, I think, what we talked about in the very beginning, which is just your insane passion and curiosity to just explore these concepts and ideas and know and learn. It's just I wish more people thought this way and we're doing this. I love that you are doing that. You're bringing it to the general public and sharing it and exposing people to these ideas and giving people new ways of thinking and seeing things while laughing the whole time. So, thank you.
A.J. Jacobs: Right back at you, Melanie. I mean, I've listened to your podcast and your curiosity is infectious. I think that's what you do with your guests. You introduce us to all these new ideas. So, thank you for that.
Melanie Avalon: Well, thank you so much. I will let you go. I know you have to go. Do you have any other books coming out?
A.J. Jacobs: I just started a new one. It's called the Year of Living Constitutionally. I am trying to live because there are some on the Supreme Court who think that they're called originalists and I think we should hue to the original meaning of the Constitution. I'm trying to see what does that life really look like if you take it really seriously and fully. So, I have a musket. I bought a musket that I'm looking at right now and instead of tweeting, I wrote my tweets on some parchment paper and handed them out in Times Square and all sorts of things like that. What's it like to live in 1789?
Melanie Avalon: Can you come back on for that when that comes out?
A.J. Jacobs: Of course. I would love to.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, my goodness. Maybe we'll have an answer to the logic question about the parking?
A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. No, that's good. I'm making a note to send that to a friend of mine. Not Marilyn, but someone.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. How can people best follow you? Instagram, websites?
A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, any of the above. I'm @ajjacobs on Twitter, ajjacobs.com. @ajjacobsinc on Instagram. Someone took @ajjacobs. But, yeah, I'd love to hear from people and feedback and ideas if they have experiments they want to try. I love to hear about those.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Well, I will put links to all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much for everything that you're doing. I hope you have a great next interview and I can't wait to talk to you soon. You are the best. Thank you.
A.J. Jacobs: Thank you. Melanie, right back at you.
Melanie Avalon: Thanks, AJ. Bye.
A.J. Jacobs: Bye.
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