A.J. Jacobs talks ‘human guinea pigs’

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A.J. Jacobs speaks in McFarlin Auditorium Tuesday night. Photo credit: Ellen Smith

A.J. Jacobs is hosting a family reunion, and everyone is invited.

The April 1 Tate Lecture featured the Esquire Editor-at-Large and author, whose latest human guinea pig project is working with genealogists to form a global family reunion.

So far, he has over 75 million distant relatives accounted for, but he’s hoping to add all the Earth’s inhabitants to his family tree.

The project will culminate in the world’s largest family reunion and family photo in the Summer of 2015.

“It’s not potluck — you don’t have to bring anything,” he said.

Out of the cousins he has identified, he shares blood with Kevin Bacon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Barack Obama.

Jacobs hopes identifying the human race as a large, diverse, extended family will lead people to being nicer.

“We all descended from the same ancestor,” he said. “This is the ultimate social network.”

This latest project is just one of many ranging from living the rules of the Bible for a year to reading the full encyclopedia. Each of the experiences has led Jacobs to new life lessons he shares in his articles and books.

The most challenging year of his life, according to Jacobs, was living by all the Biblical rules, obscure and famous.

He grew out his beard, followed the Ten Commandments and even stoned an adulterer with small pebbles in New York City.

“It was a bit of a weird way to live, but it was also wonderful because I got to realize there are hundreds of things that go on everyday that we totally take for granted,” he said. “It was a radical change in perspective.”

While Jacobs isn’t growing out his facial hair or following the rules of the Bible meticulously anymore, he has implemented some of what he learned into his daily life.

“In the Bible, it says to be thankful for everything,” he said. “So I took that literally, I would be thankful for everything.”

In addition to the lesson of gratitude, he learned the lesson of deceit.

“I pretended to be a better person, so I became a better person,” he said.

He devoted himself to physical betterment with his “Maximum Health Project,” in which he sought to follow all of the medical advice he could. It was a strategy that led him to taking sleep tests, going to dog parks to pet other people’s dogs and exercising like a caveman.

SMU sophomore Jennifer Zotz was inspired by that notion of fully committing to something to gain the most from an experience.

“I think diving in wholeheartedly and becoming truly passionate in an idea or project is evident in Jacobs’ life and something he inspired the audience to take up as well,” Zotz said.

Jacobs also dedicated himself to the same degree with his “Knowledge Project,” in which he read the full Encyclopedia Britannica for six hours a day until he finished it.

The most important lessons there—strategic hutzpah and the importance of adapting.

He shared anecdotes about Langston Hughes and Thomas Welch, and recounted starting his reading with A-ak, a word for ancient Korean music.

The last word in the tome? Zywiec, a Polish city.

“I don’t want to spoil the ending,” Jacobs said.

It was one of several jokes that allowed the author to engage with the audience. The first of his jokes was comparing himself to the SMU basketball team.

“I’m going to try to be the Nic Moore of entertaining and educational lecturers,” Jacobs said at the beginning of the Tate.

And he managed to do so, relating the lessons of his bizarre encounters and experiences to audience members.

“What I liked most was the overall attitude of AJ, devoted to living a lifestyle of constant engagement with the world around him, always questioning and then trying to find answers through investigation,” SMU junior Preston Hutcherson said.

Zotz enjoyed the candor and comedic elements of the lecture.

“Not many of my Tate experiences are this candid, and humorous — Jacobs’ creativity and diversity of experience made the lecture incredibly entertaining,” she said.

He talked with the same openness and humor about his “My Life as a Beautiful Woman” Project, in which he made and ran a Match.com profile for his attractive babysitter.

“I got to tell you, it was fantastic. Everyday I would get 50 emails telling me how hot I was,” he said.

But the greater lesson was the benefit of changing perspective.

“Seeing the world from someone else’s point of view is really a key to empathy,” he said.

Sophomore Sydney Royer found this to be one of the most important lessons of
the lecture.

“I think it’s exciting to continue to push yourself into uncomfortable situations because in the end, you will definitely come away from it with a new perspective,” she said.

The project Royer found the most uncomfortable but simultaneously intriguing was the “Radical Honesty Project.”

“I always try to be honest but complete free flowing honesty would be really uncomfortable, but I think being uncomfortable is rewarding,” Royer said.

For one month, Jacobs not only told the truth, but also said everything on his mind.

“It was the worst month of my life,” he said. “I’m not an advocate for radical honesty.”

What he is an advocate for is radically positive honesty, telling people when they’ve touched you, even if it’s out of context.

You can find more about Jacobs experiments in any number of his best-selling books.

The final Tate lecture of the school year May 5 will feature Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer.

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