A.J. Jacobs | It’s All Relative (Episode 673)

A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs) is a New York Times best-selling author who went on a quest to help build the biggest family tree in history, as detailed in his latest book It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • What did A.J. Jacobs learn by following every rule of the Bible literally for one year?
  • How much do you really know about your heritage?
  • See how relating to one another on a family tree of millions is a step toward overcoming the ills of modern tribalism and race relations.
  • Why acknowledging the bad as well as the good revealed by digging into family history is important.
  • The disciplined daydreaming of A.J.’s brainstorming sessions and how we can cultivate our own big picture thinking.
  • And so much more…

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Ever wonder if you’re related to anyone famous — or infamous?

New York Times best-selling author A.J. Jacobs wondered, too. His new book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, chronicles his three-year quest to help build the biggest family tree in history. Verdict: he’s related to plenty of famous — and infamous — people, and he’s probably related to you. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

Please Scroll down for Full Show Notes and Featured Resources!

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More About This Show

Last time he was on the show (catch that episode here), New York Times best-selling author A.J. Jacobs talked about some of the outrageous life experiments he’s willingly endured for the sake of a good story. For his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A.J. spent a year adhering to all the laws set out in scripture — not just the ten commandments, but the more obscure ones, like not cutting the corners of his beard, not wearing garments of mixed fibers, and stoning adulterers (“I used pebbles, because I didn’t want to spend my life in jail!” he clarifies).

For The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. read all 32 volumes of the 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z. He explored the downright bizarre extremes people are willing to go through for health in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. And My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself by Living as a Woman, Becoming George Washington, Telling No Lies, and Other Radical Tests is rather self-explanatory. It seems A.J. spends half his life dreaming up double dares for himself and the other half is spent not backing down from them.

For his newest book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, the double dare came from a letter he received about three years ago by someone claiming to be his eighth cousin.

“I was immediately suspicious,” says A.J. “I figure, ‘All right, he’s going to ask me to wire ten thousand dollars to Nigeria.’ But actually, he was legitimate. He’s one of these people who’s helping to build the biggest family tree in history with literally millions of people in dozens of countries, hundreds of ethnicities, all connected on a single tree. That just blew me away.”

“I always thought genealogy’s a little stodgy, maybe not so sexy. But now, with all these technology advances, it is so relevant and it affects everything from politics to race relations and tribalism, which I think is perhaps the biggest problem humans face right now. So I fell in love with the idea and decided, ‘This has to be my next book.'”

Compared to some of A.J.’s other experiments, this one sounds pretty safe. But if you choose to take this path, understand that some truths brought to light by probing into one’s family history can’t be pushed back into the darkness. Like when one of A.J.’s DNA tests revealed that his wife also happens to be a not-very-distant cousin.

“I went in to show my wife,” says A.J. “Ironically — and I couldn’t have scripted this — she was watching Game of Thrones. I was like, ‘Hey, look at this! We’re cousins!’ I thought it would spice up our marriage, like the forbidden fruit. But, no. She was grossed out.”

Gross or not, as this project reminds us, we’re all cousins to some degree. And whether our DNA makes us close or distant cousins, the technology that lets us know is a double-edged sword. Five million people have already taken the tests to satisfy their own curiosity, and more follow daily.

“First of all, the world is going to be like one huge Maury Povich show,” says A.J. “Two percent of all offspring are from a father who is different than the one they thought. Two percent of seven billion people!”

But this also demonstrates how the idea of family doesn’t have to correspond with whatever DNA evidence is out there to connect us.

“I have a chapter in my book on one of the crazier stories,” says A.J., “where this guy, he had nine siblings; they all got tested as adults and found out they had nine different dads…but actually, I found it inspiring interviewing this guy because, first of all, the father treated all of the kids as if they were his own — even though he knew the whole time that none of them were. I thought that was nice, this idea that family doesn’t just have to be DNA…I like that idea, that family doesn’t have to be strictly your mom and dad. It can be wider.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about why we should pay attention to the black sheep in our family history as well as the heroes, the problems society can focus on solving when people treat each other as relatives rather than members of separate tribes, how A.J.’s opinion of Judge Judy was positively affected when he found out she’s his eighth cousin, how the modern-day Hatfield and McCoy families have buried the hatchet on their legendary feud, why “racial purity” is a laughably disprovable concept, what Jordan, Jason, and A.J.’s DNA tests turned up, A.J.’s process for brainstorming, and lots more.

THANKS, A.J. JACOBS!

If you enjoyed this session with A.J. Jacobs, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

Click here to thank A.J. Jacobs at Twitter!

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 930 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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