A.J. Jacobs: How Can We Thank Those We Take for Granted?

Jun 26, 2020
Originally published on November 20, 2020 6:38 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode TED Radio Wow-er

How many people helped make your morning coffee? A.J. Jacobs set out to thank them—from the farmer to the barista and everyone in between—and discovered the list was much longer than he thought.

About A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His most recent book is Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

He is also the editor at large at Esquire magazine, an NPR commentator, and a columnist for Mental Floss.

Jacobs' writing often chronicles his self-experiments, which have involved taking a vow of total honesty, following the Bible literally for a year, and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

Access the original TED Radio Hour segment here.

Activity Guide - Printable PDF

Activity 1: Gratitude Letter

Expressing gratitude can make you and those around you happier. As Guy talks about in the episode, there's a lot of research that supports gratitude as a way to find happiness and some of that research supports this very exercise.

While we all know we should thank those who do kind things for us, sometimes our thank yous can be hurried or not very meaningful. This exercise encourages you to express gratitude in a thoughtful and deliberate way by writing—and, ideally, delivering—a letter of gratitude to a person you have never properly thanked.


  • Pen and paper, or computer if you prefer to type
  • A phone or computer to call the person and deliver the letter

How To Do It:

  • Think about someone who has done something for you that you're extremely grateful for, but someone that you never shared that gratitude with—this could be a relative, friend, neighbor, or teacher. Try to pick someone who is still alive and could speak with you in the next week. It may be most helpful to select a person or an act someone did that you haven't thought about for awhile—and maybe take for granted.
  • Write as though you are addressing this person directly ("Dear ______").
  • Don't worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
  • Describe as specifically as you can what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person's behavior has positively affected you. Try to be as concrete and specific as possible.
  • Describe what you are doing in your life now and how their act of kindness has contributed to it.
  • Try to keep your letter to roughly one page.
  • Next, you should try if at all possible to deliver your letter personally. Email or text the person to set up a time to chat for thirty minutes. Or just call them and see if now is a good time for them to talk. You can let the person know you have something special to share but don't reveal the exact purpose of the call.
  • When you meet, let the person know that you are grateful for them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude.
  • Take your time reading the letter. While you read, pay attention to their reaction as well as your own.
  • After you have read the letter, you can discuss your feelings together.
  • You can email or send the letter through the postal service for them to keep.

(Source: adapted from Greater Good In Action)

Activity 2: Sketch Noting

If you've ever found yourself doodling during class, this activity and skill is for you. The whole point of written notes is to capture concepts and connections from a given source, but bullet points and sentences aren't the only way you can convey those. Sketch noting combines drawings with words to do the same thing. By the end, you may have found a whole new note-taking system you'd like to use in the future.


  • Blank white paper
  • A few different colors of marker, three to five is good
  • Optional: ruler or other drawing aids

How To Do It:

  • Whenever there's a concept or idea that you can draw on the page instead of fully write out, draw it! Words are helpful too but no need for full sentences here, just keywords and phrases.
  • To give you more of an introduction and a visual toolkit, watch these two short videos: An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking and What To Listen For While Sketchnoting
  • To recap, listen for: meaningful objects (figurative too), key actions, emotions, key thoughts from the speaker, and interactions the speaker has with other people in the story. Also feel free to pause the segment as you go to spend a bit more time on your drawings, if that would be helpful.
  • Once you feel like you have a sense of sketch noting, gather your materials and listen to A.J.'s segment.
  • Here's one of our sketch notes from listening to the segment, how does yours compare?
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Example of sketch notes for A.J.'s TED Radio Hour segment.


All right. So we have talked about trees, dolphins and ancient civilizations. But for our final segment, I want to talk to you, Guy, about two words that we say every day or at least we should say every day - thank you.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Two very simple words...


RAZ: ...That are incredibly powerful, and A.J. Jacobs wanted to show how powerful those words were, so he took us all on a journey with him through gratitude.

ZOMORODI: Do you talk to your kids about saying thank you, like, please and...

RAZ: Totally.

ZOMORODI: ...Thank you?

RAZ: All the time.

ZOMORODI: 'Cause I worry that my kids say it, but I'm not sure that they totally mean it (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's natural we all talk to our kids about saying please and thank you, please and thank you. But it has to be more than just saying please and thank you. It's about actually internalizing gratitude, which is what A.J. kind of describes in this talk.


A J JACOBS: Yeah. To practice gratitude, you really have to slow things down and notice.

RAZ: A.J. is a writer, professional lifestyle experimenter and self-described curmudgeon.

JACOBS: I talk about, I think, in every - everyone has the two sides, the Larry David side and the Mr. Rogers side - so the grumpy pessimist and the optimistic grateful side.


FRED ROGERS: So many people have helped me to come to this night.

JACOBS: And I believe I was born with a very strong Larry David side. I was very good at finding things to be annoyed about. And I think a lot of us are. If you hear a hundred compliments and a single insult, what do you remember? The insult.


ROGERS: Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are.

JACOBS: I was aware that I had this negative bias, this Larry David side, but I wanted to bulk up the Mr. Rogers side.


ROGERS: Ten seconds of silence. I'll watch the time.

JACOBS: It's not something that comes naturally to me. And to most people, I don't think it comes naturally. You have to cultivate this idea of gratitude.


ROGERS: Whomever you've been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they've made.


RAZ: What happened to you to say, you know, wait a minute, I'm not appreciating people? I'm not being grateful. Was there an epiphany? Like, what was it?

JACOBS: Well, I think it was partly intellectually. I knew the power of gratitude. There are tons of studies about how good it is for you, how it helps ward off depression. You recover more quickly. You sleep better, eat better. You're more generous. So intellectually, I knew, like, I should be grateful. But, like, how do you do that?

And that's when I decided, you know what? I'm going to try this ritual at home where I'm going to try to say thanks to all the people who helped make my meal a possibility. So I would, before a meal, say, you know, I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the tomato and the cashier who rang the tomatoes up at the grocery store.

And that's when my son, who was 10, very perceptively said, you know, Dad, that's fine. But it's also totally lame because those people can't hear you. They're not in our apartment. So if you really are committed, then you should go and thank those people in person.

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


JACOBS: Now, I'm a writer. And for my books, I like to go on adventures, go on quests. So I decided I'm going to take my son up on his challenge. It seems simple enough. And to make it even simpler, I decided to focus on just one item - my morning cup of coffee. Well, it turned out to be not so simple at all.

This quest took me around the world. I discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people I take for granted. So I would thank the trucker who drove the coffee beans to the coffee shop. But he couldn't have done his job without the road. So I would thank the people who paved the road.


JACOBS: And then I would thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement.

And he couldn't do his job without the folks who drew the yellow lines on the road because they kept my truck driver from smashing into oncoming traffic. And...

RAZ: I mean, this is, like, splitting an atom, right?

JACOBS: (Laughter).

RAZ: Because you can thank the people who mixed the paint for the lines on the road and then the people who made the machines to enable the paints to be mixed and then the people who mined the iron to make the machines to mix the paint, and then on and on. Where, like, you can - there's lots of people to thank. It's never-ending.

JACOBS: Oh, infinite - I could have spent the next 50 years of my life thanking people. And I could have given a TED Talk that was about 400 hours long 'cause, yeah, that's what it made me realize is how interconnected everything is, how many people it takes. It doesn't just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.

And it was really a lesson in how interconnected we are - and sort of timely, too, because this trend towards tribalism is, I find, quite disturbing. And this was a reminder of how we all depend on each other.


RAZ: Sometimes a simple act of kindness toward another person - a thank-you, a compliment, a vote of confidence - can have a much bigger effect than we realize and can even change the way we look at ourselves. And for A.J. Jacobs, that kind of appreciation turned into a journey of a thousand thank-you's, all for just a cup of coffee.

JACOBS: I decide to go backwards. So I started with the barista at Joe Coffee, which is the coffee chain in New York where I go. And I thanked her. And she thanked me for thanking her.

RAZ: What did you say to her? You said, hey, I just want to - I just want to thank you for making my cup of coffee this morning.

JACOBS: That's it.

RAZ: Yeah, that was it.

JACOBS: I just expressed my gratitude. And I think she was pleasantly surprised because she doesn't get thanked all that often.

RAZ: All right. So you - so after thanking the barista, I guess you decided to meet with a guy named Ed Kaufmann, who works for Joe Coffee?

JACOBS: So, yeah, I met Ed Kaufmann, who is the guy who goes around the world testing the beans, tasting them. And I loved that because he was so passionate about this brown liquid. And I - he taught me how to differentiate the tastes.

Because he would take a sip, and his face would light up, and he would say, oh, I'm sensing honey crisp apple and maple syrup and pineapple upside-down cake. And I loved that idea of savoring and appreciating. It so tied into gratitude.


JACOBS: By the end of the project, I was just in a thanking frenzy. So I was - I would get up and spend a couple hours - I'd write emails, send notes, make phone calls, visit people to thank them for their role in my coffee. And some of them, quite honestly, not that into it, but most people were surprisingly moved.

Every stop on this gratitude trail would give birth to a hundred other people that I could thank. So I went down to Columbia to thank the farmers who grow my coffee beans. And it was in a small mountain town. And I met the farmers, the Guarnizo brothers. It's a small farm. They make great coffee. They're paid above fair-trade prices for it. I thanked them. And they said, well, we couldn't do our job without a hundred other people. The machine that depulps the fruit is made in Brazil. And the pickup truck they drive around the farm in, that is made from parts from all over the world.


JACOBS: I think in the end, they kind of got into the spirit of the project, and they did not kick me out, and they actually invited me back. So maybe I'll go and enjoy their coffee again.

RAZ: So as you were, like, really immersing yourself in this thing - right? Because part of this is - it's like, I'm just going to try this thing out. But part of you has to become that. Like, you had to become Mr. Gratitude. Like, you had to believe in it almost like it was a religion. Did you start to kind of feel differently on that trip?

JACOBS: Well, yeah. And one of the revelations that runs through many of my projects is just how powerful that is, how much our behavior shapes our thoughts. So I saw this. Like, I would wake up in my typical grumpy mood, and I would force myself to spend an hour writing thank-you notes or calling people. And by the end of that hour, my mind had caught up. I had sort of tricked my mind and made it realize, oh, my God, look at all these things that went right. Gratitude should not be the same as complacency 'cause some people are worried that when you're grateful, like, you think, oh, everything's wonderful and we don't need to change a thing.

But my argument - and it's backed up by some fascinating research - is that gratitude actually is the opposite of that. Gratitude makes you more aware and more open to trying to make things better. And I know this. Personally, when I'm in a bad mood, I'm not thinking about other people; I'm just thinking about myself. But when I'm grateful, that's when I realize all of the people who helped make this possible. And can I make their lives better?


ZOMORODI: You got to love...


ZOMORODI: You got to love A.J. Jacobs.

RAZ: Oh, love him (laughter). Yeah.

ZOMORODI: He always has this ability to take something, like, as mundane as saying thank you and turn it into, like...

RAZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...A journey. And I do feel, like, during the pandemic, so many more of us have really begun to be more appreciative and grateful to the people who do bring us all the things we need every day.

RAZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: The essential workers in the grocery store - I have definitely been making sure to say thank you more. And, like, I now have a slightly creepy habit of waving and smiling at every car that passes me when I go for a walk.

RAZ: (Laughter) Yes.

ZOMORODI: I want to put something good into the world.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I totally agree. I think it's sort of forced us to really reflect on this idea of showing gratitude. And what I love about A.J. Jacobs is he says, you know, gratitude isn't about being optimistic or, you know, saying, oh, the world is great all the time; it actually forces you to, really, actually reflect on the world because when you show gratitude, you're really kind of understanding the process that it took for people to get you the things that maybe make your life better or more joyful in this instance.

And the science is real. I mean, we did an episode on my kid's show, Wow In The World, about this, about gratitude. There was a study out of the University of Montana that showed how, when you expressed gratitude to yourself and to others, it actually increases your happiness. This has been proven by science. And it's such a wonderful idea, you know, not just to be thankful, not to just sit down and say, I'm thankful for this and thankful for that, but if you can actually thank the people, who may not even know that they improve your life, it's incredibly meaningful not only to them but to you as well.

ZOMORODI: Yes, it is. I want to say a huge thank you to you, Guy...

RAZ: Oh, thank you.

ZOMORODI: ...For coming back on the show, for sharing your favorite ideas for the whole family. And I have to say, listeners have been very, very welcoming to me. But if they're missing you, where can they find you these days?

RAZ: They can find me on How I Built This and on Wow In The World. And I just want to thank you...


RAZ: ...For taking this show and making it even more incredible and wonderful and just a joy to listen to. It's awesome.

ZOMORODI: Means a lot. Thank you, Guy.

That's my TED Radio Hour predecessor, Guy Raz. He is now the host of the podcast Wow In The World with Mindy Thomas and the show How I Built This. And, kids, if you want to learn more about all the ideas that Guy and I talked about, we have got some really cool activities for you at ted.npr.org. Plus, you can watch all the talks that Guy mentioned here, too. You got to see the dolphins. Oh, and, grown-ups, you can always see hundreds more Ted Talks at ted.com or on the TED app.

And now I need to show some gratitude and thank our hardworking production staff here at NPR, which includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

RAZ: She was thinking about Billy Ocean singing "Caribbean Queen."

ZOMORODI: (Singing) Caribbean Queen.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI AND GUY RAZ: (Singing) Now we're sharing the same dreams. And our hearts can beat as one. No, no more love on the run, run, run (vocalizing).

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RAZ: Such a good song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.