AJ Jacobs: A Thankful Interview

Here on Thanksgiving we celebrate everyone we know and all the things to be grateful. A.J. Jacobs went on a journey to tell people why he appreciated the cup of coffee he was drinking. It started as a way to tell someone thanks and it turned into a global journey of adventuring through the life of how coffee is made.

Who are you and what do you do? 

AJ Jacobs Photo credit: Lem Lattimer

AJ Jacobs Photo credit: Lem Lattimer

My name is A.J. Jacobs and I like to try things out, then write about them. I lived by the rules of the Bible as literally as possible for a year, and wrote a book about that. I tried to be the healthiest person in the world and wrote a book about that. And for my new book, I tried to thank every single person who had even the smallest role in making my morning cup of coffee and wrote about that.

How did you come up with the idea for the book? 

It started a couple of years ago. I’d read about all the many health benefits of gratitude – both mental and physical health – so I decided to say a prayer of thanksgiving before meals. But the problem is, I’m not religious. So instead of thanking God, I would thanks some of the people involved in my meal. I’d say, “I’d like to thank the tomato farmer, and the cashier at the grocery store who sold me the tomato.” And one day, my 10-year-old son said, “You know, dad, those people can’t hear you. If you really cared, you’d go thank them in person.” And I thought, that’s a great idea. That would make a lovely book. So that sparked the journey.


Where is the craziest place you traveled to in order to get your answers for the book? 

I flew to Colombia to thank the farmers who grew my beans. It was in a small mountain town, and to get there, I was driven along these curvy cliffside roads. I remember the driver kept doing the sign of the cross when we went around the hairpin turns. I was like, “Thank you for that, but could you maybe keep both hands on the wheel…because I’m terrified!” The farmers – a family of eight brothers and one sister – were great. And they thanked a bunch of other folks for making their job possible – like the people who made pickup truck they use, and the machine that mashes the coffee berries.


Any amazing stories to share while getting research for the book? 

The most amazing part to me is just how many hundreds of people it takes to make your cup of coffee – or any item in your life, really. The farmer, the packager, the logo designer, the inspector, the roaster. I embraced the idea of six degrees of gratitude. So I thanked the trucker who drove the coffee beans to my local café. But he couldn’t have done his job without the road, so I thanked the folks who paved the road. And then I thanked the folks who painted the yellow lines in the road so my coffee truck didn’t veer into oncoming traffic. We are all interconnected.


Why do you think it's important to have gratitude for everyone in the process of making a cup of coffee? 

Studies show that we underestimate how meaningful it is to people to receive thanks. I saw this myself. I mean, sometimes it was awkward, but in the end, it was a rewarding experience. I remember calling the woman who does pest control for 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.” She said, “That does sound strange. But thank YOU! We rarely get appreciated. You just made my day.” And that made my day. It was like an anti-crank phone call. I felt like I was doing penance for the obnoxious crank phone calls I made in high school.


What is your favorite kind of coffee? 


There’s a coffee from Colombia that my taster friend calls “Willy Wonka coffee,” because it’s like the Everlasting Gobstopper – just a series of waves of flavor after flavor. I’m not sophisticated enough to distinguish all the flavors, but I catch some of them. Plus I love Willy Wonka. The farm is called Colombia Manatiales del Frontino.

What does gratitude mean to you?

I think it’s one of the keys to a well-lived life. There’s a quote from a Benedictine monk that I love: “Happiness doesn’t lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.”

How did you get involved with TED Books? 

The editor of TED Books – Michelle Quint – asked me if I had any ideas for a TED book. I sent her five ideas, and she chose this one. For which, of course, I’m deeply grateful.

Why do you think this book is culturally relevant in today's world?

I’m disturbed by the trend toward tribalism and isolationism and extreme nationalism. I think my journey shows that globalism certainly does have downsides, but the upsides are much greater. It doesn’t just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.

If you had to pick a job from any of the jobs and people you interviewed what would you do in the coffee industry?

I spent a lot of time with the man who chooses what coffee beans my café serves. He flies around the world sampling the best coffees. He taught me how to taste coffee properly. Or tried. He’ll take a sip, and say things like “I detect notes of overripe honeycrisp apple and maple syrup.” And I’d take a sip and say, “I’m detecting…coffee. It tastes like coffee.” But with his help, I eventually began to distinguish the fruitiness and acidity and texture. And it really enhanced my coffee – not to mention other foods.


Fun Questions

If you were stuck on an abandoned island what five items would you want with you?

I only need two: A laptop and a high-speed router so I could get internet. I think I could sell a book to my publisher “My Year of Living on An Abandoned Island.” If Amazon Prime delivers to this island, all the better.

If you could travel to any time period where would you go? 

I would go back to the early 1930s in Queens and stop Fred Trump from meeting Mary Anne MacLeod at a party.

If you had to pick only one kind of coffee to drink what would you choose?

I have to be loyal and say I’d drink the coffee from Joe Coffee, which is my local café. Though I’d add almond milk, which would disappoint my more expert friends. Anything added on top of ground beans and water pollutes the purity of the coffee.

What is your favorite holiday? 

My wife throws an epic Academy Awards party every year. So maybe I’d choose that. She encourages people to dress up like their favorite movie. She sometimes lets me take the easy way out – I remember a few years ago I dressed as the Michael Caine movie “The Quiet American.” I just wore my normal clothes and didn’t say much.


If you could have a super power what would it be ?

I love listening to audiobooks on doublespeed. It allows me to ingest so many more books. But imagine if I had the super power to listen to books on quadruple or quintuple speed and still understand them! Think of how much I could learn! I also believe this would make a great Marvel movie: Listens-to-audiobooks-super-quickly-Man. Channing Tatum to star. Please option this now.

Where to find AJ Jacobs

Author of the upcoming book "Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey" in which I thank every single person who had a role (however small) in making my morning cup of coffee possible. 

ajjacobs.com  * @ajjacobs