A.J. Jacobs: Career lessons from the Encyclopedia

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By A.J. Jacobs – For my last book, The Know-It-All, I tried to fill in the huge gaps in my learning by reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I read from A to Z. Or more precisely, from a-ak (East Asian music) to Zywiec (a town in Poland) — a total of 44 million words. Admittedly, there were quite a few slow parts — the 21 pages on Portuguese literature comes to mind — but overall, I learned a tremendous amount of fascinating information. Including lot of great wisdom about jobs and careers. Here, a distillation:

If you’ve got a business idea, hurry the heck up.
Here’s a disturbing story: There once was a brilliant man named Elisha Gray. Ever hear of him? Probably not. That’s because he filed for a patent for the telephone on the morning February 14, 1876. Problem was, a couple hours earlier, another man filed patent papers for the telephone. That would be Alexander Graham Bell. Gray should have known: File for patent, then go grocery shopping. (In fairness, some claim that Gray did beat Bell to the patent office, but still lost the patent).

I’m no Gray or Bell, but I did have a troubling conversation with a fellow writer about a year ago, a nice man from Texas. He told me that when my book deal was announced, he was in the midst of writing a proposal for a book on reading the encyclopedia. There’s no such thing as a unique idea. It’s all about execution and timing.

Be totally inappropriate
The best networking story in the Encyclopedia comes courtesy of poet Langston Hughes. The man was ballsy. He was a busboy at a hotel in Washington D.C. While in the dining room, he slipped three of his poems beside the dinner plate of established poet Vachel Lindsay. The next day, newspapers announced Lindsay had discovered a — busboy poet. In other words, he refused to let his dreams be deferred.

Work anywhere
The British-born author Hugh Lofting wrote Dr. Dolittle while in the trenches of WWI. As shrapnel burst around him and his friends died, he wrote this lovely story about a guy who talks to animals. So if Hugh Lofting can do that, you can concentrate on a big project when you’re at a train station. In fact, I recently realized my work sometimes improves when I’m in chaos. It somehow lessens the pressure — it removes the crippling burden of perfectionism — which is key for writing.

Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain
That’s one of the big things I learned in my quest to be a know-it-all. Say it with confidence, and you will be believed. If someone asks you what country had the greatest total number of Catholics, and you say, Mexico, without a hint of doubt, then few will question. The right answer is Brazil, by the way. Without a doubt.

Stick with your strengths, and bend the situation to cater to them
Be like Duilius, a Roman military genius. The Roman troops were excellent ground fighters, but were terrible at naval warfare. So Duilius came up with the idea: Turn the sea battles into land battles. The Roman ships would paddle up to the enemy boat and slam down a plank. The soldiers would board the enemy boat and go to town with their swords. In short, land battles on the sea.

The stakes in most of our lives are lower, thank God. But the strategy still works. Today, I was writing an article for Spin magazine. This, despite the fact that I know embarrassingly little about post-80s music. But since I just wrote a book about living by the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically), I had pitched a story about music and the Bible. That allowed me to board Spin and go to town with my word processor.

Juggle jobs
All the great figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had at least two simultaneous jobs, maybe more. My favorite was a woman named Virginia Woodhull, who was both a psychic and a stockbroker (a brilliant mix. Who wouldn’t want to invest with her?) But other combos were just as strange:

Lyricist/Mollusk scientist

Granted, it was easier back then. I imagine it took about three weeks to learn all there was to know about mollusks.

A friend of mine (and Penelope’s) named Marci Alboher recently wrote a book called One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model For Work/Life Success. It’s filled with tales and advice on the art of simultaneous professions. The double-job trend is making a comeback, and this is good news — at least for those who love a smattering of everything as I do.

A.J. Jacobs is an editor-at-large at Esquire magazine and the author of the new book
A Year of Living Biblically

14 replies
  1. Julia R
    Julia R says:

    Hi A.J.,

    Nice post! Re. juggling jobs and loving a smattering: I recommended the book “The Renaissance Soul” by Margaret Lobenstine when I interviewed Penelope a month or so ago for a podcast. Clear, actionable advice on making a physicist/violinist/social worker career — or an other backslashed combo — work for you :)


  2. Unnua
    Unnua says:

    If success comes from lying to yourself or encouraging others to do the same (and it often does), it is not worth it. In fact, if survival comes from those things, it’s still not worth it.

  3. Dave
    Dave says:

    What I find amazing is that we all get stuck on the coffee mug. Work = the coffee, tools = the mug. I another one who spends hours looking at the tools of how I can do things better, and what i should be doing, instead of just getting on with drinking the coffee. Isn’t it easy to listen to all of these gurus and not believe that you have just as much smarts as them, but you’re not writing a blog about it. JFDI!

  4. George
    George says:

    Having multiple jobs, hobbies or even activities is a great way to refresh ones mind by seeing one jobs issues from a different perspective. I find that I come up with the best ideas for my one occupation when I apply myself to the next one.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:


    I really like your writing style.

    That’s amazing you can remember anything after reading that much volume. Do you speed read?

    It seems the more I read the more my information muddles, and I don’t know if things are from TV, my life, a friend, or books at times.

    You also scared me with the first story. I have blog I used just as a journal but it has my ideas in it. Now I want to put in under private.

  6. Atniz
    Atniz says:

    Excellent! I couldn’t even imagine of reading the whole encyclopedia. Nice insight shared about career here. I wish to have the time and drive to read more books especially the boring encyclopedia. Not all have the mood to read facts, but you did it. I don’t know where you get this motivation from.

  7. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    A.J. I am totally astounded with all the facts and trivia that you laid for us. I specifically like the what’s supposed to be a common knowledge that Brazil is the largest country with the most Catholics.

  8. Gauri
    Gauri says:

    “In fact, I recently realized my work sometimes improves when I’m in chaos. It somehow lessens the pressure – it removes the crippling burden of perfectionism – which is key for writing.”
    I realised this while writing for my blog but am still struggling. But then I guess you can’t get much done if you’re a perfectionist.

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