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

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?
  • Example of sketch notes for A.J.'s TED Radio Hour segment.
    / NPR
    Example of sketch notes for A.J.'s TED Radio Hour segment.

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