AJ Jacobs

AJ Jacobs: My journey to thank all the people responsible for my morning coffee

Author AJ Jacobs embarked on a quest with a deceptively simple idea at its heart: to personally thank every person who helped make his morning cup of coffee. More than one thousand "thank yous" later, Jacobs reflects on the globe-trotting journey that ensued -- and shares the life-altering wisdom he picked up along the way. "I discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people I take for granted," Jacobs says.


So, I don't like to boast, but I am very good at finding things to be annoyed about. It is a real specialty of mine. I can hear 100 compliments and a single insult, and what do I remember? The insult. And according to the research, I'm not alone.

Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to focus on the negative. Now, this might have been helpful when we were cave people, trying to avoid predators, but now it's a terrible way to go through life. It is a real major component of anxiety and depression.

So how can we fight the brain's negative bias? According to a lot of research, one of the best weapons is gratitude. So knowing this, I started a new tradition in our house a couple of years ago. Before a meal with my wife and kids, I would say a prayer of thanksgiving. Prayer is not quite the right word. I'm agnostic, so instead of thanking God, I would thank some of the people who helped make my food a reality. I'd say, "I'd like to thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes, and the trucker who drove these tomatoes to the store, and the cashier who rang these tomatoes up."

And I thought it was going pretty well, this tradition. Then one day, my 10-year-old son said, "You know, Dad, those people aren't in our apartment. They can't hear you. If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person." And I thought, "Hmm. That's an interesting idea."

(Laughter)

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 seemed simple enough. And to make it even simpler, I decided to focus on just one item. An item I can't live without: my morning cup of coffee. Well, it turned out to be not so simple at all.

(Laughter)

This quest took me months. It took me around the world. Because 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.

(Laughter)

And then I would thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement. And I came to realize that my coffee, like so much else in the world, requires the combined work of a shocking number of people from all walks of life. Architects, biologists, designers, miners, goat herds, you name it.

I decided to call my project "Thanks a Thousand." Because I ended up thanking over a thousand people. And it was overwhelming, but it was also wonderful. Because it allowed me to focus on the hundreds of things that go right every day, as opposed to the three or four that go wrong. And it reminded me of the astounding interconnectedness or our world. I learned dozens of lessons during this project, but let me just focus on five today.

The first is: look up. I started my trail of gratitude by thanking the barista at my local coffee shop, Joe Coffee in New York. Her name is Chung, and Chung is one of the most upbeat people you will ever meet. Big smiler, enthusiastic hugger. But even for Chung, being a barista is hard. And that's because you are encountering people in a very dangerous state.

(Laughter)

You know what it is -- precaffeination.

(Laughter)

So, Chung has had people yell at her until she cried, including a nine-year-old girl, who didn't like the whipped cream design that Chung did on her hot chocolate. So I thanked Chung, and she thanked me for thanking her. I cut it off there. I didn't want to go into an infinite thanking loop.

(Laughter)

But Chung said that the hardest part is when people don't even treat her like a human being. They treat her like a vending machine. So, they'll hand her their credit card without even looking up from their phone. And while she's saying this, I'm realizing I've done that. I've been that a-hole. And at that moment, I pledged: when dealing with people, I'm going to take those two seconds and look at them, make eye contact. Because it reminds you, you're dealing with a human being who has family and aspirations and embarrassing high school memories. And that little moment of connection is so important to both people's humanity and happiness.

Alright, second lesson was: smell the roses. And the dirt. And the fertilizer. After Chung, I thanked this man. This is Ed Kaufmann. And Ed is the one who chooses which coffee they serve at my local coffee shop. He goes around the world, to South America, to Africa, finding the best coffee beans. So I thanked Ed. And in return, Ed showed me how to taste coffee like a pro. And it is quite a ritual. You take your spoon and you dip it in the coffee and then you take a big, loud slurp. Almost cartoonishly loud. This is because you want to spray the coffee all over your mouth. You have taste buds in the side of your cheeks, in the roof of your mouth, you've got to get them all. So Ed would do this and he would -- his face would light up and he would say, "This coffee tastes of honey-crisp apple and notes of soil and maple syrup." And I would take a sip and I'd say, "I'm picking up coffee.

(Laughter)

It tastes to me like coffee."

(Laughter)

But inspired by Ed, I decided to really let the coffee sit on my tongue for five seconds -- we're all busy, but I could spare five seconds, and really think about the texture and the acidity and the sweetness. And I started to do it with other foods. And this idea of savoring is so important to gratitude. Psychologists talk about how gratitude is about taking a moment and holding on to it as long as possible. And slowing down time. So that life doesn't go by in one big blur, as it often does.

Number three is: find the hidden masterpieces all around you. Now, one of my favorite conversations during this year was with the guy who invented my coffee cup lid. And until this point, I had given approximately zero thought to coffee cup lids. But I loved talking to this inventor, Doug Fleming, because he was so passionate. And the blood and sweat and tears he put into this lid, and that I had never even considered. He says a bad lid can ruin your coffee. That it can block the aroma, which is so important to the experience. So he -- he's very innovative. He's like the Elon Musk of coffee lids.

(Laughter)

So he designed this lid that's got an upside-down hexagon so you can get your nose right in there and get maximum aroma. And so I was delighted talking to him, and it made me realize there are hundreds of masterpieces all around us that we totally take for granted. Like the on-off switch on my desk lamp has a little indentation for my thumb that perfectly fits my thumb. And when something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible. But paying attention to it can tap into that sense of wonder and enrich our lives.

Number four is: fake it till you feel it. 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. They would be like, "What is this? Is this a pyramid scheme, what do you want, what are you selling?" But most people were surprisingly moved. I remember, I called the woman who does the pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is served -- I'm sorry -- where my coffee is stored. And I said, "This may sound strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee." And she said, "Well, that does sound strange, but you just made my day." And it was like an anti-crank phone call. And it didn't just affect her, it affected me. Because I would wake up every morning in my default mood, which is grumpiness, but I would force myself to write a thank-you note and then another and then another. And what I found was that if you act as if you're grateful, you eventually become grateful for real. The power of our actions to change our mind is astounding. So, often we think that thought changes behavior, but behavior very often changes our thought.

And finally, the last lesson I want to tell you about is: practice six degrees of gratitude. And every place, every stop on this gratitude trail would give birth to 100 other people that I could thank. So I went down to Colombia to thank the farmers who grow my coffee beans. And it was in a small mountain town, and I was driven there along these curvy, cliffside roads. And every time we went around a hairpin turn the driver would do the sign of the cross. And I was like, "Thank you for that.

(Laughter)

But can you do that while keeping your hands on the wheel? Because I am terrified." But we made it. 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. And they showed me how the coffee is grown. The bean is actually inside this fruit called the coffee cherry. And I thanked them. And they said, "Well, we couldn't do our job without 100 other people." The machine that depulps the fruit is made in Brazil, and the pickup truck they drive around the farm, that is made from parts from all over the world. In fact, the US exports steel to Colombia. So I went to Indiana, and I thanked the steel makers. And it just drove home that it doesn't take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world to make a cup of coffee.

And this global economy, this globalization, it does have downsides. But I believe the long-term upsides are far greater, that progress is real. We have made improvements in the last 50 years, poverty worldwide has gone down. And that we should resist the temptation to retreat into our silos. And we should resist this upsurge in isolationism and jingoism.

Which brings me to my final point. Which is my hope that we use gratitude as a spark to action. Some people worry that gratitude has a downside. That we'll be so grateful, that we'll be complacent. We'll be so, "Oh, everything's wonderful, I'm so grateful." Well, it turns out, the opposite is true. The research shows that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help others. When you're in a bad state, you're often more focused on your own needs. But gratitude makes you want to pay it forward. And I experienced this personally. I mean, I'm not Mother Teresa, I'm still a selfish bastard a huge amount of the time. But I'm better than I was before this project. And that's because it made me aware of the exploitation on the supply chain. It reminded me that what I take for granted is not available to millions of people around the world.

Like water. Coffee is 98.8 percent water. So I figured I should go and thank the people at the New York reservoir, hundreds of them, who provide me water, and this miracle that I can turn a lever and get safe water. And that millions of people around the world don't have this luxury and have to walk hours to get safe water. It inspired me to see what I could do to help people get more access, and I did research and found a wonderful group called Dispensers for Safe Water. And I got involved. And I'm not expecting the Nobel Prize committee to knock down my door, but it's a baby step, it's a little something. And it's all because of gratitude. And it's why I encourage people, friends, family, to follow gratitude trails of their own. Because it's a life-transforming experience.

And it doesn't have to be coffee. It could be anything. It could be a pair of socks, it could be a light bulb. And you don't have to go around the world, you can just do a little gesture, like make eye contact or send a note to the designer of a logo you love. It's more about a mindset. Being aware of the thousands of people involved in every little thing we do. Remembering that there's someone in a factory who made the fabric for the chairs you're sitting in right now. That someone went into a mine and got the copper for this microphone so that I could say my final thank you, which is to thank you. Thank you a thousand for listening to my story.

(Applause)

(Cheering)