A.J. Jacobs: How Does A Year Of Following Biblical Rules Change You? Author and journalist A.J. Jacobs has made a career of being an amateur. He talks about the year he spent living biblically — following the rules in the Bible as literally as possible.

A.J. Jacobs: How Does A Year Of Following Biblical Rules Change You?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. There are people who are afraid to try new things, right? But then there are people like A.J. Jacobs.

A.J. JACOBS: I'm the author of "The Year Of Living Biblically."

RAZ: A.J.'s year of living biblically was exactly what it sounds like. And it started one day with a simple realization.

JACOBS: I'm Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian.


JACOBS: I don't want to insult the Olive Garden - a lovely restaurant, but it's not very Italian. And I'm not very Jewish. But I had a child and I wanted to know what to teach him. And I thought, millions of smart people found meaning in religion, and, what am I missing? So I decided, all right, I'm going to try to dive in headfirst and actually live the Bible.

RAZ: OK, quick detour here to explain that A.J., as a writer, has basically made a career out of decisions like that - diving into topics he knows almost nothing about. In fact, he's practically a living definition of the word amateur.

JACOBS: I looked it up, and it comes from amator from Latin for love. So if I love a topic, as a writer what I like to do is just dive into any topic and live it.

RAZ: A.J. writes about his amateur experiences in books or for Esquire magazine, where he's also an editor. And some of the things he's tried? Outsourcing his life.

JACOBS: So I hired a team of people in Bangalore, India, to do everything for me.

RAZ: Like, what'd they do?

JACOBS: Oh, everything. They answered my phone, they responded to emails for me, they argued with my wife.

RAZ: Wait - what? How?

JACOBS: Oh, it was wonderful. My wife would bring up a topic and I would say, hold that thought. I would tell them and they would come up with a response and email it to her.

RAZ: (Laughter).

In another experiment, A.J. decided to live according to a set of rules George Washington wrote as a young man, 110 rules of life.

JACOBS: Be respectful to your elders, don't gloat when you are victorious. Some were less expected. The number two rule in George Washington's list is, do not adjust your private parts in public.

RAZ: That's the number two rule?

JACOBS: Well, that's what I - yeah, I'm fine with that rule. It's a good rule.

RAZ: And more recently, A.J. tried to become the healthiest person alive. He even went on a fad diet. It's called calorie restriction, and he had dinner with its founder.

JACOBS: The appetizer was a walnut and the main course was a blueberry. That (laughter) - and I will say we all got our own walnut. It's not like we had to share.

RAZ: Basically for A.J., living life as a professional amateur...

JACOBS: I love that, yeah.

RAZ: ...Was a good way to get paid for collecting funny stories.

JACOBS: It's a little bit oxymoronic, but I am a professional amateur.

RAZ: Until the experiment we talked about earlier because it wasn't just funny, it was actually life-changing.

JACOBS: I decided to write down every rule, every piece of advice, every nugget of wisdom that I could find in the Bible without picking and choosing. So I wanted to follow the famous ones like love your neighbor and 10 Commandments, but I also wanted to follow the hundreds of rules that are not so famous.

RAZ: A.J. picks up the story from the TED stage.


JACOBS: The Bible says you cannot wear clothes made of mixed fibers, so I thought, sounds strange, but I'll try it. You only know if you try it. So I got rid of all my poly-cotton T-shirts. The Bible says that if two men are in a fight and the wife of one of those men grabs the testicles of the other man then her hand shall be cut off. So I wanted to follow that rule.


JACOBS: That one I followed by default by not getting in a fight with a man whose wife was standing nearby looking like she had a strong grip. So I will say it was an amazing year because it really was life-changing and incredibly challenging. And there are two types of laws that were particularly challenging. The first was avoiding the little sins that we all commit every day. You know, I could spend a year not killing, but spending a year not gossiping, not coveting, not lying, you know, I live in New York and I work as a journalist. So this is 75, 80 percent of my day I had to do. But it was really interesting because I was able to make some progress because I couldn't believe how much my behavior changed my thoughts. This was one of the huge lessons of the year is that I almost pretended to be a better person, and I became a little bit of a better person. So I had always thought, you know, you change your mind and you change your behavior, but it's often the other way around. You change your behavior and you change your mind.

RAZ: Wow, this really changed you - I mean, like, following these rules.

JACOBS: Absolutely. That was one of the big lessons - how much the outer affects the inner, how much behavior affects your thoughts. There's a great phrase, it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.

RAZ: Like, fake it till you make it.

JACOBS: Fake it till you make it - this idea of trying things out, testing them out. And that's how you become an expert, is, you actually live it.

RAZ: That's the idea we'll explore on the show today. "Amateur Hour," ideas about what it takes to survive, even thrive in situations where you have no idea what you're doing.

And so for an entire year living in New York City with his wife and his kids, A.J. Jacobs really did live by the rules of the Bible. Now, some of them were pretty easy to follow, like the rule that a man should not shave the corners of his beard.

JACOBS: I didn't know where the corners were so I just let the whole thing to grow, and by the end, I spent a lot of time at airport security.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JACOBS: For real.

RAZ: The Bible also says you should only wear white clothing, so A.J. did.

JACOBS: But I have to say there was something very cleansing and purifying about wearing all white. And it goes back to that idea that the outer affects the inner. And by the end, I was really getting into it and I would put on a robe.

RAZ: But other rules, not so easy to follow.


JACOBS: Perhaps the clearest example of this is stoning adulterers.


JACOBS: But I - it's a huge - it's a big part of the Bible, so I figured I had to address it. So I was able to stone one adulterer. It happened. I was in the park, and I was dressed in my biblical clothing - so sandals and sort of a white robe. And this man came up to me, and he said, why are you dressed like that? And I explained my project. And he said, well, I'm an adulterer. Are you going to stone me? And I said, well, that would be great.


JACOBS: I actually - I took out a handful of stones from my pocket that I had been carrying around for weeks, hoping for just this interaction. And, you know, they were pebbles. But he grabbed them out of my hand - he was actually an elderly man, mid-70s, just so you know, but he's still an adulterer and still quite angry - he grabbed them out of my hand and threw them at my face, and I felt that I could - eye for an eye - I could retaliate and throw one back at him. So that was my experience stoning, and it did allow me to talk about, in a more serious way, these big issues, like, how can the Bible be so barbaric in some places and yet so incredibly wise in others? How should we view the Bible? Should we view it, you know, as original intent, like a sort of Scalia version of the Bible?

RAZ: OK, so a lot of this, you know, like, was kind of silly, but it wasn't, like, a - totally like a stunt, right? You really did want to learn something from the Bible.

JACOBS: I did. I really earnestly wanted to see what about religion could make my life better. And one thing that really struck me was this idea of gratitude because the Bible says that you should give thanks for everything in your life. And I took that literally. So I would press the elevator button and I would be thankful the elevator came. I'd get in the elevator. I'd be thankful it didn't plummet to the basement and break my collarbone. And it was a strange way to live, but it was also quite beautiful because you realize there are hundreds of things that go right every day that we totally take for granted, and we focus on the three or four that go wrong. And I've tried to keep this perspective, and it's made my life better.


JACOBS: Another lesson is that thou shalt have reverence. This one was unexpected because I started the year as an agnostic, and by the end of the year, I became what a friend of mine calls a reverent agnostic, which I love. The basic idea is, whether or not there's a God, there's something important and beautiful about the idea of sacredness and that our rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, this was one of the great things about my year, was doing the Sabbath because I am a workaholic, so having this one day where you cannot work, it really - that changed my life.

Also, thou shalt not disregard the irrational. Because you know, I grew up with a scientific worldview. And I was doing all these rituals, these biblical rituals, you know, separating my wool and linen, and I would ask these religious people, you know, why? Why would the Bible possibly tell us to do this? Why would God care? And they said, you know, we don't know, but it's just rituals that give us meaning. And I would say, you know, but that's crazy. And they would say, well, what about you? You blow out candles on top of a birthday cake. If a guy from Mars came down and saw, here's one guy blowing fire on top of a cake, versus another guy not wearing clothes with mixed fabrics, would the Martian say, oh, well, that guy, he makes sense, but that guy's crazy? No.

I think that rituals are, by nature, irrational. So the key is to choose the right rituals, the ones that are not harmful. But rituals by themselves are not to be dismissed.

RAZ: Did this change your - I mean, did you come out of it thinking, OK, I am not an Olive Garden Jew anymore, I'm, like, more like a Canter's Deli Jew?

JACOBS: (Laughter). A little bit. I mean, I did join a synagogue at the end of the year because I like the community. I like giving my kids a little sense of tradition and - that they can reject or accept. You know, I'm OK if they grow up and decide to reject it or - I just want to give them a little base. And I also want to give them a little knowledge so that they can make jokes about it, you know, I think there's something very important about making fun of your heritage.

RAZ: Of course, that heritage would've probably remained unknown to A.J. and to his kids had he not admitted just how little he knew about it in the first place, that is, had he not been honest with himself and everyone else about just how much of an amateur he was.

JACOBS: Right. I am a big believer in that going in knowing that you know very little and knowing that life is full of unknowns and grays among the blacks and whites. And if you can do that and go in with an open mind and learn, I think that you can make your life a lot better by being an amateur.

RAZ: A.J. Jacobs, editor at large for Esquire magazine. His book on all this is called "The Year Of Living Biblically," and he's written many others as well. Check out all of his TED Talks at ted.com. Our show today, "Amateur Hour." More in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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