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99U Conference Speaker Spotlight: Author A.J. Jacobs on Flexing his Creative Muscles

Photography by Lem Lattimer
99U Conference Speaker Spotlight: Author A.J. Jacobs on Flexing his Creative Muscles
Published February 11, 2020 by The 99U Team

What does it mean to be a creative? This year's Adobe 99U Conference is an examination of "The Creative Self." When we set about curating speakers, we looked to people taking an individualistic approach to their work and careers. Ahead of the event, we’re asking them how they nurture their own creative selves.


A.J. Jacobs is unafraid of immersing himself in the pursuit of answering the what ifs that pop up in the course of his life as an author and journalist. His book Thanks a Thousand tracked his attempt to thank every person involved in the creation of his morning cup of coffee, and illuminated how gratitude can be a transformative practice. His curiosity and instinct for what makes a compelling story have prompted him to try everything from reading the Encyclopedia Britannica A-Z to trying to become the healthiest man alive. He shared his thoughts on finding connections between the unexpected, and how he stops his creative muscles from atrophying. 


Q. When do you feel most purposeful?

A. When I get emails from folks who say they’ve been helped by one of my books. Just this week, I got a wonderful thank you note from a high schooler whose class is reading my book on gratitude, Thanks a Thousand. He also sent thank you notes to people who work at the publisher, including the marketer and the cover designer. That was the best. And it’s why I try to write notes to other authors, artists, designers—anyone I can think of.


Q. How would you describe your creative voice?

A. Well, I can tell you about my actual voice. Because it’s kind of odd. People compare it to Gilbert Gottfried’s. It’s no baritone. When I answer the phone and it’s someone who doesn’t know me, I get a lot of “hi ma’am.” I think having a weird physical voice is similar to having a unique artistic voice—it’s both a blessing and a curse. People look at me funny and are sometimes baffled. But it also helps me stand out. Since I’m on NPR, occasionally a stranger will recognize my voice at a restaurant. I love that.


Q. What are your most important work/life boundaries?

A. Can I go the opposite way and tell you how I like to blur those boundaries? I like to involve my kids in researching my books as much as I can (not in a child labor way!). But trying to get them interested in the topic and engaged. For instance, right now I’m working on a book about puzzles. So I recently took my kids to Boston with me for the MIT Mystery Hunt, which is 70 straight hours of contestants trying to solve the hardest puzzles known to humankind. I got a good chapter for my book, and they got to geek out with the rest of the puzzlers.


Q. What is your ideal creative environment? What are the circumstances that let you thrive and do your best work?

A. I wish I were like those people who can concentrate even when there’s chaos surrounding them. I once heard that Hugh Loftus wrote Dr. Doolittle while in the trenches of World War I. That wouldn’t work for me. Unfortunately, I need a lot more quiet. I find it helpful to use Freedom to turn off all my internet. I also try to allot 15 minutes a day to just brainstorming. It could be article ideas, book ideas, or just random ideas. If I don’t carve out 15 minutes a day for that, I can get caught up in the minutiae of the day, and my creativity muscles might atrophy.


Q. Please describe a creative breakthrough that’s had a lasting impact on your approach to life and work.

A. One of my favorite things to do is to combine two disparate categories. To mix up two genres, people, approaches, or ideas. The mashup, as they call it now. The first book I wrote was called The Two Kings which looked at the eerie similarities between Elvis and Jesus. It began because Elvis apparently once said he thought he might be the second coming of Christ. So I made a chart with Elvis-related traits and trivia one one side, and then Jesus-related information, and then I tried to find connections (e.g. Jesus walked on water, Elvis surfed). I try to apply this idea of mixing wherever I can.


Q. For this year’s 99U Conference, we have invented a menagerie of “creative specimens," each with a unique personality. Which one do you identify with the most?

A. Innovato Ideatis. [Ed. Note: Few specimens have contributed to innovation in the creative kingdom more than the Innovato Ideatis, known for swimming (and flying) well outside of most creatures’ comfort zones.]

This year’s Adobe 99U Conference is going virtual and free to creatives worldwide: join us June 17 on Behance. Registration is now open at

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