I Made It: AJ Jacobs' creative process to create bestseller books

Feb 22, 2024

Discover AJ Jacobs' creative process in releasing the four New York Times bestsellers, including how he brainstorms, researches, and writes his own real-life adventures.

There's a healthy list of actors who are trained to stay at the same level on and off-camera during filming.

Although it may seem a little too devoted to not clocking out, the hard work pays off in terms of pay real, authentic, and the awards that are presented at shows for red carpets.

The efforts that is done by AJ Jacobs , successful author, speaker, as well as editor at Esquire Magazine, is no different.

AJ is also a man who takes his job as well as his jobhighly seriously.

For each of his six published books, AJ assumed the role of his subject matter and took on a real-life quest as he wrote his books.

Being a character has been rewarded for AJ and his fans, too. The actor has been named a New York Times Best Seller more than five times since his debut.

We were fortunate to have the privilege of sitting down with AJ who shared with us the process he used to come up with in writing his famous books.

So, without further delay Let's get started.

What happens when AJ thinks up book concepts

The first way AJ goes into his brainstorming process is by drawing inspiration and ideas directly from his own life.

It was how he came up with the subject for his debut book, The Know-It-All Book: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person on the Planet .

The concept came from his dad who always was a reader and a seeker of knowledge. AJ's dad tried to read his way through the family's Encyclopedia collection, and he reached at the center of letter B. AJ decided to "finish the work he started and eliminate that steam from our family history."

And voila was born his first novel idea came to life an idea AJ credits his father for.

"I consider that to be the perfect example of using your family members and the things around you as inspiration," He explains. "I would never have considered that concept by myself . . . It was really something my father did."

Another method AJ thinks up new concepts (pun intended) is to come up with numerous ideas as much as is possible, and then employing the method of elimination.

In the case of his first book, for instance, as He came up with the idea for his second book, the author sat down and brainstormed ideas that were ultimately eliminated.

"I had a lot of book ideas, and I don't even remember them, but none of them worked," he divulges. "Either I rejected them either through my publisher or myself or my wife put the kibosh on it because it would be too difficult."

He was still deciding on the notion of his second book, The Year of Living Biblically: A Man's Humble Struggle to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible  that was to live a life which literally followed the bible for a year but it was difficult committing to this.

Due to the controversy of the issue, AJ had a difficult decision to make to pursue the issue.

"It's highly controversial," he explains. "That was stressful and I wasn't sure if to take it on to do it or not."

AJ was thinking to himself "Do I really need to make this decision? I could get flak from both sides. Nobody will be thrilled in the event that you combine the two."

While it wasn't an easy choice, in the end it was AJ's choice to be one that resonated with his viewers.

He kind of realized that by now, as AJ is doing something every creative person should be doing frequently do.

The author validates the concept of his book before committing to the whole thing. For AJ the way he validates his book concept is by speaking to the most people he can on his newest novel idea.

"One way I approach it is to tell as many people as possible about the concept," he explains. "I examine the eyes of my audience and observe if they light up . . . I see if they ask follow-up questions because there are times when they don't."

If their eyes do not "light up" AJ takes it as an opportunity not to not pursue the book idea.

To keep his creativity authentic, AJ changes the subject matter from book to book which allows him to repeat a same creative process throughout books.

"If you're able to tackle projects creatively that are completely other than the topic, this gives you more freedom to have the same process." AJ coaches.

When we think of the repeatable procedure Let's take a look at the next step AJ is taking: doing studies.

How AJ does his research for the book

AJ does his research for the book through a complete immersion into the subject. Each book writing session is transformed into a fresh personal journey and alters his routine to concentrate on research and documenting his experiences for his book.

In the case of The Year of Living Biblically, AJ did not break his pledge and decided to commit to a full year of following the Bible in every way can be.

Then, to log the events of his research, AJ keeps two journals One for his own personal journal and the other for his project research -- a process that he continues today.

"I always keep track of what's happening in my life and also how it's affecting the project research," he shares.

Although it might seem a bit overwhelming taking on all of his role in his research for the book, AJ does it for the right motive. He calls it "steelmanning," a way to give a viewpoint -- the one you disagree with -- better than the other side could.

"I like the concept of steelmanning as I believe it makes this world a more beautiful place," the man thinks. "That's the best way to progress."

and "move ahead" he does by making multiple bestselling works. Take a deep dive into AJ's creativity procedure.

The creative process of AJ

AJ is a fan of the two primary aspects of his process the most, which we've already covered such as brainstorming and study.

"Coming up with the ideas it's among my favourite things," he pronounces. "Brainstorming . . . 100 books where 99 of the ideas are likely be a disaster, however the one that is likely to be good."

"I enjoy researching topics," AJ continues as the author reflects on his research for the most recent project, Thank A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey . "Interviewing the person who designed the lid for a coffee cup and traveling on a trip to Colombia, South America to meet farmers. That was awesome."

The final stage of the process of creation -- the actual writing process -which is the least preferred since it is a lonely process and also comes with a delayed audience reaction. "A large portion of it is simply . . . Being alone, and not receiving feedback right away," AJ reflects.

"When I talk in public, I simply am in love . . . being able to see in people's eyes and laugh that they are interested," he says. "And when you're working on that's not going to release for more than a year, it's very frustrating."

To add to that the stress In some cases, the process of writing a book is slowed down due to the nature of the topic like it was with his book, It's All Relative: A Journey up and Down the World's Family Tree .

"Partly it was so lengthy because it dealt with this campaign to establish a world family tree that will connect all people on Earth to one family tree." AJ explains. "So, you, me, Barack Obama, Nicolas Cage, everyone."

In terms of creating his story, AJ starts writing with an overall idea of where he's headed However, for the most part his style of writing is improvised.

"When I write, I have a plan that kind of tells me what I'm planning to write with," he shares. "But much of it is just improv. When I'm writing, my eyes wander off on little side trails, but I always try to find out where I end up."

When a writer presents the final work, there's a major procedure to be covered that is editing.

Though it's an overwhelming task to tackle the editing procedure of AJ is simple. In editing, he asks his friends for feedback and then uses the sum of their replies as a signal on where to make edits.

"I'll send it to 10 of my friends. I'll ask, 'Which parts do you find most interesting, and which areas do you think are the most boring?'" AJ divulges. "I'll use the median of those, then cut out the boring parts, as well as make sure that I save the parts that you find interesting."

It seems simple enough, exactly like his view about luck and hard work.

How AJ considers the importance of hard work as well as luck

When it comes to success, AJ says that "hard effort and perseverance are essential."

"You won't achieve success without these," he warns. "But they're not enough."

AJ believes you also need luck in order in addition to your hard work, which is something he (luckily) was blessed with in his latest book came out.

"You must also have luck and I believe in that . . . in the same week my first bestseller hit the shelves, there were probably fifty other books out, which were just as great, if not better than mine." he admits.

"But I was able to get some breaks," AJ gives credit. "I met the person who was who was in charge of publicity for the publishing house. I knew the person who runs Good Morning America and I joined that. You need both, I believe."

And that's not all the advice AJ has for us this day. He has some more words of wisdom to share.

AJ's advice for fellow creators

AJ gives us pearls of wisdom, which contain a theme that is encapsulated in these two words: be experimental.

Why? A few reasons. First, you get from being stuck in a mind.

"The more experimental you are and the more you experiment, the better" AJ advises. "I think we have a tendency to do exactly the same thing, then we carve the . . . neural paths, neural ruts that make us think in exactly the same way."

Which will give you greater variety in your life and eventually bring you more joy.

"The more that you are able to experiment -- even if it's a tiny thing that you do, such as testing a new toothpaste, or working in in a new way, the better it is to be creative and also for joy," AJ urges.

If AJ didn't have heeded the advice of his mentor, he would not be able to write such brilliant imaginative works and research -- in writing.

And that, I think we can all agree, would've been a shame.