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A.J. Jacobs: Practicing Radical Gratitude

Few people recognize the value of a thank you note more than A.J. Jacobs. The author and journalist embarked on a quest to thank everyone involved in making his daily cup of coffee, and found that this simple gesture of gratitude had a powerful impact on his relationship to the world and his own attitude. In this talk, he explores how shifting our focus to gratitude and appreciation can be awkward and vulnerable, but ultimately deeply rewarding.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 21, 2020.

A.J. Jacobs, Author, Thanks a Thousand

A.J. Jacobs is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Know-It-All, Drop Dead Healthy, and The Year of Living Biblically. He has given four TED talks that have total views of more than seven million. He is a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, and writes for The New York Times and Esquire magazine, among others. His most recent book is Thanks a Thousand, in which he travels the globe to personally thank everyone who played a role in his morning cup of coffee, from the barista to the farmer to the logo designer to the truck driver. He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.

Full Transcript

Hello, thank you for coming, and thank you to 99U for having me. I thought I would start out with a little bit about human nature. As psychologists will tell you, humans are born with two sides to their personality. There’s the Larry David side and the Mr. Rogers side. That is the latest scientific taxonomy.

Now, the Larry David side, of course, is the pessimistic and negative side, and the Mr. Rogers side is the hopeful and grateful side. Just so happens, I was born with a very strong Larry David side and a tiny, puny, weakling Mr. Rogers side. I would hear a hundred compliments and a single insult, and what do I remember? The insult. But it’s not just me. Researches will tell you that humans, we’re wired to remember the negative news. It’s call the negative bias, and it was very useful at one time. When we were cave people on the savannah, you wanted to remember that one poisonous mushroom, your life depended on it. But we don’t live on the savannah anymore, but we’re stuck with this negative bias, and it warps our reality, it is a major cause of anxiety and depression. We are so good, we are masters of noticing whatever goes wrong. But we take for granted the hundreds of things that go right.

So my latest project was to try to bulk up my Mr. Rogers side, and turn down the volume on my Larry David side because Larry David, I like his show, very entertaining, but it’s not fun to live in his mindset. The most powerful strategy to battle the negative bias is to notice, to really notice the hundreds of things that go right every day. And it’s hard, it’s a discipline, it takes practice, and it’s even harder now. We’re in a very stressful time, coronavirus, faltering economy. It’s blaringly obvious what’s going wrong.

But for our sanity, it’s so important to acknowledge the hundreds of things that are going right, even now, even today. And I find it helpful to remind myself, sometimes in the morning, I’ll even say it out loud. I’ll talk to myself like a crazy person. The electricity is working, I’ll remind myself the internet, it’s glitchy but it’s there. I have enough food and water to sustain me. This morning, I had for breakfast, I had some hummus, some chocolate hummus, which I know sounds totally gross like pineapple pizza, but it’s surprisingly good, give it a shot. So acknowledging these things allows me to maintain my sanity and to be creative, because I can’t be creative when I’m in a fetal position on the floor.

I recently wrote a book about the importance of gratitude, and it actually started several years ago when I wrote another book. That book was called, “The Year of Living Biblically.” And “The Year of Living Biblically” was about the year I tried to follow all of the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. And this came about because I grew up in a very secular home. As I say in the book, I’m Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian, so not very. But I had a son, I wanted to know what to teach him about our heritage, so I thought one way to learn about the Bible would be to live it, to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. So I decided to get a board of spiritual advisors. I had rabbis, and ministers, and priests, and I bought a stack of Bibles, and I wrote down every single rule that I could find.

This turned out to be a very long list, over 700 rules, and I wanted to follow ’em all. The famous ones, the Bible says that the Ten Commandments, love your neighbor, but I also wanted to follow the less-famous rules. The Bible says you cannot shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were, so I just let the whole thing grow. And by the end, I had this massive topiary hanging from my chin. I can say this truly, I spent a lot of time at airport security. I also, the Bible says that you should stone adulterers, so I thought I should at least try, and I’ll tell you, quickly, I was able to stone one adulterer.

It was in Central Park in New York where I live, and I was really getting into the project, so I had my sandals and my robe, and a man came up to me and said, “What’s going on? “Why do you look like that?” And I explained, “Well, I’m trying to follow “all the rules of the Bible “from the Ten Commandments to stoning adulterers.” And he says, “I’m an adulterer, are you gonna stone me?” And I said, “That would be wonderful, “thank you for the opportunity.” And I took out a handful of stones that, I had been carrying around stones hoping to run into an adulterer. So this was perfect, and I showed ’em to him. And they were very small, they were pebble sized ’cause I didn’t wanna go to jail for life. And he was a very aggressive adulterer. He grabbed the stones out of my hand and threw them at my face. So I figured an eye for an eye, also in the Bible, so I threw one back at him. That’s how I checked that off my list.

Now, at the end of the year, I shaved my beard, I put down the stones. But I took away many, many lessons from my year of living Biblically. And perhaps the biggest one was the idea of gratitude, the Bible says that you need to be grateful. And I found that such a powerful idea. And incidentally, it’s not just in the bible. Science talks about how crucial gratitude is for our mental health and our physical health, and the research is really overwhelming. Gratitude helps you with depression, it helps you fight off illness. When hospital patients after surgery kept a gratitude journal, they recovered more quickly. Gratitude helps with sleeping. Grateful people tend to be more generous. And if you’re looking at gratitude just from a purely business perspective, it’s also good. Handwritten notes, one study said, doubled the retention of clients.

There was a Wharton study which I thought was interesting. They said writing a thank you note when you are trying to get an interview for a job increases your chances. Even the way you phrase it, when people wrote, “I’m really grateful,” instead of just the regular thank you, they got a higher call back. Which I think is fascinating because it shows just a little wording, just putting in a little bit of thought can make a big difference.

So knowing all this, I wanted to have a gratitude ritual in my life. A few years ago, I stared to say this little recitation before dinner. I would say, “I wanna thank the farmer “for growing these tomatoes, “and I wanna thank the cashier “for selling me these tomatoes.” And one day, my son who was 10 at the time said, “You know Dad, that’s fine, “but it also kind of lame “because those people aren’t here, they can’t hear you. “If you really cared, you would thank them in person.” And I said to myself, “That’s an interesting idea. “And that actually could be a good book.” So he earned his supper that night, and I took him up on his challenge. And to make it even simpler I thought, “I’ll just focus on one thing that I “can’t live without, my morning cup of coffee “from this coffee shop in New York where I live.”

Well, it turned out to be not so simple at all. The quest took me months, I had to travel around the world because I had discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people that I totally took for granted. So for instance, I’d thank the trucker for driving the coffee beans to the store. But he couldn’t have done his job without the road, so I had to thank the people who paved the road. But I also had to thank the folks who painted the yellow lines in the road so that he didn’t go into oncoming traffic. I came to realize my coffee, like every other product, everything else in our lives, requires an army of people. Biologists, engineers, designers, architects, miners, goat herders, you name it. I called my project “Thanks A Thousand” because I ended up thanking more than 1,000 people. And it was a major pain in the ass, but it was also life transforming.

And I think about it all the time now even more because of this crisis. During this crisis, it’s become so clear how much goes into our supply chain. All the people working to get us food and water. The people who are risking their lives so I can still live a relatively comfortable life. I wanna tell you about five lessons I learned from my gratitude journey. Number one, look up. I started my trail of gratitude at my coffee shop, Joe Coffee, by thanking the barista. And her name is Chung, and Chung is perhaps the single most upbeat person I’ve ever met in my life. Big smiler, big hugger, but even for Chung being a barista is hard. This is because baristas encounter people in a very dangerous state, pre-caffeination. Chung has had people yell at her until she cried, including an eight year old girl, so I thanked Chung and she thanked me for thanking her. I considered thanking her for thanking me for thanking her, but I got worried that would be an infinite loop. Chung told me that the worst part of her day is that when people don’t even treat her like a human being, they treat her like a vending machine. They just stick out their credit card and don’t look her in the eyes, they’re looking at their phone. And as she’s saying this, I’m realizing I’m one of those people. I’ve done that a thousand times, I am an a-hole.

So I pledged that when dealing with other people, I would take the two seconds and look people in the eye. Just two seconds, I’m not expecting a Nobel prize, though will take one if offered, but those two seconds are so important because they remind me I’m interacting with a human being. Someone who has a family, who has memories, who have aching feet, has embarrassing high school stories, and that small amount of connection is so crucial to both of our sanity and happiness. And it’s interesting because this crisis has made that more clear than ever. I consider myself a bit of an introvert, so it’s not my natural state to interact with strangers. But even I have seen that not looking people, other people in the eyes during this crisis, not being allowed to interact with humans is taking a real toll. By the way, I learned another important reason to be nice to baristas, and that is, Chung would never do this by the way, she’s too nice, but if you are rude to them, sometimes they will give you decaf. They will secretly give you decaf so be careful.

Lesson number two, fake it till you feel it. Every day I would reach out to people who had even the slightest role in making my cup of coffee. So I would thank the roaster in Brooklyn who roasted the coffee, or the health inspector who made sure that my coffee didn’t poison me. And some I visited in person, some I thanked over the phone or I emailed, and I got a range of reactions. Some people quite honestly were like, “What’s going on? “Is this a pyramid scheme? “What are you trying to sell me?”, very suspicious. But the vast majority were actually surprisingly moved. I remember I called this woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee beans are stored, and I said, “I know this kind of sounds weird, “but I just wanna thank you “for keeping the insects out of my coffee.” And she said, “Well, that does sound weird, “but thank you, I don’t get a lot of acknowledgement.” And it was sort of like an anti-crank phone call, and it didn’t just make her feel good, it had an effect on me. I would start my day with my default mood of grumpiness, and I would force myself to spend an hour, two, writing thank you notes.

And I found that if you act as if you’re grateful, you eventually become grateful for real. Your mind catches up with your behavior. So often our actions shape our thoughts, not the other way around. There’s a quote that I love from the founder of Habitat For Humanity. He said, “It’s easier to act your way “into a new way of thinking than to think your way “into a new way of acting.” So that works with gratitude, with optimism. As part of marketing this book, I actually agreed to write a thousand hand-written thank you notes to readers. And again, a major pain in the butt, but wonderful as well. And I got to know the readers, they would make special requests. One said, “Can you draw a dog eating a taco?” I’m not a great drawer, but sure. Just writing these notes put me in a good mood. And actually from a marketing standpoint, I got to thank readers, and then they would tweet about the postcards that I sent them, so it helped me as well.

Number three, next lesson. Fight the negative bias with savoring. Savoring is really focusing in on stretching out one moment. And I got a nice lesson in savoring from this man. This is Ed Kaufmann, and he is the one who buys the coffee beans for the shop that I go to. So he goes around the world to Africa, South America, and he tastes all the coffee and chooses which one is gonna go in my cup. And it is actually quite a ritual watching him taste coffee ’cause he’ll take a spoon, and dip it in the coffee, and then you have to take a big slurp, really loud. This is because, he explains, there are taste buds all over your mouth, in your cheeks, in the roof of your mouth, and you gotta get ’em all.

So Ed would do this, and his face would light up, and he would spout all these adjectives like, “This coffee tastes of notes of maple syrup and pineapple.” And I would take a sip and I’d be like, “I’m picking up coffee, this tastes like coffee to me.” But inspired by Ed, I decided, you know what? I’m just gonna pay attention to the tastes, so leave the coffee on my tongue for just a few seconds and really notice the acidity, and the sweetness, and the texture. And this sense of savoring is at the heart of gratitude because it allows you to take a moment and stretch it out, so that your life doesn’t pass by all in a blur.

And it is very relevant to this current crisis because when it ends, I think this will… It’s a terrible, terrible situation, but one of the small silver linings is that we will really be able to savor what we took for granted before. I mean I cannot wait to go to barber shop, and I never looked forward to going to a barber shop, but it’s gonna make it quite clear that what we took for granted is really quite special. Lesson number four, discover the hidden masterpieces all around you. One of my favorite conversations from this project was with this man, Doug Fleming. He is the designer of the coffee cup lid on my cup.

Before this project, I had given exactly zero thought to coffee cup lids. But when I talked to Doug Fleming, he got got me on the phone for two hour– He could have talked all day, he was so passionate, so creative about this little do-dad and all the thought that went into it. And he’s very innovative, he’s like the Elon Musk of coffee lids. Hopefully a little more stable, but he talked about how important a lid is because if it’s bad, it blocks the aroma. So he made the hole bigger, he has a little section, a little hexagonal section that you can really get your nose into so you can get maximum aroma. I loved it because it showed that if something is done well, the process behind it is invisible.

But if you pay attention, if you really notice these things, then it taps into your sense of wonder and increases your life immeasurably. By the way, I thanked the inventor of the cardboard sleeve around the coffee which I learned a new word, zarf. That’s the official name for the cardboard sleeve, Z-A-R-F. It’s an ancient Arabic word because they used to make zarfs out of gold. All right, so final lesson is the importance of six degrees of gratitude. Because every stop on this gratitude trail gave birth to a hundred other places that I could thank.

So I flew to Columbia to the small mountain town in South America where the beans are grown, and it was an amazing trip. It was this family farm, eight brothers, one sister. They’re paid above fair trade prices, and they showed me how the coffee beans are grown. They are grown in these red berries called coffee cherries. They had be put on a bucket and pick some of ’em. I actually was not very good at it because you have to get the right color, but I thanked them for growing the beans that make my coffee every morning. And they said that they couldn’t do their job without a hundred other people. So the machine that takes the fruit off of the bean, that’s made in Brazil. And the pickup truck they used to drive around the farm, that has parts from all over the world including steel from the United States.

So I went to Indiana and thanked the steel workers, and it made me realize it doesn’t just take a village to make a cup of coffee, it takes the world to make a cup of coffee. During this COVID crisis, I’m sort of doing a sequel to the Thousand Thanks, and I’m trying to thank, every day I write a few thank you notes to people who have helped keep society from totally collapsing. Grocery workers, FedEx employees, people who make the boxes for FedEx.

I was sent this chart by a friend of mine which I love. It says, who society thinks works at hospitals, doctors and nurses. Who really works at hospitals? Clinical lab technicians, radiology technicians, Admissions staff, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, on, and on, and on, and doctors and nurses. I’m so grateful for how Project Gratitude has changed my worldview, and I’ve become an evangelist. I try to encourage my friends to follow their own gratitude trails.

And it doesn’t have to be coffee, it could be a pair of socks or a light bulb. And you don’t have to travel the world, you can just send a note to a designer of a logo you love or look a cashier in the eyes. It’s really, it’s a mindset, and it’s about refusing to take things for granted. It’s about realizing that someone made the fabric in the chair you’re sitting on. Someone went into a mine in Chile and got the copper that makes this camera work so that I can talk to you and thank you for listening to my story.

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