A.J. Jacobs, The Know it All or My Life as Experiment


A.J. Jacobs is the author of The Know it All, The Year of Living Biblically and The Guinea Pig Diaries.

There is, he begins, no such thing as useless knowledge. "This festival is all about curiosity, my absolute favorite subject!"

After college, feeling that his IQ was dropping precipitously, he began to read the 13,000 pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for among other reasons, to remove a stain on the family honor - his dad had long ago attempted the same feat, but only made it to "Boomarang."

It, sadly, has had consequences.

The fact that the Possum has 13 nipples and Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women have been lodged in his head ever since.

Following the experience of reading the entire encyclopedia, and wanting to know more about religious thinking, he gather "a board of spiritual advisors" to help him understand the task. And eventually, he learned how not to "shave the corners of his beard," or wear clothing of mixed fiber. Saying that he's "Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian," many of the rules to his surprise took on significance by practicing them.

Particularly the rules about stoning adulterers, for which he carried some small pebbles in his pocket for months.

His year changed him in ways that he could never have predicted. For example, taking the commandment to say prayers of gratitude every day, he found that he eventually became more grateful, to focus on the hundreds of things that go right every day rather than the three or four that don't. '

Lesson: one great way to improve your life is to experiment a little bit. Take a different route to work to overcome the "exposure effect," which corrodes. Trying new things can transform the mundane as well.

The Guinea Pig Diaries is a collection of life experiments. He for example, hired a team in Bangalore, India to do everything from making appointments to arguing with his wife. It was the best month of his life.

Trying radical honesty, however, was much less successful, particularly on the occasion of dinner with his wife's long lost and slightly chubby friends, who left soon after the appetizers. Blurting out "I'm boored" also carried consequences he found.

But in a demonstration that the practice had had an effect, he said that since his experiment he had learned to be much more honest with himself, particularly his vow to respond to every command from his wife. He humbly learned just how much work he wasn't doing around the home.

To demonstrate his point that there is no useless knowledge, he asks the audience whether they'd like to hear about multi-tasking or George Washington. Ignoring the clear response of "multi-tasking," he slyly proceeds to talk about our first president.

In Q&A he said that one can experiment in little ways, like the woman who gave up being annoyed at other people for Lent. She put stickies everywhere that read "it's Lent!" which has helped her to be a little less annoyed the remainder of the year.

His next radical self-improvement project will be do a body make-over to become the "healthiest person alive".