Intro. [Recording date: October 22, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is author A. J. Jacobs. His latest book is Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, and that is our subject for today's conversation.... What's the idea behind the book?
A. J. Jacobs: Well, the idea is, it came about because for a couple of years I'd been saying these sort of secular prayers of thanksgiving before meals. And they are not traditional prayers, because I'm not very religious. So, instead of thanking God, I would thank some of the people who helped bring my food to the plate. So, I'd say, 'Thank you to the farmer who grew the tomatoes, and the woman at the store who sold me the tomatoes.' And that was going okay. My kids were tolerating it. Until one day, my son, who was 10 at the time, said, 'You know, Dad, what you are doing is kind of lame. Because, they can't hear you. These people are not in our apartment. If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person.' And I thought--that is an interesting idea. It's a good book idea: Thank you for helping me with my career. And that sent me off on a journey that took months. And it took me around the world. And I thanked--ended up thanking--over a thousand people who had even the smallest role in making my morning cup of coffee. And, it was really revelatory, because you realized there are hundreds of people we take for granted. And I love that you've talked about this on your show in various ways--that it takes--it doesn't take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.
Russ Roberts: A horde. An army. One of the most beautiful things. And there is something lovely about knowing everyone or being able to thank everyone easily who serves you in different ways. But, in the modern world, of course, we are served by thousands of people we don't see. But, you made it an actual effort to thank them face to face. Which is a very cool experience. So, talk about the lengths you went in your book. And you start with your barista on the corner, at Joe's, the coffee shop you like. Talk about some of the range of ways that you went to be grateful to those folks.
A. J. Jacobs: Well, right. I started, but then I worked my way backwards. And I tried to thank people in person if possible, but also by phone, and by email. And what you realize very quickly is, just, 6 degrees of gratitude is just a never-ending chain. Because, I could thank the truck driver who drove the coffee beans to the store. But, he couldn't have done his job without the roads. So, I would thank the people who paved the road. And they couldn't have done their job without the people who painted the yellow lines on the road so the truck didn't crash into oncoming traffic. And it was just--I could have spent a hundred years doing it. I could have gotten to over a million people, thanking. And it was--and I would--it was a little awkward, because you know, it's not a normal thing we do in society is thanking these people who are very vaguely connected to what you are doing. But, it was wonderful. I mean, you had a range of reactions. You had some people who were like, you know, I'd call them up and they'd be like, 'Is this a pyramid scheme? What's going on? What are you trying to sell? But, by far the majority were delightfully and pleasantly surprised. So, I remember I called the woman who does the pest control over at the coffee beans at the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And, I said, 'I know this sounds strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.' And she said, 'Well, that is strange; but I really appreciate it. I don't get a lot of gratitude.' And, it was like an anti-crank-phone call, is the way I--sort of penance for the obnoxious prank phone calls I made in high school. And, if it's done well, if it works, it's good for both the thanker and the thankee. You know--you feel better and they feel better.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm a big fan of gratitude; and we'll talk about the whole concept. Because it's woven into the book. I do want to mention though, when I was interested in industrial processes, I called the people who made the gamma ray detector that is used to make sure that cans of soda are filled to the top. So, cans of soda are filled to the top--which is amazing; you almost never get a can that's not. And that's because every can has gamma rays shot through the top, and there's a detector--through the top part of the can. And if there's liquid there, fewer get through. And if it's empty, more get through; and then they know that the can is defective--hasn't been filled correctly. And I had a very long and interesting conversation with that person. But, as you experienced, a lot of these folks don't get a lot of contact from the public. Some of them are very happy and thrilled that someone's actually paying attention to their job. And others are like, 'What's wrong with you?'
A. J. Jacobs: Well, I love that--I did not know about that gamma ray; but it's just one of thousands of examples. And yeah, I loved talking to the guy who designed the lid for my coffee cup, because the amount of passion and thought that went into this--he's an entrepreneur and he's sort of like the Elon Musk of coffee lids. He's hopefully a little more emotionally stable. But he's very innovative and passionate it. And he designed it so there's a hole in the middle to let out the aroma, because the aroma is such a big, important part of coffee. So, yeah, it was remarkable. And, as you say, people don't often acknowledge that. And I think that's a shame.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The other part of it which I love, which I think is a big part of life satisfaction that's missed is that not only did you have the satisfaction of thanking these folks and giving them a pleasant moment--ideally a little more than a moment, but at least one pleasant moment--but it reminded them that what they do isn't just punching out lids or punching out steel or driving a truck: that they are actually improving people's lives. In my experience, most of us tend to reduce our lives, the work part of our lives, to a very narrow set of actions that we then say, 'I did those well,' or 'I'm good at my job.' But they don't--I think it's a tremendously lost thing, that we don't think enough about how we affect other people. My sister is a real estate agent, and when I was thinking about this a few years ago, I asked her how often she stopped to think about, you know, what she did. Obviously, she works hard; she tries to make a lot of money. That's normal and human. But I said, 'How often do you stop and think about the fact that people who come to your town, scared and uneasy, and you comfort them and find them something that's appropriate for them that makes their lives better?' And she said, 'Never.' And 'Thank you,' because it moved her. She's actually doing something that's more than just earning a commission.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. Seeing it as part of the bigger picture. And it reminds me of the story of JFK [John F. Kennedy], which I actually don't think is apocryphal. I looked into it, it looked real--but when he was touring NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] he ran into a janitor, and he asked the janitor, 'What is your job here?' And the janitor said, 'I am helping man get to the moon.' Like, he realized that his keeping the NASA offices clean was a small part in their big mission. And that must have given him a lot of meaning. Which is wonderful.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Actually, I just want to reference the book, My Grandfather's Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen, which is where I first saw this idea. And she tells the story of someone who is terminally dying of cancer. And they gathered all the people in the room--it was a doctor--and they gathered all the people in the room who had benefited from some procedure or some treatment that he had created. And, you know, it was an incredibly powerful evening. But the tragedy of the evening was a beautiful thing. But something of a tragedy is: You have to spend a lot of time thinking about that. And, he was more focused on developing a device where the treatment, whatever it was. And it's really important, I think, that we think about what we do. You and I are doing this strange thing: You write a book. You do get occasional emails from people who I'm sure thank you, and who probably curse you out sometimes. But some of them[?] are pleasant. And, but 90%, 99%, 99.99% of the people who love your book will never tell you.
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm. I know. And it is so motivating trying to remember. And actually that's what inspired me as part of the marketing of this book. I decided to do a project where I would write 1000 thank-you notes to readers: Anyone who had ever read a book or an article by me. And they--you can go on the Internet and fill out a form and say anything you want, and I'll respond with a personalized, hand-written paper note. And, you know, it's been a pain the butt. But at the same time it's been wonderful. It's so lovely to get feedback, and how the books have touched people. And, you know, it reminds--it's very inspiring. Because, if you--I think if you can remember that what you are doing is not just for yourself, that it's improving society--hopefully, and it's touching other people, hopefully--that to me is the most inspiring part of work.
Russ Roberts: You mention your parents. That's an obvious example where, for me, when I first had, when I was blessed with a child, one of the things that it does to--it does a lot of things to you--but one of the things it does to you is it makes you realize what your parents did for you. Because--tragically or not, realistically, you don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. And when you have your own child, you realize, 'Oh my gosh.' And you should be overwhelmed by gratitude. And I think how often you tell you tell your parents how grateful you are for what they did for you. It is an open question. But, telling them is a really good idea, I think.
A. J. Jacobs: I love that. And I hope my kids are listening to this podcast. But, yeah. And it's not--that was just one way I could have gotten to a thousand people--is, I could have thanked the parents of the barista, and then their parents, and then their parents. And, you know--it's a chain. So, yeah, just another example of interconnectivity, which I think is a theme of your show. And, by the way, I love your poem about the "Loaf of Bread,"--
Russ Roberts: Thank you--
A. J. Jacobs: which has a similar, sort of a similar vibe about all the people involved in making one loaf of bread that we don't think about.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like to say, self-sufficiency is road to poverty. It's very hard to have a modern lifestyle, with all of its superficiality but all of its greatness and implications for our health, and our enjoyment if we take advantage of it correctly--
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm.
Russ Roberts: But it's very hard to have that lifestyle without relying on millions of people.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And people don't really realize that. And there's no one to thank for that. That's something that I want to come back to.
Russ Roberts: But, let's talk about--one of the things I really loved about the book was you thanked a lot of people who played a small role. And you talk about one of the people you encounter is a bass player in a band. Which is not the most glamorous parts of a band. Talk about the role of the bass player.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. The bass player is actually--his real job was that he was the taster who chose the coffee beans that my coffee. And, it was wonderful. Because, you know, now the amount of passion, again, that went into this; and he would take a sip and be transported--and 'I sense notes of maple syrup and jasmine'--and I would take a sip and be like, 'Well, I'm sensing coffee. I'm tasting coffee.' But the amount of thought that he put into it actually makes my life better. Whether or not I realize it, I'm tasting better coffee. But he, in his spare time, he's the bass player for a band. And he said, that these players don't get the same recognition. Everyone wants to be the lead singer. But you can't do, you can't have a good band without a bass player. And I love that. And I ran across a term from psychology: the responsibility bias. And that we, we focus on the one person; and it's just an error. I say, in my book: For instance, I am perpetuating that error by having my name on the cover, as the only name--
Russ Roberts: Sure.
A. J. Jacobs: If this were a more honest book, it would say, 'By A.J. Jacobs,' and then it would list the 100--you know, my Editors, the people who designed it; the people who cut down the wood to make the pages. You know, there are hundreds of people. And I actually brought it up, as like, 'Maybe this would be interesting.' And the editor was like 'That would just confuse the heck out of people.' So, we're not going to do that. But I loved his point of, that we need more bass players. And I think, in society, like, even just in science, we need more--not everyone should be trying come up with a brilliant new hypothesis. We need people to replicate experiments. We need people, it's not as glamorous, but it's so important.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I wrote an essay recently called 'The Story of My Life,' where I think many of us tend to see our own personal experiences as a movie where the star. And that sometimes it might be better--it may be most of the time--to think of ourselves as part of an ensemble: that is creating someone that is grander than just my lead story. I think about people who sing in the chorus of a musical. They get zero recognition, often--very little. And yet, they are totally devoted to it. And--
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm--
Russ Roberts: it's--once you've been in that role and you realize how deeply satisfying it can be to "merely"--and I put that in quotes--be part of the ensemble, it's changes the way you look at life. It changes the way you think about a lot of things that you do, from both parenting to the workplace.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. I love that. And, yeah. Finding meaning and being part of the community, being part of something bigger. And it reminds me, of, I thought, Chris Rock's standup, especially a couple of months ago where it's called 'Tamborine,' and it's because he's saying, 'In marriage, sometimes you get to be the lead singer. But a lot of times you are playing the tamborine in the background; and you've got to enjoy that tamborine.' Like, you can't be complaining and rolling your eyes about the tamborine. You better embrace the tamborine. And he actually says he did not embrace the tamborine, and that's why he's divorced.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's a beautiful--I would have said, we need a t-shirt: "More Tamborine." Or "Less." I don't know. But it's funny that he used tambourines [?] a cowbell, but I guess it was it's own. Tambourine--that's a great example, right? You're just adding something nuanced that most people won't notice; but if it weren't there, it wouldn't be as good. And that, I think, is the way to think about a lot of these interactions.
A. J. Jacobs: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: I want you to talk about the role that your gratitude practice played in reducing annoyance. So, I don't know successful it ultimately was; it makes the book more interesting, certainly. But talk about how you hoped, at least, to have gratitude replace annoyance.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. I think my default mode, like many people's, is to be annoyed: Find the three or four things wrong with everything and focus on them. I think of it almost like a battle between my inner 'Larry David' and my inner 'Mr. Rogers.' And I think my Larry David is very strong. So, this was partly an attempt to strengthen my Mr. Rogers. And I do think it was successful. I mean, I still get annoyed a huge amount. But, just doing a practice of focusing on the hundreds of things that feel right in every part of our lives, it really is a radical shift in perspective. And, trying to--you know, when you get in an elevator and press the elevator button and the elevator goes up instead of plummeting to the basement, you know: Focus on that. I'm particularly--one of my most irrational biases is that I'm obsessed that there's a conspiracy that when I go to the airport, my gate is always 2 and a half miles from the security. But it's--not.
Russ Roberts: That happens to me, too. Incredibly.
A. J. Jacobs: I know. Well, you'd think--but it's just because I remember those--you know, I focus on those. And, so, I make a very--nowadays, I try to make a very clear point, to myself. Almost saying out loud, like 'I'm at Gate Number 1, and I walked out of Security and here it is: So, Remember that next time you are complaining to yourself.' And I find--as I say, my Larry David remains strong. But Mr. Rogers is coming back.
Russ Roberts: It's such a challenge. And I--at one point you mention--you use the phrase 'First World Problems.' Most, of course--those of us who live in the First World--have First World Problems. We don't have the worst problems that billions of people have around the world. We're very lucky, to me, in where we are. But I think what's fascinating to me psychologically is how hard it is to talk yourself into that perspective.
A. J. Jacobs: It is. Because it's so--the annoying things are so present. And I think, if you believe in evolutionary psychology, you believe that they, we were--built--to notice these things. Because it's more important you notice the lion that might attack you. But, yeah. I would say that it is key to just try to focus on all the things. It's almost a creative gain, thinking of all of the things that go right. And, even--you know, there's the cliche: Half glass full, half glass empty. I actually have tried to reframe that. And maybe that's not the right perspective. The right perspective is: Can you believe that we can turn on a tap, turn a lever, and have clean, drinkable water? And, so it's not just [?] that the glass half full. It's that we astounding have any water in there at all. And billion, millions of people--and throughout history, 99% of human history, we did not have this. So, it is--yeah. It's a challenge. Because my default, I think, is not that. But, it does make your life better if you really practice that.
Russ Roberts: And give one--you talk, you give a very nice example about lying in bed before you fall asleep, and use of going from A to Z. Describe that.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. This was a ritual a friend of mine told me about that I love; and it's that: To go to sleep, instead of sheep, count things that you are grateful for. And I do it alphabetically. So, you start with A. And it could be--the example I used in the book was very related to coffee. So, A is for Arabica, which is the type of beans that taste really good. And B is for--I can't remember what B is for. But,
Russ Roberts: Beans.
A. J. Jacobs: Beans. There you go. Or the Boat. The boat--the fact that we have shipping, and we have containers. I mean, I learned all this about the astoundingness of pallets and containers. I never thought I would be so blown away.
Russ Roberts: It's incredible.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. By the chain. So, yeah: I do find that a good way--no sheep. Don't do sheep. Try counting your blessings or what's going right.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to add one, which I experience. For me, I don't know whether it's getting older or whether it's the role of meditation and prayer in my life. But I feel more grateful. I don't know if I actually am and whether I really am less annoyed. But I feel less annoyed. Maybe it's impending death. It could be that. I like to think it's the meditation/prayer. But in case of meditation: I went on a silent meditation retreat; and we had an exercise--this was 45 minutes; and I encourage listeners to do this. Forty-five's hard, so maybe just--at this point in the episode, if you are not driving, you could just pause this, close your eyes, and think about this. What they encouraged us to do was to go back to our earliest memories and think of times people were kind to us.
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm.
Russ Roberts: And, I thought, 'Well, this is silly.' First of all, I thought, 'Okay, my parents. How long am I going to be able--45 minutes?' But he's--the advice was 'Go slow.' So, I tried to go slowly. And, I accumulated a remarkable set of kindnesses that people had done to me that I had literally--I hadn't literally forgotten. I just didn't remember them on a day-to-day basis. And, it was very moving.
A. J. Jacobs: Do you remember an example?
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah; I'll tell you a couple. And then I'll tell you the post-, the after-effects, which were really amazing. So, one of them one when my sister was born. I'm three and a half years older than my sister. When was three and a half years old, my Mom and Dad went to the hospital; and I had to no one to stay with. We were living way far away from any relatives. My parents had a friend. And he took care of me during that time. And, after that, of course, he was a family friend, he was extremely generous to me. He gave me my first guitar. And because of that, I became a guitar--I could play the guitar. I don't call myself a guitarist. That would be a lie. But I do play the guitar from time to time. But he gave me a different perspective on music. That's just one of the many, many things he had done for me. Well, he doesn't live near us any more. He's 80-something years old. And he's not on the Internet. I hadn't emailed him and I got--I asked my Dad to find his number. And I called him. And I thanked him. And he cried. I cried, too. It was deeply moving, that he had been remembered and appreciated. I tracked down my 8th grade teacher, Miss Kineen, who I've mentioned on this program before. And it was really hard to do, but I finally found someone who knew her and someone who knew someone and finally got her letter. And wrote her a letter, about how she changed my life. And she wrote back a beautiful letter that was, you know, incredibly moving. So, I--if you do that exercise, it should engender deep feelings of gratitude. And, then you should act on it. It's incredibly empowering and powerful.
A. J. Jacobs: I love that. And I have the same experience. I remember, a couple of years ago, calling out of the blue my first editor at a tiny, tiny newspaper in suburban California. And it was a little awkward, because I hadn't spoken to him in 15, 20 years. But again, it did turn out to be moving, I think for both of us. And there was just a study--I'm skeptical of single studies in general in Social Science--but--
Russ Roberts: not [?]. I'm sure this is the absolute truth. Go ahead.
A. J. Jacobs: Well, since I like the study, I'm going to marry[?] it--
Russ Roberts: There you go.
A. J. Jacobs: But, they said that the, we overestimate the awkwardness of thanking people; and we underestimate the meaningfulness to them. And I think that that is true from my personal experience.
Russ Roberts: No, I agree with that. I think that is true of my personal experience. A beautiful thing. Has writing the book and going through this exercise--do you think it's made you a more grateful person? Because, now you are done. Now you can write a book on ingratitude.
A. J. Jacobs: Take everything for granted.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The book's done. So, has it changed you, you think?
A. J. Jacobs: I do think it had a pretty big impact. And, as I say, I still get annoyed all the time. But I've become a much more grateful person, partly because I think from a selfish point of view. It's much better way to live. You know, from an outside point of view, being annoyed is funny. It's funny to watch on TV [television]. It's funny to listen to other people complain sometimes. But when you are seeing the world that way, it's not always that pleasant. And, being able to appreciate the hundreds of amazing things that are in our lives is really a much better way to live. And there's a phrase--I didn't make it up--but, 'Gratitude--happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.' And I find that to be quite true, in my case.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, I agree. I think the challenge is that--and this fascinates me: I don't know if it's the evolutionary psychology point. But, I kind of find myself at times reveling in getting annoyed. Reveling in getting angry. And Twitter does this to me sometimes, right? Social media I think does this to us, occasionally. Sometimes--like, sometimes it feels good to "work yourself up into a state."
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And you try the other, just saying, 'I'm not going to get mad,'--but it does take, I think it does take some form of meditation or mindfulness, prayer, writing a book--all those things, they are not unrelated--to help you keep it in mind. Because it's so easy for your mind to grab you and take you in a different place.
A. J. Jacobs: Absolutely. And, yeah. You are right. It's like junk food. It just--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
A. J. Jacobs: it gives you a momentary boost. But I think in the long term, is quite harmful to us. And I did love--I talked to one of my friends who is a philosopher at Oxford. And I asked him, 'What are you grateful for?' And he had a very interesting answer. He said, 'Sometimes I'm just grateful that I have arms. Because, it's easy to be grateful, you know, if you get a big promotion--that's easy to focus on. But, remembering the things that we take totally for granted, like arms--which do come in handy.' It would have been much harder to write this book without arms. So, I love that mindset, of really focusing on what we take for granted. And another thing that I think you would agree, because I love the way you talk about the past, is: You know, we should be grateful that we live right now. We've got a lot of problems. It's a very challenging time. But the 'good old days' were not good. The 'good old days' were terrible. They were disease-ridden and they were poverty filled. And it was just not a place you wanted to be.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. If you ever have root canal--you do appreciate. Of course, if you want to be a half-empty glass kind of guy, you can certainly say that 'I resent that I am not living 100 years from now when we'll live to be 200 with no infirmities.' But, I don't know. I do think we romanticize the past. I often take it to a more basic level, which is: I'm just happy to be alive, at 64 years old, and to be blessed with all the lucky things that I have. And, any time I think of those, it's a good thing. I think the more you think about those things, the better.
A. J. Jacobs: Absolutely. Yeah. What you said. When I try to--when I get annoyed--my three-word mantra is: Surgery without anesthesia. And just think about that, and it will wake you up.
Russ Roberts: That's good. I like that. I have a whole bunch of them.
Russ Roberts: But I do think what's interesting about this is how hard it is to rationally decide: I'm going to be more appreciate of what I have. That's hard. And I think you need some kind of regimen, whether it's mindfulness or reading A. J. Jacobs' book, Thanks a Thousand--which, I'm serious, by the way. It's a short book, by the way. Spending an hourish or a little more than an hour, or maybe two, with A. J. Jacobs, about the virtues of gratitude is probably one way of engendering a little more gratitude, a little less annoyance, a little more Mr. Rogers.
A. J. Jacobs: Well, I am of course very grateful to you for saying that. But, I agree: You definitely need to concentrate. It doesn't come naturally. I wish it did. But, you really do need to make it a practice. And, you know: They have--there are studies. Again, I'm skeptical of any single study; but there are lots of studies about keeping a gratitude journal and writing down three things you are grateful for every day. And I do--I actually trade emails with my mom every day on what I'm grateful for and what she's grateful for.
Russ Roberts: That's a great idea.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. I find it very--she likes it; I like it. And it assuages my guilt for not being in touch with her more. So, it all works.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to read a poem. I apologize. Indulge me. Because it kind of captures this Mom-gratitude thing which I love. It's by Billy Collins, and it's called The Lanyard.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the 'L' section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that's what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
A. J. Jacobs: Oh, I love that. What a fantastic poem!
Russ Roberts: Such a good poem. Thank you for the excuse of letting me read it on EconTalk.
A. J. Jacobs: And it reminds me, I think I mentioned this in the book: My feeling on birthdays--
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. I loved that.
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. I think that we've got it all wrong. Because we congratulate the person who was born. But that person--yeah, they didn't do the hard part. They just got out and they screamed for milk; and maybe took an Apgar test. But the one that did all the work was the mom, who was pushing and, you know--
Russ Roberts: suffering--
A. J. Jacobs: suffering like I can't even imagine. So, yeah. I think we should combine birthday, which is the person born and the birther herself. I mean, 'Labor Day' was already taken as a word, so we can't say "Happy Labor Day." But, the same idea, I think.
Russ Roberts: Well, I like that. I'm going to take Labor Day and use it to thank my wife and my mom. I love that. That's even better.
Russ Roberts: Let's go back to coffee for a minute. Just for fun. How did this project change your morning experience of drinking a cup of coffee?
A. J. Jacobs: Well, one thing is, you know, I still no sommelier of coffee. But it did force me to at least--let's think about the taste of coffee for two seconds. All these people put in thousands of hours to make my coffee. The least I can do is focus for two seconds on the taste. And it's--you know, and I don't have to spend long time, but just think about the acidity and the sweetness and the texture. And I do that with a lot of different food, now. And I think it does help. And psychologists talk about savoring as a very important part of life, and just stretching out a moment for a little normal than normal. Because if you don't, then everything just goes by in a flash. And that's it. So, trying to focus on a moment. And I actually--I try to do this a lot in life--is, pick out a moment of the day and try to remember it. I have a list on my computer called 'One Thing.' And it's a document, one thing I remember from a meal, one thing I remember from a conversation, a book, a podcast. And I find it very helpful because otherwise it all just blurs together.
Russ Roberts: So, explain that in a little more detail. You say you have a document called 'One Thing'?
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. And--
Russ Roberts: And it's just a list of any--
A. J. Jacobs: It's just a list of what I've found most interesting or most memorable. Here, I can--I'll try to open it up. But, after listening--on your podcast, actually--well, this is a good way to do it. I've listed things from your podcast that have really stuck with me. One of them was similar to what we've been talking about. It was when you asked Bill James, the saber-metrics baseball guy, what he had learned. And he talked about how many people it takes to make a championship baseball team. And, you know, the minor league coach, the parents who nurture the kid--you know, the, whoever did the carpool to bring the kid to practice. And I loved that. So that went in the One Thing file.
Russ Roberts: That's beautiful. But then you just listed--the next thing might be one thing you remember from dinner last night that was special.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. Like something my kids did. Or, it could be a conversation at a party I went to, one thing someone said. And I love it. I go back to it every few days. Because, again, otherwise, I don't know about everyone, but my brain just turns all into mush, and you don't remember the high points.
Russ Roberts: That's really a beautiful idea. And you think about, there are people who are religious note-takers in class; and sometimes you wonder if they get anything out of it, because they write everything down. So, it's not the one thing. Maybe it could be two things, sometimes. I assume that sometimes you put more than one thing from the same thing--
A. J. Jacobs: I have. I have veered from the one-thing path.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Because, what's interesting to me is that I'd forgotten that Bill James insight. Which I loved when I heard it. So, thank you. But I also--the one I remember from that was when I asked him if we'd plumbed the depths fully of our knowledge of baseball; and he says something like, 'We know nothing.' And here is the person who I think has done more than any one person to help us understand the analytical aspect of this weird game. And I was--on October 22 today I say, 'Go Red Sox'--tomorrow night is their Game 1 of the World Series. But here's a person who has done more than anything, and yet he feels he's knows nothing. And that's the one that stuck with me. Even though I didn't write it down. But I wish I had written it down, because he said it better than that. And I can go back to the transcript and get it. But, I love that. Do you do it at a particular time each day? Or do you have a routine?
A. J. Jacobs: I do it before I go to bed. Yeah. So, I go through the day, you know, what podcast I listened to and what was the one thing that stood out? And I'll try, while listening to a podcast, I'll be like, 'Okay, that's going to be the one thing.' And it's funny, because I love the point that Bill James made about epistemological humility, because I'm obsessed with that, too. So, I'm going to add that, even though it was two things. And I have another one from your podcast. You talked about--I've never seen this cartoon, but you talked in one episode about a cartoon or a comic where it was just a broom sweeping and a steering wheel for the bus without any people to show how much in life we take for granted and don't acknowledge the people. Which is also very much in the theme of my book.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I try to thank--when I get off the shuttle from the airport to the parking lot, I always thank the driver. And I try to thank the driver face-to-face rather than just calling out 'Thank you.' But sometimes I call out 'Thank you' because I'm in the wrong place. But, I wonder how much that--it's better than not doing it, for sure. But I often wonder how much it matters. But, it matters for me by the way. Because I think encouraging that sense of gratitude makes you a better person. Even if the other person didn't hear it--so, I'm going to disagree with your son a little bit. But, I think it's better to tell them face to face, for sure. But I think having that emotion is a helpful thing.
A. J. Jacobs: I agree. I think it helps the thanker and the thankee. And I do think, at least from my limited, you know, interviews with people that it does--it does matter. When I interviewed the barista, she said--well, first of all, it's a tough job.
Russ Roberts: It's hard.
A. J. Jacobs: It's very [?]. You are encountering people in a very dangerous state, which is pre-caffeination. So, they are not at their best. But, she said: The worst part is that so many people treat her like a vending machine. They don't even acknowledge that she's a human. They just are looking at their phones. They handle the credit card without looking up. They take it back and don't say anything. So, even just the two seconds of making eye contact, acknowledging she's a human, makes a huge difference for her. And, I'm not expecting a Nobel Prize. But I have started to make eye contact. Because, I realize I'm that putz--I'm the one who doesn't look up when dealing with people. And, you know, maybe in a few decades there won't be people to deal with--just robots. But, for now, we should treat them like the humans that they are.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a--I totally agree. Definitely. It's just an easy way to make the world a better place without having to really suffer very much. You can look up from your phone. Really, you can. It's not that big a deal.
A. J. Jacobs: It is, exactly: low impact. Low output but high impact.
Russ Roberts: Is the book out?
A. J. Jacobs: It is out November 13th.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
A. J. Jacobs: But it is available for pre-order, in case anyone is interested.
Russ Roberts: I'm not sure when this will air, but I think it will be close to November 13th. I'm interested in how this book will affect your coffee shop. Because, I have to confess--you talk about the logo of the coffee shop, how that was designed. And that's part of the experience, and I looked up--I wanted to see it. So, I googled Joe's Coffee--which is interesting--Joe Coffee. And I found it. Which is surprising because 'Joe' is a slang word for coffee and I thought I'd have trouble finding it. But it came up right away--because Google's so smart they know I'm reading your book, probably. Creepy, but it's smart. But I did find it. And, it's a beautiful logo, like you described it. It gave me an urge to go to that coffee shop. Which is just interesting. And I wonder if that will happen.
A. J. Jacobs: Well, yeah. I think they do a good job and they are very thoughtful. You know, they, they deal with small farms and, so--listen, I would be delighted if it helped. And it is interesting, you know. The crossover between business and gratitude, because I am writing a piece for LinkedIn for about how, you know, gratitude can help your business, in many ways. You just--there are all these CEOs [Chief Executive Officers] like Mary Kay, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, would write 10 hand-written thank-you notes a day. And she credited it with helping her business. But yeah, and being thoughtful and thankful for your customers. That, I think--it allows you to, it motivates you to try to do well by them. You are not just trying to make money. You are trying to help your customers. And then they'll come and you'll make more money. But, anyway--that was a sort of a tangent. But, semi-related, I do hope that it helps Joe Coffee, because I like them.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's cool. By the way--it's interesting--I have at least four things so far from this conversation; and I think I am going to--I like that one thing, I'm going to write some of them down. One of them I'm going to mention is that, I've always liked this bumper sticker: 'Wag More, Bark Less.' And it's a beautiful, simply statement. But, I'm thinking about yours now, which is maybe even better: 'More Mr. Rogers, Less Larry David.' You know. It's the same idea. And I'm a big Larry David fan: I think he's a very funny man. But--
A. J. Jacobs: I wouldn't want to be inside his mind. But I love watching it--
Russ Roberts: Or at least--that, wagmore[?]. I thought you were going to say because I mentioned, a bumper sticker in the trucking--the [?], transportation. And the guy said there was a bumper sticker that was, you know, America, moves on trucking. Or something a little better. But the idea is that we definitely don't acknowledge how every--almost everything in our lives was on trucks. And on these pallets. These wooden, these just plain old wooden platforms. You know, this laptop I'm looking at, this microphone, this, you know, this modern, the modern canister, they were all at one point on pallets. And I've given zero thoughts to pallets. So I just want to shout out to pallets. I learned, in, from the history of pallets, they held us in World War II, because we were efficient in packing our supplies, to the Pacific Theater. So, a shout-out to pallets.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Pallets are cool. And containers are cool. Boxes are cool. They are all amazing.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. There was a great book, and I read it, a book on Containers, the birth of containers. It's amazing.
Russ Roberts: So, now, I have to give you a little bit of a hard time, AJ, because--
A. J. Jacobs: I'm ready. I'm ready.
Russ Roberts: Because you picked on one my favorite things in the world.
A. J. Jacobs: I, Pencil?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I, Pencil.
A. J. Jacobs: I, just want--I want to hear--I don't want to say I picked on it, because I think it's a wonderful piece. I just have a couple of disagreements with it. But I want to wag the tag for I, Pencil as well as couple parts.
Russ Roberts: So, I, Pencil is the poor man's version of your book, in some dimension. Obviously. And, what you point out in your book--so, I'm going to let you make your point first--if I may use a bad phrase, 'make your point,' about a pencil. But I'll let you sharpen your point. You, very appropriately in my view--perhaps surprising to you--but you very appropriately in my view thank the people who provide government services that make coffee better. So, talk about that. And then how they are left out of I, Pencil.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. Well, I have a section on safety--the fact that I can drink my cup of coffee and not die. Which is not something that I should take for granted, because a couple hundred years ago, the ingredients in coffee were, you know--there was lead, there was arsenic, there was baked horse liver; there was anything you can think of. And so, I was thankful for the birth of the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. And other government agencies that try to keep us safe. And I--um, you know, that was my critique of I, Pencil, which, as I say, was wonderful in many ways. I--it's more of a matter of degree. I feel that that we need to acknowledge that there should be some regulation to keep us safe in places like the FDA. And that, maybe you and I diverge a little on this, of how much regulation there should be in capitalism. So, that was sort of my only critique--that of, I, Pencil, is that they kind of left out--the people who, the government who funded the roads, you know, the police force who kept the pencil factory safe. That government made lead illegal, which I think was a great think--not illegal, but, so, now pencils are made with graphite instead of lead. So, that's where I diverge from the lovely I, Pencil essay.
Russ Roberts: Well, talk about water.
A. J. Jacobs: Talk about--why?
Russ Roberts: Talk about water. And the water supply that connects it to the coffee in New York.
A. J. Jacobs: Right. Well, I realized that coffee is 98.8% water. It's just a little bit of this ground up beans. So--and I totally took for granted how much goes into the production of water. And that I get it for free. And maybe that's not the best system, but it is still astounding. And so, I went up 200 miles north of New York, where we have the Catskills reservoir system. Which is huge. And almost twice as big as Rhode Island. And it's just a mindboggling amount of water. And all these people who keep it safe, who sterilize it, who built the pipes, who--there are hundreds of scientists testing it millions of times a year.
Russ Roberts: Literally.
A. J. Jacobs: Literally. Millions. And, you know, there are people whose jobs are not fun. There's the--you know, a ranger who goes around picking up what is euphemistically called 'organic matter'--which is like, you know, deer poop and cow poop near the reservoir so it doesn't run into the reservoir. And it just made me realize that I give zero thought to these people when I turn on the tap. So, yeah. I guess that's where the chapter was on that government does provide services that can be important and good for you and that I take for granted.
Russ Roberts: And, of course, I totally agree with that. I'm not an anarchist. And I think the--the FDA, it's a mixed track record. They [?] from some things, and it's probably prevented us from having some things that would have been good for us, because it's overly cautious in my view. But, that's a legitimate discussion. I think some of those services could be provided by third parties more effectively. Not just cheaper--I don't care so much about cheaper. Cheaper is nice, but I really care about more effectively.
A. J. Jacobs: Mmmhmm--
Russ Roberts: But certainly the infrastructure--it's interesting. I often get this--I consider it a straw-man argument--that somehow I don't appreciate, as a free market person, the role of government. And of course, government is crucial for making many aspects of your cup of coffee or the pencil effective and powerful. Including the roads, including some safety regulations--some of which might not be necessary, but many of them are productive and effective. So, I don't have any problem with that. I don't think Milton Friedman did, either, or Leonard Read did--who wrote "I, Pencil." And we'll of course put a link up to "I, Pencil." It's on our site, on the Library of Economics and Liberty.
Russ Roberts: But I think the other point, that I think is--is sort of orthogonal to your book--and is not part of this debate over how much regulation and that reasonable people can disagree over--but, I think the other point that's in "I, Pencil" is this idea that you can't thank anybody for the system that provides your cup of coffee. So, for example, the example I like to use is, my wife likes coffee a lot more than I do. And she's a lot more discriminating. And you are probably similar, between--it sounds like you are between you and--
A. J. Jacobs: Right--
Russ Roberts: I'd hate to say you've come between you and my wife. But it appears to be the case.
A. J. Jacobs: I don't want to do that.
Russ Roberts: So, my wife is very serious about her coffee. So, when we are staying somewhere, on a vacation or a trip, she wants to have a good cup of coffee. And, of course, she can bring her own equipment if she needs to. If she has to. But generally she doesn't. For her, Starbucks is a minimum standard. Right? It's not what she prefers. But she will drink Starbucks, at least, thank goodness. Probably won't drink Duncan Donuts--just for the record. But, when you are in a major American city--even a minor American city, now--you can walk out of your hotel room and you will find a pretty good cup of coffee, sometimes a great cup of coffee, within a 10-minute walk. And usually it's a 2-minute walk. And that's--who do you thank for that? There's no one person. There's no--the whole system of competition which keeps Joe in line--your coffee shop. If Joe were the only coffee shop in New York, I don't think they'd be very good at it. That's my--that is what I think the contribution of "I, Pencil" is--to make you recognize that it's the--and it's in Hayek, as well, of course, that this incredible network of cooperation between the truck driver and the coffee bean roaster and the maker of the equipment for all those things--that, that network is held together by a set of prices and the freedom to shop where you want, that keeps things in line that no agency has to do--
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm--
Russ Roberts: No one deliberately has to do. And that's just--that's what makes me romanticize capitalism. Not--
A. J. Jacobs: Mmm--
Russ Roberts: I recognize there are things that go wrong. I recognize it needs government to work well. But that whole phenomenon for me is something else to be grateful for, without having anyone to thank, because no one's in charge of it.
A. J. Jacobs: I love that. Yeah. And, well, first of all, I think when the coffee professionals I talk to agree with your wife about Starbucks, they are not--they think it's too bitter. But I love what you said about that. And maybe I didn't give enough weight in my book to that part of "I, Pencil." Because, I do--I am, of course, as I say--I think capitalism is the best system humans have come up with. And it is astounding how all these things work together. And I do agree with Steven Pinker, who says capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty, even in the last 50 years. So, I certainly wouldn't want to replace it. And that is one thing that I also loved about "I, Pencil," is that he, again, endorses humility. Because, sort of the arrogance of saying, 'I know what, I know how to plan an economy. I know what people are going to want,' and 'I can do it all centrally.' That kind of arrogance has just led to disaster. So, I'm a fan of intellectual humility, and I guess systemic humility.
Russ Roberts: Of course, your book is, in many ways, a tribute to the power of specialization. Because, you have all these crazy jobs that you encountered where people are doing one thing. And, that's the nature of what the modern world is about, to some extent, right? It's this inability to do everything for yourself. This recognition that it's good to "rely on others." But in a different way than we normally think of it--
A. J. Jacobs: Mmmhmm--
Russ Roberts: through this decentralized system. And since we specialize--I'm the economist; you're the writer, and the dreamer, and the creative guy. So, I have this little piece without--you can accept it without shame, I think, that you didn't get every bit of economics into your book that I would have if I'd written it.
A. J. Jacobs: Agreed.
Russ Roberts: Because I would have missed a lot of things that you have.
A. J. Jacobs: Mmmhmm, hmm, hmm.
Russ Roberts: Did anything--is there an aftermath to this story for your family? You have, youngish children. Obviously, parents often try to inculcate gratitude into their kids. And, you started this conversation with a story from a dinner table conversation. I didn't notice it in the book--maybe I missed it--where your kid said you need to thank these people face to face. Has anything that you experienced and then shared with your family changed the way you treat them, parent them--your kids? Or their experience?
A. J. Jacobs: Well, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I think it's good for patience, which is something--my kids are 12 and 14. And you need a huge amount of patience. And try to--you know, there's a saying that, you should try it: for every criticism you have of your wife and kids, or spouse, partner, you should try to have 5 good things to say. Which is an incredibly high standard. I don't know if there's any science behind it. But I do like the message there. And, yeah. And I think it has sunk into my kids a little. I think, in general--and I was this way until just a few years ago--you know, we're very self-centered--so, trying to get them out of their own little minds and realize how connected. And I think it's sinking in. Not totally; but I think it's sinking in. I'm very proud of them. And one of my sons, when we were at my mom's house, he said 'Thank you, Grandma, for buying this sugar cereal,' and 'Thank you,' your parents, for having you. And thanking their parents for having them. And I love that he was sort of thinking about the chain. So, yes. It definitely has had an impact. I mean, I'm always wary to say--I have friends who write books on happiness or how to have the perfect family. And I'm like, 'How do you do that?' Because, the pressure--in your family, if your kids turn out terribly, like, there goes your career. So, I'm not going to boast that I am the perfect parent. But it has made me a better one.
Russ Roberts: Did you tell your children about your adventures, say, when you went to the coffee bean growers in Colombia--it was Colombia, right?
A. J. Jacobs: Yeah. Yeah. I went there.
Russ Roberts: Did you tell them those stories? Did you keep them up to date? Or do you just hope that they'll read your book?
A. J. Jacobs: Oh, no. I think they're not going to read it, because I told them everything. So, no. I did all the spoilers. But, yeah--I made sure, every adventure, I came home, and like--with the water, when I went to visit the people who--you know, my son has a tortoise, and he squirts the tortoise with water from our sink, and I say, 'You know, there are hundreds of people who made that water possible, so you and Sheldon--the tortoise--should be very grateful.' And, you know, they might roll their eyes. But, again, I do think it sinks in a little. I'm interested for Thanksgiving, because instead of going around and just--if you don't give specific instructions at Thanksgiving it's just like, 'I'm thankful for my family,' or 'I'm thankful for my Nintendo game system.' But I'm going to ask them to try to be as creative as possible in who they thank at Thanksgiving. You know, it could be the person who, you know, who invented the nitrogen fixation process so they could grow the cranberries so we can have cranberries on the table. They might not go with nitrogen fixation. But maybe I will. But I want them to be creative in thinking of who to thank. Because, that way it's not just automatic, not just rote.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been A.J. Jacobs. His book is Thanks a Thousand. A.J., thank you for being part of EconTalk.
A. J. Jacobs: Thank you, more than a thousand, Russ.