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

Feb 22, 2024

Explore AJ Jacobs' creative process to write four New York Times bestsellers, including how he brainstorms, researches, and writes his real-life quests.

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

Even though it appears a little over-dedicated to never clock out and never leave, hard work pays off -- in salary as well as authenticity and awards at red-carpet shows.

The writings of AJ Jacobs , successful author, speaker, as well as editor at Esquire Magazine, is not different.

AJ also takes his work as well as his jobextremely seriously.

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

The character of the book has paid dividends for AJ, too. He's been awarded the title New York Times Best Seller more than 4 times in the past.

We were fortunate to have the privilege of having a chat with AJ where he shared with us the process he used to come up with to write his acclaimed novels.

So, without further delay, let's dive in.

What happens when AJ comes up with book ideas

One of the ways AJ starts his process of brainstorming is by pulling ideas and inspiration directly from his own life.

It was what he thought of when he decided to choose the subject for his debut book The Knowledge-It All: One Man's Profound Quest to be the smartest person on the Planet .

The idea came from his father who loved reading and seeking knowledge. The father of AJ was trying to read his way through the family's encyclopedia collection and 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 -- his first novel idea came to life an idea AJ attributes to his dad.

"I think that was an example of connecting with your family members and the things around you as inspiration," the author says. "I would never have had the idea myself . . . This was something that my dad would do."

Another approach AJ thinks up new concepts (pun meant) is to think of numerous ideas as much as he can and then using the method of elimination.

For instance, when he came up with the idea of his book's sequel, He mulled over a variety of ideas that were ultimately dismissed.

"I came up with tons of books ideas which I can't recall them all, yet none of them worked," he divulges. "Either I didn't like them either through my publisher or myself or my wife put the kibosh on it, because it'd be too difficult."

Even after he landed upon the idea of his next book the Year of Biblical Living: A Man's Humble Quest for a Year to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible  that was to live a life which literally followed the bible for a year It was not easy for him to commit to this.

Due to the controversy of the topic, AJ had a difficult time deciding whether or not to go through with it.

"It's highly popular," he explains. "That was stressful and I was unsure of whether to go ahead and if I should."

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

It wasn't an easy option, ultimately, AJ's topic proved to resonate with his audience.

But, he kind of was aware of that, since AJ performs something that any creative person should be doing be doing, and often do.

The author validates the concept of his book before going all-in. To be sure, for AJ the way he validates his book concept is through speaking with anyone he can regarding his newest book concept.

"One way I approach it is to tell everyone I can about this idea," he explains. "I look in their eyes and see if they light up . . . It is my observation that they may ask additional questions, but there are times when they do not."

If their eyes don't "light up," AJ takes it as an opportunity for them to not explore the idea of a book.

To keep his creativity authentic, AJ changes the subject topic from book to which permits him to follow a same creative process throughout books.

"If you can take on projects that you can think of as completely distinct from the subject, that allows you a little more flexibility to follow the same experience," AJ coaches.

Speaking of his repeatable process, let's dive into the next stage of AJ's work of conducting studies.

What is the method by which AJ conducts his book research

AJ is able to conduct his book research by literally immersing himself in the subject. The author turns every book-writing session into a different personal pursuit and adjusts his life to focus entirely on researching and capturing his experience for his book.

As an example, when he wrote The Year of Living Biblically AJ kept his title's promise and committed to an entire year of living by the Bible as closely as can be.

In order to record his experiences throughout his quest, AJ keeps two journals One for his own personal life and one for his project research -which he continues today.

"I still keep notes of the events in my life and also what's happening directly in the project," 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 an excellent motive. The term he uses is "steelmanning," a way to present an opposing perspective that you disagree with -- superior to what the opposing side can.

"I like the concept of steelmanning because I think it makes this world a more beautiful place to live," the man thinks. "That's the way we can move forward."

And "move forward" He does this by creating several bestsellers. Take a deep dive into AJ's creation process.

The process of creating AJ's work

AJ loves the initial two parts of his creative process the most, which have already been covered the brainstorming process and researching.

"Coming to the idea it's among my favourite things," he pronounces. "Brainstorming . . . 100 books where 99 of them are bound to suck, but one will hopefully be a success."

"I enjoy researching topics," AJ continues as he reminisces on researching the most recent project, Thank A Thousand: A Gratitude Travel . "Interviewing the creator of a coffee lid and going to Colombia, South America to visit the farmers. This was fantastic."

The final stage of the creative process -- the writing itself -- is his least favorite due to its isolation and with a delayed audience reaction. "A large portion of it is just . . . The feeling of being on your own and not receiving immediate feedback," AJ reflects.

"When I speak in public, I simply enjoy . . . being able to see in people's eyes, or in their laughter in their faces that they're engaged," the author says. "And with a book you're writing that's not gonna come out for a year, I find it extremely frustrating."

In addition to the frustration In some cases, the process of writing a book gets derailed simply because of the nature of the topic, as it did with his book, It's All Relative: Journeys in and Down the Family Tree of the World .

"Partly, that book took so long to write because it dealt with this campaign to establish a world family tree which would link everyone on Earth in one big family tree," AJ explains. "So, you, me, Barack Obama, Nicolas Cage, everyone."

When it comes to shaping his book, AJ starts writing with an overall idea of his future direction however generally, his writing is largely made up.

"When I write, I have an outline that sort of hints at what I'm planning to write in," he shares. "But much of it is just improv. When I'm writing, my eyes wander off on little roads, but I try to figure out exactly where I'm going."

Prior to presenting his final product, there's one major process left to cover that is editing.

Although it's an enormous task to tackle however, the process of editing AJ's is straightforward. In editing, he asks his friends for feedback and then uses the sum of their replies as a signal about where to edit.

"I'll forward it to 10 friends, and I'll ask: What components do you think are the amusing, and which areas do you think are the most boring?'" AJ divulges. "I'll use the median of those, then cut off the dull parts and make sure to keep the parts that you find interesting."

Looks simple enough just like his outlook on hard work and luck.

How AJ views the importance of hard work and the luck of the draw

If you want to be successful, AJ says that "hard perseverance and hard work are required."

"You will not achieve success without these," he warns. "But they are not sufficient."

AJ believes you also need luck in order to complement your hard work, which is something he (luckily) had the moment his most recent novel was released.

"You are also dependent on luck and I do believe that . . . the same week that my first bestseller hit the shelves it was possible that there were fifty other books out that were as good and maybe even better than mine," he admits.

"But I did get breaks" AJ gives credit. "I got the person responsible for publicity at the publisher. I had a connection with the man who books "Good Morning America and I joined that. I think you need both."

That's not all the tips AJ gives our readers in the present. The author has a few additional advice to spread.

The advice of AJ's fellow creators

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

Why? There are a few motives. First, it helps you from being stuck in a mind.

"The more experimental you are more adventurous, the better" AJ advises. "I think we have a tendency to do it the same, and that is why we create these . . . neural ruts, neural pathways which make us think similar ways."

This will provide you with an array of choices in life, and, ultimately, bring you more joy.

"The more that you are able to experiment -- even if it's an insignificant thing that you do within your daily routine, like making a change to your toothpaste or working a different way -- the more beneficial it will be for creativity and for happiness," AJ urges.

If AJ didn't have heeded the advice of his mentor, he might not have written such amazing imaginative works and quests -- in written form.

That, and I believe we can all agree, is a shame.