The AJ Jacobs Formula for Writing a Bestseller

I hate lunch. I hate going to lunch. I hate walking there, waiting, ordering, waiting, eating, paying, walking home.

AJ Jacobs does also.

So we came up with a solution. We have Skype lunches. I make a sandwich. Skype AJ, and we talk for a half hour while eating.

Problem solved. Friendship on track.

I love AJ. I love his books.

Every one of his book is a NYT bestseller:

  • “The Year of Living Biblically” (He lives a year of his life EXACTLY how the Bible would prescribe.)
  • “Drop Dead Healthy”
  • “The Know-it-all” (He reads the Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z.)
  • “It’s All Relative” (He throws the largest family reunion in the world. he’s my cousin.)
  • “My Life as an Experiment”

and now

  • “Thanks a Thousand” (He thanks 1,000 people for his cup of coffee in the morning. Just came out.)


AJ has a unique writing style that turns all of his books into bestsellers. They are funny, smart, and filled with stories.

So I wanted to break down “the formula” for how he creates and writes a book.

And then why they become bestsellers.


Pick a high stakes idea: religion, health, family, knowledge… gratitude.

[Go here for AJ Jacobs’ 10 Superpowers of External Gratitude]


Don’t just write an academic text on the benefits of gratitude.

Or what it would mean to live a Biblical life for a year.

Or the history of Encyclopedia Britanncia. Or the benefits of knowing your family tree.

Put yourself in the story:

1) AJ LIVED a Biblical life exactly according to the rules of the Bible in “The Year of Living Biblically” (which became a TV show).
2) AJ READ the Encyclopedia Britanncia from A-Z in “The Know-it-All”.
3) AJ THANKED 1,000 people in his latest book, even traveling to Columbia to thank the farmers of the coffee beans.
4) AJ OUTSOURCED his marital arguments to an outsourcing firm in India in “My Life as an Experiment”.

When you put yourself in the story, you get thousands of anecdotes along the way. Document them. Take the most interesting and funniest moments and now there’s a book.


Where’s the line?

If you want knowledge, don’t just take a class. READ THE ENTIRE ENCYCLOPEDIA.

If you want to feel gratitude, don’t just think it. Don’t just say “thank you”.

Personally thank the people who made the lid on the cup of coffee. The people who provided the water, the oil, the trucks, the coffee sleeves, etc.

When is too extreme?

This is where humor starts to come in. Should he thank Beyonce for being on the speaker in the coffee store? Should he “stone” an adulterer in the “Year of Living Biblically”?

The comfort zone is there for a reason. It’s comfortable.

But AJ goes where it’s not comfortable. The extremes on these high stakes ideas. Then he documents the results on himself and his family and the people around him.

The result: funny stories, almost unbelievable, crazy, knowledgable (because he’ll also consult the experts to learn more about where the extremes are).

Example: In the Bible, it says a man can’t sit in the same chair as his wife if she is having her period. So AJ would avoid his wife’s chairs.

His wife, commonly referred to as Saint Julie, sat in every chair in the house when she began her period.

So AJ bought a fold out chair and carried it with him so she couldn’t sit in it.

Result: Knowledge of the Bible, AJ experiencing the story directly so he could write about it (“show” don’t “tell” is the best writing advice), and… it’s funny and crazy and a bit creepy.

Result: A NYT bestselling book.


AJ is an ordinary guy. He gets inspired (the “call to action”) to live a high stakes concept at the extreme. Meets enemies and allies along the way. Confronts bigger and bigger problems at the extremes.

And then returns to share the knowledge.

Every famous story in history has this arc.

That’s why every one of AJ’s books are bestsellers.

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