A.J. Jacobs: My journey to thank all the people responsible for my morning coffee

Recorded atJune 07, 2018
EventTED Salon Brightline Initiative
Duration (min:sec)15:10
Video TypeTED Salon Talk (partner)
Words per minute176.04 medium
Readability (FK)69.81 very easy
SpeakerA.J. Jacobs

Official TED page for this talk


Author A.J. 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.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 So, I don't like to boast, but I am very good at finding things to be annoyed about.
200:21 It is a real specialty of mine.
300:23 I can hear 100 compliments and a single insult, and what do I remember?
400:28 The insult.
500:30 And according to the research, I'm not alone.
600:32 Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to focus on the negative.
700:38 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.
800:46 It is a real major component of anxiety and depression.
900:52 So how can we fight the brain's negative bias?
1000:57 According to a lot of research, one of the best weapons is gratitude.
1101:03 So knowing this, I started a new tradition in our house a couple of years ago.
1201:08 Before a meal with my wife and kids, I would say a prayer of thanksgiving.
1301:14 Prayer is not quite the right word.
1401:16 I'm agnostic, so instead of thanking God, I would thank some of the people who helped make my food a reality.
1501:25 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."
1601:35 And I thought it was going pretty well, this tradition.
1701:39 Then one day, my 10-year-old son said, "You know, Dad, those people aren't in our apartment.
1801:44 They can't hear you.
1901:46 If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person."
2001:50 And I thought, "Hmm. That's an interesting idea."
2101:53 (Laughter)
2201:54 Now I'm a writer, and for my books I like to go on adventures.
2301:59 Go on quests.
2402:01 So I decided I'm going to take my son up on his challenge.
2502:05 It seemed simple enough.
2602:07 And to make it even simpler, I decided to focus on just one item.
2702:12 An item I can't live without: my morning cup of coffee.
2802:16 Well, it turned out to be not so simple at all.
2902:20 (Laughter)
3002:21 This quest took me months.
3102:22 It took me around the world.
3202:25 Because I discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people I take for granted.
3302:33 So I would thank the trucker who drove the coffee beans to the coffee shop.
3402:38 But he couldn't have done his job without the road.
3502:41 So I would thank the people who paved the road.
3602:44 (Laughter)
3702:45 And then I would thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement.
3802:50 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.
3903:03 Architects, biologists, designers, miners, goat herds, you name it.
4003:10 I decided to call my project "Thanks a Thousand."
4103:14 Because I ended up thanking over a thousand people.
4203:18 And it was overwhelming, but it was also wonderful.
4303:22 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.
4403:30 And it reminded me of the astounding interconnectedness or our world.
4503:36 I learned dozens of lessons during this project, but let me just focus on five today.
4603:43 The first is: look up.
4703:46 I started my trail of gratitude by thanking the barista at my local coffee shop, Joe Coffee in New York.
4803:53 Her name is Chung, and Chung is one of the most upbeat people you will ever meet.
4903:59 Big smiler, enthusiastic hugger.
5004:03 But even for Chung, being a barista is hard.
5104:06 And that's because you are encountering people in a very dangerous state.
5204:11 (Laughter)
5304:12 You know what it is -- precaffeination.
5404:15 (Laughter)
5504:17 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.
5604:27 So I thanked Chung, and she thanked me for thanking her.
5704:34 I cut it off there.
5804:35 I didn't want to go into an infinite thanking loop.
5904:37 (Laughter)
6004:39 But Chung said that the hardest part is when people don't even treat her like a human being.
6104:46 They treat her like a vending machine.
6204:48 So, they'll hand her their credit card without even looking up from their phone.
6304:53 And while she's saying this, I'm realizing I've done that.
6404:58 I've been that a-hole.
6505:00 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.
6605:09 Because it reminds you, you're dealing with a human being who has family and aspirations and embarrassing high school memories.
6705:19 And that little moment of connection is so important to both people's humanity and happiness.
6805:26 Alright, second lesson was: smell the roses. And the dirt. And the fertilizer.
6905:33 After Chung, I thanked this man.
7005:36 This is Ed Kaufmann.
7105:38 And Ed is the one who chooses which coffee they serve at my local coffee shop.
7205:43 He goes around the world, to South America, to Africa, finding the best coffee beans.
7305:49 So I thanked Ed.
7405:50 And in return, Ed showed me how to taste coffee like a pro.
7505:56 And it is quite a ritual.
7605:58 You take your spoon and you dip it in the coffee
7706:00 and then you take a big, loud slurp.
7806:03 Almost cartoonishly loud.
7906:05 This is because you want to spray the coffee all over your mouth.
8006:08 You have taste buds in the side of your cheeks, in the roof of your mouth, you've got to get them all.
8106:14 So Ed would do this and he would -- his face would light up and he would say, "This coffee tastes of Honeycrisp apple and notes of soil and maple syrup."
8206:30 And I would take a sip and I'd say, "I'm picking up coffee.
8306:35 (Laughter)
8406:37 It tastes to me like coffee."
8506:39 (Laughter)
8606:41 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.
8706:56 And I started to do it with other foods.
8806:58 And this idea of savoring is so important to gratitude.
8907:04 Psychologists talk about how gratitude is about taking a moment and holding on to it as long as possible.
9007:13 And slowing down time.
9107:16 So that life doesn't go by in one big blur, as it often does.
9207:21 Number three is: find the hidden masterpieces all around you.
9307:26 Now, one of my favorite conversations during this year was with the guy who invented my coffee cup lid.
9407:33 And until this point, I had given approximately zero thought to coffee cup lids.
9507:39 But I loved talking to this inventor, Doug Fleming, because he was so passionate.
9607:44 And the blood and sweat and tears he put into this lid, and that I had never even considered.
9707:51 He says a bad lid can ruin your coffee.
9807:54 That it can block the aroma, which is so important to the experience.
9907:59 So he -- he's very innovative.
10008:01 He's like the Elon Musk of coffee lids.
10108:03 (Laughter)
10208:04 So he designed this lid that's got an upside-down hexagon
10308:09 so you can get your nose right in there and get maximum aroma.
10408:13 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.
10508:23 Like the on-off switch on my desk lamp has a little indentation for my thumb that perfectly fits my thumb.
10608:31 And when something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible.
10708:37 But paying attention to it can tap into that sense of wonder and enrich our lives.
10808:44 Number four is: fake it till you feel it.
10908:47 By the end of the project, I was just in a thanking frenzy.
11008:51 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.
11109:03 And some of them, quite honestly -- not that into it.
11209:07 They would be like, "What is this?
11309:09 Is this a pyramid scheme, what do you want, what are you selling?"
11409:14 But most people were surprisingly moved.
11509:18 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.
11609:28 And I said, "This may sound strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee."
11709:36 And she said, "Well, that does sound strange, but you just made my day."
11809:41 And it was like an anti-crank phone call.
11909:45 And it didn't just affect her, it affected me.
12009:48 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.
12110:00 And what I found was that if you act as if you're grateful, you eventually become grateful for real.
12210:07 The power of our actions to change our mind is astounding.
12310:12 So, often we think that thought changes behavior, but behavior very often changes our thought.
12410:22 And finally, the last lesson I want to tell you about is: practice six degrees of gratitude.
12510:30 And every place, every stop on this gratitude trail would give birth to 100 other people that I could thank.
12610:39 So I went down to Colombia to thank the farmers who grow my coffee beans.
12710:44 And it was in a small mountain town, and I was driven there along these curvy, cliffside roads.
12810:51 And every time we went around a hairpin turn the driver would do the sign of the cross.
12910:59 And I was like, "Thank you for that.
13011:02 (Laughter)
13111:04 But can you do that while keeping your hands on the wheel?
13211:07 Because I am terrified."
13311:09 But we made it.
13411:10 And I met the farmers, the Guarnizo brothers.
13511:14 It's a small farm, they make great coffee, they're paid above fair-trade prices for it.
13611:20 And they showed me how the coffee is grown.
13711:23 The bean is actually inside this fruit called the coffee cherry.
13811:28 And I thanked them.
13911:30 And they said, "Well, we couldn't do our job without 100 other people."
14011:35 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.
14111:46 In fact, the US exports steel to Colombia.
14211:50 So I went to Indiana, and I thanked the steel makers.
14311:55 And it just drove home that it doesn't take a village to make a cup of coffee.
14412:02 It takes the world to make a cup of coffee.
14512:05 And this global economy, this globalization, it does have downsides.
14612:12 But I believe the long-term upsides are far greater, that progress is real.
14712:17 We have made improvements in the last 50 years, poverty worldwide has gone down.
14812:22 And that we should resist the temptation to retreat into our silos.
14912:28 And we should resist this upsurge in isolationism and jingoism.
15012:36 Which brings me to my final point.
15112:38 Which is my hope that we use gratitude as a spark to action.
15212:45 Some people worry that gratitude has a downside.
15312:49 That we'll be so grateful, that we'll be complacent.
15412:52 We'll be so, "Oh, everything's wonderful, I'm so grateful."
15512:56 Well, it turns out, the opposite is true.
15613:01 The research shows that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help others.
15713:08 When you're in a bad state, you're often more focused on your own needs.
15813:12 But gratitude makes you want to pay it forward.
15913:16 And I experienced this personally.
16013:18 I mean, I'm not Mother Teresa, I'm still a selfish bastard a huge amount of the time.
16113:23 But I'm better than I was before this project.
16213:27 And that's because it made me aware of the exploitation on the supply chain.
16313:34 It reminded me that what I take for granted is not available to millions of people around the world.
16413:40 Like water.
16513:42 Coffee is 98.8 percent water.
16613:46 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.
16713:55 And that millions of people around the world don't have this luxury and have to walk hours to get safe water.
16814:02 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.
16914:12 And I got involved.
17014:14 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.
17114:22 And it's all because of gratitude.
17214:25 And it's why I encourage people, friends, family, to follow gratitude trails of their own.
17314:31 Because it's a life-transforming experience.
17414:34 And it doesn't have to be coffee.
17514:36 It could be anything.
17614:37 It could be a pair of socks, it could be a light bulb.
17714:40 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.
17814:49 It's more about a mindset.
17914:51 Being aware of the thousands of people involved in every little thing we do.
18014:56 Remembering that there's someone in a factory who made the fabric for the chairs you're sitting in right now.
18115:04 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.
18215:14 Thank you a thousand for listening to my story.
18315:18 (Applause) (Cheering)