Bestselling author and funny man A.J. Jacobs waxes poetic about dadhood, stuffing your feelings, and the strangely calming picture of a skull on his computer desktop.
A.J. Jacobs is an annoyingly successful man. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers (The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries), all of which we’ve read—and all of which we wish we would have thought of first. When he’s not writing funny books about reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica or trying to follow all the rules in the Bible, he’s an editor-at-large for Esquire, the iconic men’s magazine featuring terrific writing and cluttered, unreadable covers. He lives in New York with his wife and sons. He graciously agreed to answer our questions. He is a good man.
1) Who taught you about manhood?
My dad. He taught me you don’t have to be an A-hole to be successful.
2) Has romantic love shaped you as a man?
Yes. But to be more accurate, lack of romantic love shaped me as a man. I went through an epic dry spell in high school. Which, thank God, eventually came to an end in college. That taught me the notion that this too shall pass. Have patience. Nothing lasts forever, not even sexual starvation.
3) What two words describe your dad?
Eccentric and honest. He’s definitely eccentric—to give you one example, he’s very proud of his world record for the most number of footnotes in a law review article. It was his Mt. Everest: 4,281. But more impressive to me, is that he’s honest. To the extreme. Whenever we’re on a road trip, he refuses to pull over at any old Holiday Inn or McDonald’s to use the bathroom. Not unless we buy something. Otherwise, he says, we’d be stealing their soap and paper towels. So our bladders may be fuller, but our conscience is spotless.
4) How are you most unlike him?
He’s a much better negotiator than I am. He has the patience, discipline, and cojones to hold out for what he wants. That’s one thing I’m missing as a man, the negotiator gene. I wish I had it, but I say yes too quickly. I’m like Esau in the Bible. You want my birthright for a bowl of lentils? Sounds like a sweet deal! Where do I sign?
5) From which of your mistakes did you learn the most?
I’ve made a ton of mistakes. But the biggest mistake has been worrying about the mistakes I’d already made. Such a waste of mental energy. I once wrote an article for a magazine about a Harry Potter movie. And after it had gone to press, I realized I had gotten a fact wrong—I think the size of the budget. I threw away days of my life obsessing over my mistake. Which, as it turned out, no one noticed or complained about. Worrying is a bad addiction.
6) Who is the best dad you know, and how does he earn that distinction?
My dad’s up there. I remember, when I was a kid, a client was pressuring him to skip our family beach trip and stay in New York to work. His biggest client, I think. He flat out said no. That always stuck with me. Also, the Nobel committee should give some recognition to dads who actually listen to their kids. My friend Paul can listen to his 4-year-old son talk about painfully obscure Pokemon characters, and make it seem like he’s as riveted as if he were learning the secret to immortal life.
7) Have you been more successful in public or private life?
It all depends on your definition of success. I will say, I’ve come to value my family time a lot more. When politicians say ‘I’m leaving to spend more time with my family,’ I always used to assume they were lying weasels. Now I give them the benefit of the doubt.
8 ) When was the last time you cried?
I’m pretty good at repressing my emotions. Actually, I’m kind of in favor of repression. It gets a bad rap. But back to the question. It was probably at my neice’s bat mitzvah. It was at this suburban Jersey country club, and I was dancing with my 3-year-old son. I was carrying him, and he had his head pressed against my shoulder, and I felt such gratitude that I wept.
9) What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
Think about others for a change. When we’re young, we’re self-centered beyond belief. Or at least I was. I thought of life like the Truman Show. I was the star. Everyone else was a supporting player. I’ve come to realize, we’re all supporting actors. Try to think of it as an ensemble dramedy. Try to support your other actors, make them the best they can be.
10) What have you learned about being a man from working at Esquire?
Once again, that you don’t have to be an A-hole to be successful. Also, that you can make a good mojito with basil leaves instead of mint.
For Bonus Points: What is the your most cherished ritual as a guy?
Every morning, I look at the memento mori on my computer desktop. As you may know, memento moris are reminders of death, and were popular in the Middle Ages when paintings often included skulls and other symbols. So I have a JPG of a skull on my computer. But I didn’t want it to be gruesome, so it’s a fun, multicolored skull—a design I downloaded from some site. It puts things in perspective. It helps stop the small-stuff-induced sweating. Reminds me to enjoy my life and my family while I’m here.