So what are the chances that two of the first four guests I ever had on this podcast would end up being the two new hosts of Jeopardy!? We rebroadcast my conversation with Mayim Bialik last week, this week it’s Ken Jennings’ turn. He’ll start sharing hosting duties with Mayim in early November. Ken will always be associated first and foremost with his Jeopardy! accomplishments, but I have to say, he’s also written some fantastic books, and I think his life advice in this episode was some of the best any of my guests have given. I should note that we recorded this conversation before Alex Trebek, the former host of Jeopardy!, passed away last year.
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Ken JENNINGS: Somebody who thinks they have an unremarkable memory or a kid who can’t learn their times tables, they still know every word of every song on their favorite album and they know every player on the roster of their favorite team. The memory is working just fine when engaged. Like the people you see on Jeopardy! tonight don’t have photographic memories. That’s not a real thing. They’re just interested in 10 times the things you are. And so more facts stick.
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Steven LEVITT: So everybody knows Ken Jennings, the amazing Jeopardy! champion. Seventy-four straight wins. He won the Greatest Of All Time tournament. But for me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I once stumbled on one of his children’s books — he writes books for nerdy 12-year-olds. And it was awesome, it was interesting. And then I found he wrote books for adults. And I started reading those and I couldn’t put them down. And now he’s got a podcast. And it’s incredibly fascinating. And here’s a guy who I thought maybe’d be one-dimensional when I just knew about Jeopardy! But the more I learned about Ken Jennings, the more amazed I was at how interesting he was, how smart he was, how multi-dimensional he was. This is a guy I’d like to get to know, this guy I’d like to be friends with.
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Steve LEVITT: All right. So, Ken, it’s really a pleasure to be here talking to you today. Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time, best-selling author, probably America’s most beloved brainiac. I can’t imagine that you could have scripted a life that’s turned out much better than the one that you’ve been able to live.
JENNINGS: It’s a very unusual niche I have found, and I feel incredibly lucky to have landed in it. As far back as I can remember, I was a huge game show nerd and I never had a guidance counselor think that was a career. At the time I went on Jeopardy! for the first time I was 29-years-old. I was in the middle of a weird midlife crisis because I was in computers and I didn’t like my job. And instead of buying a sports car or whatever most people do, I went on a game show and through a very weird set of circumstances it changed my life.
LEVITT: I suspect — I know your job was being a computer programmer. Were you bad at that job? It doesn’t seem like you have a lot of the traits that would make someone a good computer programmer.
JENNINGS: Yeah, I was the first generation that had a PC at home and that you could get to do stuff and that you could solve little puzzles with it. I really did think, “Oh, I’ll just solve little puzzles on computers my whole life. And that’ll be fun.” And really, like midway through college, I realized this is just stultifyingly boring to me. I don’t have the right brain for it. I’m not good at it. And, in fact, I added a double major. I switched to an English major, just to try to get through college without losing my mind. Just have a few classes that I would enjoy.
LEVITT: Essentially, what you’ve done is you’ve turned your hobby into an incredibly rewarding career and you’ve been better at that than me. Well, my two hobbies are data and golf. And I’ve turned data into a career. I actually tried to turn golf into a career, too. I don’t know — people don’t know this but I, when I turned 40, my midlife crisis was that I decided I wanted to be a professional golfer on the Champions golf tour. And I worked really, really hard at it. And I really was — the physical limitations were far too great and I never got to be that good. And you’ve done much better in that regard than I did.
JENNINGS: Well, the thing they say about, “You can take all the joy out of something by starting to do it for your livelihood.” It’s true to some degree. Even though I love writing and I love podcasting, it was such a treat when it was new. My first book was so much fun to write. And the first podcasts were so much fun to record. And then it becomes homework, like anything else. Then it’s got a deadline and you just have to keep doing it. It’s the same fun thing. But for some reason, your brain is like, “Oh, no. This again?” It’s a terrible thing.
LEVITT: It sounds like it’s time for another midlife crisis.
JENNINGS: Yeah, really my crisis right now is just not having kids who need a good dad anymore because they’re aging into adolescence. And I’m out of a job. Which is — that’s a real second midlife crisis.
LEVITT: So you’ve described in your books what you were like as a kid. And like you, I was a real sponge for information. And actually, my father encouraged it. My father used to pay me 50 dollars per volume of the encyclopedia that I would read and then write questions on. So I probably made it through eight or 10 letters of the 26 in the encyclopedia when I was maybe, I don’t know, 10-years-old. And I know your youth was a variant on that, as well. You were nothing but a sponge.
JENNINGS: Yeah, there seems to be — and I don’t think I knew this until I wrote Brainiac and interviewed just dozens of people like this — there is such a type that just seems to be like this from the womb that I have become a firm believer that it’s chromosomal in some way. There must be a trivia gene. Because these little boys and girls, fresh from the womb, will just clutch the Guinness Book of World Records and they’ll obsess about baseball statistics.
They will, literally, just hunger for information and they’ll be omnivorous about it. We’re all good at remembering stuff, but trivia people are unique in that they are just so interested in everything that everything sticks in their heads. And if somebody is like this, it’s very likely that they were like this when they were three or four.
LEVITT: How did the trivia elites or the snobs, how did they react to you? Because you’re such a popularizer and often popularizers are derided by the sycophants.
JENNINGS: In general, people have been very nice. When you meet somebody from TV, you’re nice. That’s the corrosive thing about fame, but it’s also the very lubricating thing about fame. I remember the College Quiz Bowl community in particular, I remember a little bit of skepticism because they knew I was not a great College Quiz Bowl player. I was a generalist and I was raised on Jeopardy!, so my idea of the trivia cannon is Jeopardy! Lots of wordplay, lots of a puzzle element, questions you can figure out with a combination of intuition and induction. And Quiz Bowl is much more about who can recognize the obscure academic fact first. And that’s one of the least interesting things about quiz games to me.
So my aesthetic of trivia is different from a lot of those people. And when I was writing or editing a lot of quiz questions, I would privilege the puzzle-solving Jeopardy! thing. The bringing together facts from different fields, including lowbrow culture. And that doesn’t go over big there. So there are some culture wars that you wouldn’t care about if you weren’t a trivia person, but which I just find fascinating.
LEVITT: Yeah, I had the same thing in economics because I’m obviously not the best economist in the world. I’m not even above average probably for an academic economist in many ways. Yet, it was puzzling to a lot of economists that my stuff was popular. And it typically led to one of three reactions to me and you probably get some of the same ones. One reaction was disgust and disdain.
A second reaction was that they thought that, “Well, if I can do this, then obviously they can do better than me.” And everyone decided they wanted to write a book because they figured, “If Levitt can write a popular book, I’m sure I can write a popular book much better than his.” And the third reaction was, to say, “Hey, this is great news. Since Freakonomics came out, there are more economics majors. And since there’s a limited supply of economics professors and a bigger demand for services, my salary is going to go up.”
JENNINGS: Yeah, I can see analogs to all those. When a subculture gets a little bit of a spotlight, it’s exciting. But then it’s like the little band you love going big. There’s downsides as well.
LEVITT: O.K., so let’s talk about Jeopardy! Back in 2004, you had your amazing run, and then earlier this year you returned for the greatest of all time tournament. And that was against Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer. And Brad Rutter has the record for the most money ever won on Jeopardy! And James was this new hot shot with 32 wins, and he holds the 10 highest single day winning totals of all time.
You had to be the underdog in that tournament, but yet you came back and won it. You beat those two and you put up numbers in the process that were better than anything you’ve ever done before. And I’ve looked at the questions in that tournament. They were hard. They were much harder than a typical Jeopardy! tournament. So the only thing I’m left to think is that somehow, against all odds, you actually got way, way better at Jeopardy! over the last 15 years, which seems impossible. But is that actually true?
JENNINGS: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I went on Jeopardy! shortly after college and that was really good. I still remembered all the French kings from ninth grade Western Civ. But decades go by where you’re not in a classroom and the world keeps producing new information and the brain is no longer as plastic or whatever as it was as you get into your 40s. And there’s just too much to know. Jeopardy! really is a young person’s game. You want to be old enough that you know the boomer trivia. But you still want to be young enough that you know who Cardi B is, and it’s a pretty narrow window.
Being inside my brain and watching it age 15 years, I know that I’m getting worse at Jeopardy! I actually told them I didn’t want to play in this G.O.A.T. tournament because I figured I was a little bit past my prime and it wouldn’t be at my best. I think what you’re seeing with those numbers is, I mean, you’re seeing luck, for one thing. I found Daily Doubles that I happened to know, and some of the other guys didn’t find Daily Doubles when they needed them.
But I think you’re also just seeing whoever’s mojo is just locked into the right rhythm on those tape days. And that happened to be me. But the stats would vary widely if James’s buzzer timing was a millisecond different that day and you would think, “Ah! he knew more of those clues.”
LEVITT: What share of the questions do you know?
JENNINGS: On any given night there are 61 Jeopardy! questions and I know 50-something of them, I think. And as you’re saying, they got a little harder in the tournament because they didn’t want it to be nothing but reflexes determining that game, so it’s a little different in a championship game. But we all probably knew most of the same game material with some noise. But it’s just a matter of who gets to buzz in first. And that’s true of Jeopardy! every night. Almost all of the contestants are buzzing almost all of the time.
LEVITT: What I am most surprised by is: here’s a show that’s been on the air for 40 years. Some of the smartest people are on it, and James Holzhauer comes along and, if you believe the media reports, he completely revolutionized the game by having a different strategy. And it just doesn’t sound right to me. Do you think that he revolutionized the game? Or put another way, do you wish when you had been on the show that you had played like him?
JENNINGS: So two things here. One is that Jeopardy! is unique in all the fields of human achievement or competition in that you’re seeing people play for the first time. They just walked into the studio that morning and they got to try the buzzer for a few minutes and then they made a TV show. So it would be like if you watch the Olympics on NBC and everybody you watched — the high jumpers, the badminton players — they were all just basically trying it for the first time on national TV.
And a situation like that does lead players to just do what they’ve seen done, to be risk- averse, to not want to try things out. That said, most of the things in James’s arsenal — starting at the bottom of the board, looking for daily doubles — those are things that people have tried before. And really, the secret of James’s strategy is if you try those things and you are one of the top all time players, it’s incredibly effective. In general, people should be prone to bigger wagers on Jeopardy! You should take more advantage of Daily Doubles than most people do, because historically I think Daily Doubles are answered right, even by just an average player, something like 70 percent of the time.
And so I’m somebody who probably could have played a James-like game with bigger wagers and it would have been a bigger check. But honestly, I think one of the reasons why I was on my show for six months is just because I played a low-impact game and it lowers the chances of big catastrophes, like you’re saying. But also psychologically, you never have to come back and play Jeopardy! knowing that you just lost $40,000 on a trivia question. And for a professional gambler like James, he has the cool head for that. And I don’t think I would have coped very well with having to play under those conditions.
LEVITT: So there’s something in one of your books that really struck me, which is there’s this sense of knowing that you know something well before you actually can articulate what you know. And that is really the secret to being good on quiz bowl or on Jeopardy! And it’s an interesting phenomenon about the brain that I’ve never really heard discussed anywhere. Have you reflected at all? Do you have any sense of the deeper meaning of that?
JENNINGS: Yeah, you have to learn not to, as you say, not to buzz in when you have the answer; you have to buzz in when you know you can buzz in with the answer. So it’s a meta-knowledge about the brain. And so much of these games are really meta-knowledge. It’s not just producing the right answer.
It’s being able to think through: is this answer too obvious? Is this answer too difficult? Does this fit the previous clues in the question about chronology and gender and geography and so forth? There’s a lot of heuristics like that going on. But yes, the sense that, and I don’t know if everybody can do this, but to be aware of the existence of your factorability before you could actually produce it is super important to Jeopardy! And I have no idea if it’s important to other areas of life.
LEVITT: I never talked to a good N.F.L. quarterback about this. I wonder if quarterbacks have the same sort of sense of they know what they need to do before they really know what it’s going to be and it allows them to react somehow more quickly. But most of life is not about speed. And so I don’t think we practice that skill very often. I think things we don’t practice we’re not very good at.
JENNINGS: There’s a big problem when rookies play Jeopardy!-type games in that they’re extremely resistant to trying to answer. And afterwards you’ll say time and you’ll say, “Oh, no, actually, that was Kazakhstan.” And somebody will be like, “Yeah, I knew it was Kazakhstan.” And they’re right. They did know it. But they’re extremely resistant to answering the question. And I’m sure that goes back to just humans being bad at gauging risk. But we’re not good at knowing what we know.
LEVITT: So let me stick on the topic of the brain. So you’ve written that you have a geographic memory and I don’t even know what that means. What do you mean by that?
JENNINGS: I did not understand this about myself until I wrote a book about my childhood love of maps and geography. I wrote a book called MapHead about people with weird geographic quirks and hobbies. And one thing I found writing the book is that I see the world through a very geographic lens that many people do not share, but other people with weird geography fixations do.
It comes into play in terms of memory. I will find that I often file stuff away by place. If I learn something new about Ecuador, a halo of associations appears all related to Ecuador, not so much related to the narrative I’m hearing about, or the time period, or the biographies of the people involved. It’s all about the place. The volcanoes of Ecuador, and the llamas, and facts I’ve heard about the history, and the equator. You know, it’s all very spatial.
And even when I dream, it’s often very spatial. I’m moving through physical spaces. I’m aware of where I am on some map. I know where North is in my dreams. I often return to imaginary areas of Seattle that have certain kinds of restaurants that don’t exist in real life, but which I’ve returned to multiple times in my dreams. I have a vague idea of where they are in relation to me on a city street map. And most people are not like this, but it must just be a quirk of how my spatial reasoning works.
LEVITT: That’s fascinating. I was surprised that when you were prepping for Jeopardy!, you and your wife, Mindy, were working with flash cards. I would think, and most people probably think, that you, to excel the way you have, must have a memory that is so good that you don’t need flash cards because you just need to learn something once and you remember forever? Is that not true?
JENNINGS: I would say the general rule is: if I learned something once and I find it interesting, I think it’s more likely to stick. But again, I think that’s near universal. Somebody who thinks they have an unremarkable memory or a kid who can’t learn their times tables, they still know every word of every song on their favorite album and they know every player on the roster of their favorite team. The memory is working just fine when engaged. Like the people you see on Jeopardy! tonight don’t have photographic memories. That’s not a real thing. They’re just interested in 10 times the things you are. And so more facts stick, I guess.
And preparing for Jeopardy! I realized there were some things that were too boring even for me. It’s really important to know the years of presidential terms. And having a spatial memory I find that chronological thing just really tedious. And in my Jeopardy! G.O.A.T. tournament, James and Brad are phenomenal at it. You can tell them battles from the Hundred Years War and they’ll know what decade it is. Not because they memorized the year, but just because they think that way. And I don’t.
So to memorize John Quincy Adams‘s 1824 election, I had to make up a little story about how — well, imagine Quincy, the 1970s medical examiner, working a 24-hour shift. Quincy, 24. And then I could get there that way. But to me, that was way more interesting than a series of Whig politicians with their dates.
LEVITT: Do you have advice on how people can improve their memory?
JENNINGS: The core of it is really, your memory is good. Your memory works just fine. It’s not a broken hard drive. If you’re not remembering stuff, it’s because you don’t care about it, like you have not figured out how to up the stakes of whatever it is or frame the knowledge in a fun way, you haven’t made it a story.
You think classical music is boring, but maybe if you read about the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring, it would come to life. Now they would be people and it would be a time and you’d remember that stuff. So I think people mistakenly think they have a bad memory. They mistakenly think things are boring. It just hasn’t quite been explained to them right.
LEVITT: So I understand, of course, why you do Jeopardy!, but you compete on trivia generally. So, for instance, we’re both in this thing called the Learned League, which is a trivia league that’s got 16,000 people. And I would think for somebody like you, there’s nothing but a downside to competing in trivia. Why? What makes you do it?
JENNINGS: That is absolutely true. That’s very perceptive. There’s almost no upside for me to do stuff like this. And for that reason, I’m trying to taper it off. The thing about Learned League is it’s actually run by a friend of mine. I feel like it would be disloyal to stop. So there is friendship involved. But also the Learned League is honor system only. You have all day to think about the answers and then you just type them into a Web page and send them off. So it’s honor system only. You could Google all the answers in 30 seconds. And I always play 100 percent clean.
The utility I provide — I guess you’d have to take my word for it — but the utility I provide is you can see what top-line Jeopardy! performance looks like on Learned League. And anybody slightly outscoring me is just a very good trivia player. Anybody who is vastly outscoring me is clearly cheating. So it’s a way I can exercise moral superiority. I can look, “Ah, this guy who beat me. That guy I wouldn’t last on Jeopardy! for 10 minutes.”
LEVITT: So it’s interesting you say that because I wanted to ask you about cheating, because all the stats are public. Out of the roughly 16,000 people who are in the league — your percent-correct is 160th. So you’re in the 99th percentile, but just barely.
But what’s interesting is that there’s also a component of the Learned League which you cannot cheat, where there’s a championship among the elite of the elites in which you are monitored and can’t cheat. And you have finished in the top 10 the last two years. And there are other possible hypotheses, but that certainly does point to the idea that there’s some cheating going on. Is that your take on it as well?
JENNINGS: Yeah. As you say, there are other explanations. Many people don’t deal well with the pressure of having to play under the gun, and I obviously thrive under that kind of pressure. I will often be watching myself on Jeopardy! on TV and I will not know an answer and then “TV Me” will actually get it right. Which is a weird thing about the brain. But I think you’re right. I think mostly that effect is explained by people cheating.
And it’s so bizarre to me because they’re cheating at a thing that not only has no prize, but they’re cheating in an arena where the only fun thing about it is trying to think of the answer. So you have short-circuited the only source of fun in this game you are paying to play in order to look up answers. And I guess it just speaks to the fact that the need to know an answer is so compulsive that for many people it’s just irresistible. They just cannot help not knowing a thing.
And I am sympathetic to that. I know this amazing sigh of wellbeing I get when I finally finish a crossword or whatever. To finally know an answer that was bugging you, it’s incredibly satisfying. I get not being able to control that and then to rationalize it later and say, “Oh, well, yes, of course, of course. I would have got that. I would have got that. I’m not a cheater.” But yes, I think in any honors system trivia that the need to know is so great that you will have a small amount of cheating. And it’s a bummer.
LEVITT: So you wouldn’t know but I have my own trivia heroics. I peaked, unfortunately, at the age of 13 or 14 and I have not looked back. I have not thought about trivia for something like almost 40 years. And then my high school Bowl teammate was in Learned League and he invited me in and I really hesitantly said yes. And I found that it immediately became an obsession. And it really keeps me busy. So now I can never be bored, because there is always something to be learned.
But the sad part is that I have a lot of knowledge — it’s buried so deep because it’s 40-years-old — that when I see those questions, I’m not exaggerating, that I can think for 45 minutes about a question before I know the answer. I know I know the answer as soon as I look at it and it will take me 45 minutes. And the sad part is, I’ll do it. That I actually will sit there for 45 minutes.
JENNINGS: That is not sad at all. I mean, two things. One is that we spend all our life putting things into our brain, and they so seldom come in handy. It’s incredibly validating to have something emerge from your mind and actually pay off in some real world sense. That’s really the essential appeal of quiz games is it makes you feel like something in your brain mattered. When you mentioned that about always having something to do and something to learn, it’s a great way to live. It’s the best way to live, to be curious like that.
But I have recently found — I’m pretty — well, I’m retired from Jeopardy! I’m never going to go back and play on Jeopardy! again. I don’t know how I can top that. And I’m not getting any better. And I have the reverse experience now where it’s incredibly relieving to hear someone tell me a story or tell me something in the news and the part of my brain that in the past would have been like, “Ooh, I’ve got to file that away.” I now have this incredibly Zen feeling of, “Hey, it actually does not matter if I remember that story. Alex Trebek is never going to want to know that fact from me. Thank goodness.”
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with the all-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. They’ll return after this short break.
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LEVEY: Hey, Steve. I wanted to know — how’s your attempt to learn German going?
LEVITT: Not so good.
LEVEY: Well, you spent a month in Germany this summer. Were you able to use anything you’ve learned?
LEVITT: I can use what I learned, but it’s all just show. There’s virtually no one in Germany who doesn’t speak English better than I speak German.
LEVEY: So we’ve recently had two listeners write in to ask questions about languages. Jonathan E. wanted to know: “Does knowing certain languages have an economic worth?” Do you have an answer for him?
LEVITT: I have a little bit of data and a lot of common sense that I think gets to the bottom of this. So the little bit of data looks at Americans and shows that the returns to knowing foreign languages are really low on the order of maybe a 2-percent increase in your average wage. I think it’s just obvious that in the U.S. where everything is conducted in English, you just won’t get a very big return to knowing a foreign language. There may be reasons to learn languages, but I don’t think it’s because you’re going to collect a bigger paycheck, at least not if you live in the United States. Maybe if you could learn Mandarin, it might be a different story. Now, the problem with Mandarin is it is impossible to learn. But that’s exactly why there might be big returns, there are so many companies now where business with China will be so important. And the fact that skill is so scarce and so hard to learn means that there should be, I think, a really big return to it.
LEVEY: What if you’re not American though?
LEVITT: I think if you’re not American, then it’s a totally different story because English is the language of business. If you don’t speak English, all sorts of opportunities are cut off. I spent three or four days, a few years ago, wandering around in the slums of Mumbai, and it really seemed to me that there were very few ways out of the slums but one obvious way was knowing English because it opened up the hospitality industry to you. It opened up call centers. And a project I’ve been working on without success ever since then is how can I find a way to help motivated children or adults who are living in the slums of India learn English because it’s not easy. I went to the grammar schools and the teachers who were supposed to be teaching English didn’t really speak any English. So you weren’t going to learn good English from going to school. If we could create that opportunity, there’d be some set of people who could really benefit from access to learning English.
LEVEY: So we had another listener write in, David L. He’s a freshman in college, and he’s wondering if he should continue taking French because it will be beneficial. Or if you should just forget French and take classes, he’s actually more interested in.
LEVITT: I would tell you whether it’s languages or anything else, I think every college student should take what they like, take what they enjoy, the specific things you learn in college aren’t that important. It’s really about exploration, about learning how to think about being excited about the world around you and finding what you’ll be good at. And so in that regard my advice to my own kids and to the people I advise just take what you love. I think the economic outcomes for people who study stuff they don’t love anyway, aren’t good. I’m really all in favor of exploration, taking chances, having intellectual fun while you’re in college. I wish I had done so much more of it myself.
LEVEY: I should note that there are two Freakonomics Radio episodes that cover languages one’s called: “Is learning a foreign language really worth it?” Number 158 and the other one’s called, “Why don’t we speak the same language?” Number 300. Thanks for writing in David and Jonathan, if you have a question for us, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s the acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent. We look forward to reading yours. Thanks.
LEVITT: Okay, so let’s talk about your books. And I’m not just saying this, you are an amazing writer. I think I’ve had a look at every one of your books, except I’d never looked at Planet Funny, your most recent one. And so this morning I thought, “Well, I better read at least a few pages before I go in the interview just so I can talk about it intelligently.” And I was sitting around and my son was on the couch doing videos or whatever he always does. And I was laughing so loud that he’s like, “Dad, what are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m just reading this book.”
And literally, my son has not read a book in my presence in his entire life. He’s 16-years-old. And I handed him the book and he starts laughing out loud and won’t give me the book back. So I’ve got to say, of all the compliments I could offer to somebody about their writing, that’s roughly the greatest compliment I think that could be offered, that you won over my son.
JENNINGS: Wow, I’m a huge fan of your writing as well. So that was already a great compliment. But now you’ve been dethroned by your 16-year-old.
LEVITT: So you’ve written a book about the lies we tell our children, and I should have something better to do but obviously, I don’t — I actually went through all of the ideas in that book and I tallied up your judgment of whether the things that we tell our kids are true or false. And two thirds are false and one third are true.
But that surprised me because honestly, when I was growing up, I believed everything my mother said. And then when I got to be roughly college age, a couple times, it occurred to me that maybe the things weren’t true. And I researched what my mother said. And I shouldn’t say this because she’s probably listening, but literally, my mother has not been right about a single thing. Maybe other people would be surprised that only a third of the things we tell our kids are true, but I was shocked that anything we tell our kids are true.
JENNINGS: The data set is weird because the book fact checks just old wives’ tales, but I’ve selected the things that have surprising twists. A lot of the common sense things I tell my kids are, “Don’t put the fork in the toaster.” And that’s 100 percent true. I feel like I’m pretty reliable. “Don’t put the fork in the toaster.”
It’s just the things that we’re repeating that we heard from our parents that we have not fact-checked and that we sometimes get wrong. And they’re surprising. Like all the eye-related ones are not true. Like, “You’ll hurt your eyes if you wear your sister’s glasses,” “You’ll hurt your eyes if you watch TV too close or too long.” All this stuff about hurting your eyes is baloney. Your eyes will bounce right back.
LEVITT: My wife told her younger brother one time when they were camping, because he was playing music she didn’t like, she told him that he had to turn his music down because it would attract mosquitoes. And she knew fully that she was lying to him. She just needed some reason for him to turn down his stereo. And she had told me that story. And the amazing thing was not a year ago, her fully grown, now, you know 35-year-old brother said it completely seriously, “Oh my God, we have to turn the music down. We don’t want the mosquitoes to come and bite us.”
And I turned to her, and we both broke out laughing. But the power of things you learn when you’re 5-years-old, they have a power to stick with you and to rule your life if you don’t have enough common sense to understand that authority figures are often lying to you for their own private benefit.
JENNINGS: I don’t know if that’s just a result of how plastic the brain is when you’re a kid or if it’s just some example of primacy effect where the first thing you hear about a topic tends to stick more than subsequent things. But that is absolutely true. And that’s why parenting stuff was such a fertile field for this kind of a pop-reference debunking kind of a book because I think we do just pass along stuff we think is dangerous because we heard it once. “Apple seeds are dangerous,” “Don’t drop a coin off a balcony; it can go right through somebody’s head.”
Now it’s very easy to run numbers on this. And there is peer-reviewed research on a lot of this stuff. I think half a dozen different universities have done work on the five-second rule. Just because it’s a fun thing. You’ll get publicity, I guess? Is that why that stuff gets researched? You probably know better than me.
LEVITT: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t have much to do research-wise. And the idea that you could do something that somebody would ever care about is alluring, even if the global import of it is not going to be earth-shattering.
JENNINGS: But it’s astounding. There have been hundreds of studies trying to relate sugar intake with hyperactivity in children and nobody can do it. There appears to be no relationship at all between whether your kid has had sugar and how nuts they are. And no parent will believe this, but it is apparently true. It’s academically unprovable. You just happened to see your kids running around a lot at a place where they just had a birthday cake, and you think, “Ah, see a sugar rush,” but sugar rush is not real.
LEVITT: I find with issues of correlation versus causality, the human brain is really not well equipped to separate those two. And parents are at the front of the line when it comes to confusing correlation and causality.
You have a series of books for — you call them the Junior Genius Guides — for smart kids. And these are just incredible books because there are a lot of books written for kids that are interesting but are childish or whatever, but your books are, first of all, interesting even to adults. I was just reading the one about the human body, and it starts out talking about the elements in the body and how if you ground up a human body and sold it, that it would go for 160 bucks for the elements. But most of that was potassium, everything else wasn’t worth much.
You would think I was a 12-year-old. I was completely taken in by this book. And what I found interesting is that it didn’t seem like a book written by an adult for kids — it actually seemed like it was a book written by a kid. Have you somehow managed to stay a kid, do you think?
JENNINGS: That really is the power of trivia; it’s the fun, approachable side of knowledge. It’s always like: how can I present this dry fact about anatomy? What’s the analogy that makes this seem fun? is there a way to turn it into a story? Is there a way to compare it? Can I change the size scale to make the metaphor more eye-popping? All these things that you think of to make a Trivial Pursuit card funnier, that’s exactly the kind of thing that makes the knowledge more likely to stick in the ear of a listener.
And crucial to those books is the fact that you don’t treat the kid like a kid. I mean, you treat the kid like a peer. And I would have always thought of it a, me, an adult, talking to another adult, because kids don’t like to be talked down to. But maybe you’re right — maybe it’s me as a kid talking to a kid as a kid.
LEVITT: So you obviously have a very active mind. But I also get the sense that you were a very involved parent and spent a lot of time parenting. And the challenge I’ve always found is that in order to parent, I feel like I have to quiet my mind. I have to somehow focus on the kids instead of on the hundred other things that are racing through my mind that are in competition with that. Were you a bored parent, or how did you reconcile who you are with parenting?
JENNINGS: Yeah, I really see a lot of myself in that. I do have a restless mind and a compulsive mind, and I guess we’ve all turned into this now in the age of the cell phone. But you’re absolutely right that what the child really wants and needs is just this unwavering attention and connection. And for me personally, the great gift of Jeopardy! was my schedule was flexible. I could work around my kids; I could see them more. The way we in the West and we in the U.S. have conceived work is really the enemy of good parenting.
LEVITT: But that’s so painful. And look, I have a lot of kids. I have six kids. So obviously, I’ve done my best to try to accommodate them. But I’m just curious because I don’t think I’ve been very successful. I’m not a person who has gotten a tremendous amount of moment-to-moment joy out of playing fantasy games with my children. And I thought maybe you might have some kind of secret.
JENNINGS: If you’ve got six kids, you should be telling me the secret. I mean, you’re playing the game on the highest difficulty level. I mean, in both cases, I’ve been lucky in that my kids were interested in things I was interested in so we could carve out what our thing was and we would both be equally engaged in building the Lego, or watching the show, or going to the science museum, or whatever it was. So we could definitely find a lot of places where there was parity of attention.
LEVITT: I’ve always thought that one of the most important parts of parenting was knowing maybe what your hopes and dreams are for the kids. And that ends up dictating a lot of the way that you raise them. So what kind of hopes and dreams do you carry for your children?
JENNINGS: That’s so tricky because at first you by default think they are your hopes and dreams. And you have to let go of that and just work it back to basic principles. My core advice about raising children is you think you have control and they are absolutely who they are out of the box. If you didn’t realize it with your first kid, you’ll realize it if you have a second kid, because they will be raised in almost exactly the same environment apart from the older sibling, and they will 100 percent be their own people because they just came out of the tap that way.
You realize really what you have to do is just let them be themselves and incorporate that into the culture of the family so that nobody feels like the outsider. And so what are the essentials of the culture of your family? Your hopes and dreams for your kids might be that they can retain a sense of humor no matter what happens, or that they treat other people with respect by default, or that they honestly say what they’re feeling instead of putting up a front. Things like this might be better hopes and dreams than, “I hope my kid one day gets into Juilliard.”
LEVITT: Exactly. So I would say my main hopes and dreams for my kids are that they will be happy and that they’ll be nice. Have you consciously thought about principles like that for your kids?
JENNINGS: One hundred percent. And we actually try to talk about it; I try to make it collaborative just over dinner or whatever. I’m a Latter-Day-Saint. I was raised in the Mormon religion. And there’s a real emphasis on just spending family time together, like carve out time on a weeknight, and that’s one of the conversations that we have is like, “What do you guys think is central about this family? What are the values that are most important and how can we make sure we have those?” And it really is always just variants on be happy, be nice. I mean, any religion that doesn’t do that fails.
LEVITT: You were raised Mormon. And then you made real choices for yourself about how to bring spirituality in. I think — so let me put it this way, I think it’s incredibly difficult in the modern world to find one’s way spiritually, so I’m wondering if you have advice for others on that topic.
JENNINGS: Yeah, I can. Give me 30 seconds. I can mop that up. I guess the core principle that I want my kids to take away, which is extremely hard in modernity, is the idea that the amazing and explicative power of science has improved our lives in a bajillion ways, but it’s not very good at replacing the human need for meaning — and I guess spirituality in a broad sense.
One thing I’ve really found is that, just the sense of certainty from not just angry Internet new atheists, but just the culture in general, the certainty that this kind of stuff is, it’s nice, but it’s optional and actually we do have it all figured out and it’s all a bit silly to do anything like that. It really rivals the worst kind of religious closed-mindedness that I ever saw as a kid. It’s exactly what I see from people online just scoffing at any practice of religion.
As if all the great thinkers who were trying to figure all this stuff out were dummies. But SpaghettiMonster69 on Reddit has this all figured out. And I just want to keep my kids from imbibing that. I’m O.K. if they don’t wind up believers. But I don’t want them to have considered it unworthy of consideration, you know? I want them to put in the time and ask the questions and to realize that the questions are important, because they appear to be optional.
LEVITT: So your kids are growing up. You’ve retired from Jeopardy!, Where do you think you’re going? What’s next for you?
JENNINGS: Yeah. It really is an inflection point for me. And as I’ve said, not needing to be a dad that much anymore. While you’re doing it, you don’t realize how much of your life is being a dad and keeping the room lively and being a bit of a cruise director. And being the fun dad takes some work. Having that gone and Jeopardy! gone means I get to work more on the things that —
I’ve been spread pretty thin because I like to do everything a little bit. So the book I’m late with, which is a fun travel guide to the afterlife, different versions of the afterlife from mythology and religion and TV and everything — theme park rides, comic books — that actually is finally getting finished now. I’ve been doing a podcast with my friend John Roderick called Omnibus twice a week that we really enjoy because it’s fun to stretch a little and having this spatial memory that I do, I’m not great at narrative, which is again, not a good trait in a writer.
But it’s really exciting to try to work on something new and get better at something, no matter how late in your life it is. Maybe being on the other side of the screen, people who retire as players, they’re going to be coaches. They’re going to be G.M.s; they’re going to be booth teams. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a professional trivia coach, but hopefully I can do stuff like that from the other side of the— And it’s much easier when you have the answers in front of you. So it’s a lot less stressful.
LEVITT: Obviously, some day will come when Jeopardy! needs a new host and I think that there will be a unanimous vote for who that new host should be. And that’s going to be you, don’t you think?
JENNINGS: No. That’s very flattering. Thank you. But I get asked that a lot and it’s very troubling for me, mostly because it makes me have to think about a version of Jeopardy! without Alex Trebek. And I’m not emotionally ready. He’s so ingrained in the rhythms of the game to me, having grown up on his voice, that really people consider him a part of their families He’s in their house for half an hour every night. I can’t imagine what a version of Jeopardy! that is post-Alex, so I’m trying not to.
LEVITT: Yeah, I think everyone is. All right, last question. So, you seem like a person who might offer good advice, so how about on living a great life?
JENNINGS: The secret is not necessarily to follow your bliss. I get annoyed when I hear people who have succeeded improbably in a field tell you to follow your dreams, because of course, Channing Tatum thinks that you can strip and act your way to success because he’s the one in 100,000 person who did that. And it does not follow that just because I was able to pay for a house on game show winnings that every Jeopardy! fan should quit their job and train for Jeopardy!
But I guess, the root principle is sound, that the talents you have, the things you’re good at are really sacred. Like those things you should really treat as a sacred, essential part of you. And you should not do what I did and say, “Eh, computers, that seems like a good way to make a living. I’ll get an engineering degree.” Because it really neglected, at a very young age a real source of joy for me. It was really antithetical to everything about myself.
So if you love music, it doesn’t mean you should drop out of college so you can have more time with your band. But it does mean that you should make sure music is part of your life, even with if that’s just singing with a community group or a church choir or, you know, make sure that the thing you’re good at is central to your life. And maybe it means you pick a career that leaves you time at the end of the day to indulge it. Maybe you have a day job and a passion and that’s fantastic. But just don’t neglect the thing about you that makes you weird, because that was my mistake and Jeopardy! was the only thing that rescued me.
We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode. Thanks for listening.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey with sound design by David Herman. We had help from James Foster. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Morgan Levey, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
JENNINGS: When I lost on Jeopardy!, it was a business question. It was about H&R Block. It was tax prep, a thing I’d never thought of for more than 10 seconds in my life. So who knows how history would be different if I’d actually been the business-econ guy?
- Ken Jennings, 74-time winner, greatest-of-all-time champion, and new host of Jeopardy!.
- Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture, by Ken Jennings (2018)
- “Why Don’t We All Speak the Same Language? (Ep. 300),” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- “Is learning a foreign language really worth it? (Ep. 158)” by Freakonomics Radio (2014).
- Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, by Ken Jennings (2012).