“Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird” | People I (Mostly) Admire: Ken JenningsFreakonomics Radio
- 756 views
- 3 Oct 2020
It was only in his late twenties that America’s favorite brainiac began to seriously embrace his love of trivia. Now he holds the “Greatest of All Time” title on Jeopardy! Steve Levitt digs into how he trained for the show, what it means to have a "geographic memory," and why we lie to our children.
If you'd like to listen to Freakonomics Radio without ads, the place to do that is stitcher premium. It's five dollars a month and you can get a free month trial by going to stitcher premium dotcom and use the promo code freekeh. You'll also get access to all our bonus episodes and you'll be supporting our show to that stitcher. Premium Dotcom promo code. Freekeh, thanks. Do you remember that sandwich?
Oh yeah, I remember every. I'm Dan Pashman from The SPORCK full podcast. We're celebrating our 10th anniversary by sharing our listeners all time favorite episodes, each with a brand new update, including the story of our search for a beloved sandwich shop in Syria. What made it special? Is it still there? Are the owners alive or dead? We'll take you from Aleppo to Austria, from Detroit to New York to Istanbul, all in search of a sandwich.
The forkful subscribe now wherever you listen.
Hey there, it's Stephen Dubner, you are about to hear Steve Levitt in conversation with all time Jeopardy! Champion Ken Jennings. It is my favorite episode yet of Levitt's new podcast, People I mostly Admire.
It is also the last episode of People I mostly admire that you will get here in the Freakonomics radio feed.
So you should do what thousands of other people have already done. Go subscribe to people I mostly admire on any podcast app so that you get all future episodes because Levit is just getting started.
Thanks. 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 like ten times the things you are. And so more facts stick.
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. 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. Now he's got a podcast and it's incredibly fascinating.
And here's a guy who I thought maybe would 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 multidimensional he was. This is the guy I'd like to get to know, this guy I'd like to be friends with.
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 that you've been able to live.
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 twenty nine years old. I was kind of 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.
I kind of suspect I know your job was being a computer programmer. Well, you kind of bad at that job. It doesn't seem like you have a lot of the traits that would make someone a good computer programmer.
Yeah, I was the generation that the first generation that had a PC at home and 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 stultifying, 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 kind of try to get through college without losing my mind. Just have a few classes that I would enjoy.
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 and I've turned data into a career. I actually try to turn golf into a career, too. I don't know if 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. You've done much better in that regard than I did.
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. You know, even though I love writing and I love podcasting, you know, it was such a treat when it was new.
Like my first book was so much fun to write and the first podcasts were so much fun to record. And then it becomes hard work 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, now this is again, it's a terrible thing.
It sounds like it's time for another midlife crisis. Yeah. And really, my crisis right now is just like not having kids who need a good dad anymore because they're aging and adolescence. And and I'm out of a job, which is which is a real that's a real second midlife crisis.
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 and actually my father encouraged it. My father used to pay me fifty dollars per volume of the encyclopedia that I would read and then write questions on. So I probably made it through eight or ten letters of the twenty six in the encyclopedia when I was maybe, I don't know, ten years old. And I know your youth was a variant on that as well.
You were nothing but a sponge.
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, 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. You know, 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.
How did the trivia elites or the snobs, how do they react to you?
Because you're such a popularizer and often popularizers are derided by the sycophants in general.
People have been very nice. You know, like when you meet somebody from TV, you're nice. Like, that's that's the it's the corrosive thing about fame, but it's also the very lubricating thing about fame. Like I remember the college Quiz Bowl community in particular. I remember a little bit of skepticism because like they knew I was not a great college quiz ball 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. You know, questions you can kind of figure out with a combination of intuition and induction. And quiz ball is much more about who can recognize the obscure academic fact first. And like that's one of the least interesting things about quiz games to me. So my aesthetic of trivia is kind of different from a lot of those people, and when I was writing or editing a lot of quiz questions, I would privilege kind of the puzzle solving Jeopardy thing, you know, 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.
Yeah, I had the same thing in economics because I'm obviously not the best economist in the world. You know, 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 kind of 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 I figured if I 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 it's a limited supply of economics professors and a bigger demand for our services, my salary is going to go up.
Yeah, I can see analogs to all those. You know, 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. And so there's downsides as well. OK, 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 Belltower. And Brad Rutter has the record for the most money ever won on Jeopardy! And James with this new hot shot with 32 wins. And he holds the ten 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're 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?
No, I don't think so. I mean, I went on Jeopardy! Kind of shortly after college, and that was really good. I still remembered all the French kings from ninth grade Western civ. But, you know, 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. It's Jeopardy!
Really is a young person's game. You want to be old enough that you kind of know the boomer trivia, but you still want to be young enough that you know who Khateeb is. And it's a pretty narrow window being inside my brain and watching at age 15 years. I know that I'm getting worse at Jeopardy. Like I actually told him I didn't want to play in this 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, I mean, you're seeing look, for one thing, like I I found daily doubles that I happen 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 is mojo is just kind of locked in to the right rhythm on those tape days. And that happened to be me. But, you know, the stats would vary widely if James's buzzer timing was a millisecond different that day.
And you would think he knew more of those clues, which are the questions, you know, on any given night there.
Sixty one Jeopardy questions. And I know fifty 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 the championship game, but we all probably knew most of the same game material, you know, 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.
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 Taylor 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?
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 who 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 kind of 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, the 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 with bigger wagers and it would have been a bigger check.
But I honestly, I think one of the reasons why I was on that 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 know, you never have to come back and play Jeopardy! Knowing that you just lost forty thousand dollars 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.
So there is something that 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 that is, I think, 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 have you reflected at all?
Do you have any any sense of the deeper meaning of that?
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 kind of 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 the answer too difficult? Does this fit the previous clues in the question about chronology and gender and geography and so forth?
You know, 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 of the existence of your factor ability before you can actually produce it is super important to jeopardy. And I have no idea if it's important to other areas of life.
You know, I never got a good NFL 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 is 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. There's a big problem when rookies play Jeopardy type games, they're extremely resistant to trying to answer. And, you know, afterwards you'll say time and you'll say, oh, no, actually, that was Kazakhstan. And, you know, somebody will be like, Yeah, 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.
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?
I did not understand this about myself until I. I wrote a book about my childhood love of maps and geography. I wrote a book called Map Had about people with weird geographic quirks and hobbies. And one thing I found right in 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 kind of file stuff away by place if I learn something new about Ecuador.
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, you know, the volcanoes of Ecuador and the lamas 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 and moving through physical spaces. I'm aware of where I am on some kind of map.
I know where North is in my dreams. I often return to like imaginary areas of Seattle that have like 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. That's fascinating.
And so I was surprised that when you were prepping for Jeopardy, you and your wife Mindy were working with flashcards. I would think and most people probably think that you to excel the way you have must have a memory that's so good that you don't need flashcards because you just need to learn something once and you remember it forever. Is that not true?
I would say the general rule is if I learn something once and I find it interesting, I think it's more likely to stick. But again, I think that's near universal. You know, 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 like ten 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. Like it's really important to know the years of presidential terms and and having kind of a spatial memory. I find that kind of chronological thing just really tedious and in the jeopardy go tournament. James and Brad are phenomenal at it, like you can tell them battles from the Hundred Years War and they'll they'll they'll know what decade it is, not because they memorize the year, but just because they can kind of they think that way.
And I don't so, you know, to memorize John Quincy Adams is eighteen twenty four election. I had to make up a little story about. 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.
Do you have advice on how people can improve their memory?
The core of it is really your memory is good. Your memory works just fine. It's not a 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.
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 The Learnedly, which is trivia league that's got sixteen thousand people.
And I would think for somebody like you, there's nothing but a downside to competing in trivia. What makes you do it? That is absolutely true.
That's very perceptive. There's there's almost no upside for me to do stuff like this. And and I'm kind of for that reason, I'm kind of trying to taper it off. The thing about learnedly is it's actually run by a friend of mine. And so I kind of feel like it would be disloyal to stop. So there's friendship involved. But also, like the learned league is an 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 you could Google all the answers in 30 seconds. And and I always play a hundred percent clean. And so the utility I provide, I guess you'd have to take my word for it, but the utility I provide is like you can see what top line Jeopardy performance looks like on learnedly. And anybody slightly outscoring me is just a very good trivia player. Anybody who is vastly outgrowing me is clearly cheating. So so it's a way I can exercise moral superiority.
I can look at this guy who beat me. That's that guy wouldn't last on Jeopardy for ten minutes.
So it's interesting you say that because I wanted to ask you about cheating because all the stats are public. So out of the 16000, roughly 16000 people who are in the league, you're percent correct is one hundred and sixty. So you're in the 99 percentile, but just barely. But what's interesting is that there's also a component of the learning league, which you cannot cheat, where there's a championship among the elite of the elite in which you are monitored and can't cheat.
And you have finished in the top 10 the last two years and that there are other possible hypotheses. But that certainly does kind of point to the idea that there's some cheating going on and that your take on it as well.
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 brand. 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 is so compulsive that for many people it's just irresistible. They just cannot help not knowing a thing. And I'm sympathetic to that.
Like, I know this amazing sigh of well-being I get when I finally finish a crossword or whatever to finally know an answer that was bugging you. It's incredibly satisfying. And so 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 I would have got that. I would have gotten it.
I'm not a cheater. But yes, I think it in any honor system trivia, the need to know is so great that you will have a small amount of cheating. And it's a bummer.
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 the 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's 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 forty five 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 forty five minutes. And the sad part is I'll do it, that I actually will sit there. Forty five minutes. 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 emerged 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. That is a great way to live. It's the best way to live to be curious like that.
But I have recently found like like 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. I have the reverse experience now where it's incredibly relieving to hear someone tell me a story or read. He's been in the news and the part of my brain in the past would have been like, you have got to file that away.
Like 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 for me. Thank goodness. You were listening to the new Freakonomics Radio spin off people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with the all time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, they will return after this short break. Remember, this is the last episode of Levitt's show that you will get here in the Freakonomics radio feed.
So go subscribe right now to people I mostly admire on any podcast app.
Freakonomics Radio is sponsored by Square, if you run a business or thinking about starting one, square has tools to help like touch free hardware so you can take contactless payments at your counter or on the go and easy ways to get paid online like a free online store, digital invoices and a tool that lets you charge credit cards with your Web browser. Everything works together all from one place. See all the ways Square can help at square dotcom go Freakonomics that square dotcoms go Freakonomics.
Hello, hello, I'm Negin Farsad, and I hope the podcast Take the Nation, where we talk about news, we talk about politics and where we keep you informed while laughing through the pain. It's a weekly news podcast that stays on top of current events, but it doesn't leave you crying by the end of the episode. Every week I invite some of my favorite comedians on the show, people like John Hodgman, Debbie Campbell, Robin Danny, Judah Friedlander, Jon Lovett, Baratunde Thurston.
You get the point out for a new episode of Face the Nation every Thursday, listen and subscribe to Face the Nation on Stitcher Apple podcast for your favorite podcast at.
Hey, I'm Christine, and I'm Caroline, and we're back with brand new episodes of Unladylike, the show that finds out what happens when women break the rules. This season, we're breaking the rules around sexting, Botox, even twerking, where you bounce and you are working it out.
You are twerking, shaking, wiggling, wobbling, Peter Pan and hustlin. You are working it out, girlfriend. And it's so ladylike.
And we're kicking off the season with one of our unladylike Hall of Fame heroes, Samantha Bee, and really monologuing here today.
This is OK. No, it's awesome. OK, I had did have a chocolate covered pretzels before I got to this. Oh my God. Why super. Why not?
Stay tuned, y'all. We're dropping new episodes every Tuesday. Don't miss a single one. Subscribe to Unladylike Institue Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast.
OK, 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 I better 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 started laughing out loud and won't give me the book back. So I got to say, of all the compliments I could offer to somebody about the writing, that's roughly the greatest compliment.
I think it could be offered that you won over my son.
Wow. You know, I'm a huge fan of your writing as well, so that was already a great compliment. But but now you've been thrown by your 16 year old.
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 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.
You know, the data set is weird because the book kind of fact checks just old wives tales. But I've selected the things that kind of have a surprising twist. I mean, a lot of the common sense things I tell my kids are like, 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 were repeating that we heard from our parents that we have not fact checked and that we sometimes get wrong.
And and they're they're kind of surprising. Like all the I 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. You know, all this stuff about hurting your eyes is baloney. Your eyes will bounce right back.
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, you know, a year ago, her fully grown now, you know.
Thirty five 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 out we both, like, broke out laughing. But the power of things you learn when you're when you're five years old, they have a power to stick with you and to rule your life. If you don't have enough common sense to to understand that authority figures are often lying to you for their own private benefit.
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, you know, 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, you know, stuff.
We think it's dangerous because we heard at once apple seeds are dangerous. Don't drop a coin off a balcony that can go right through somebody's head or, you know, it's now it's very easy to run numbers on this. And and there is like peer reviewed research on a lot of this stuff. I think, like half a dozen different universities have done work on the five second rule just because, you know, it's it's a fun thing. You know, you'll get publicity, I guess.
Is that why that stuff gets researched? You probably know better than me. 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 is alluring, even if the global import of it is is not going to be worth shattering.
But it's astounding. There have been hundreds of studies trying to relate sugar intake with hyperactivity in children, and nobody can do it. Like there appears to be no relationship at all between whether your kid has that 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 birthday cake. And you think, oh, I see sugar rush, but sugar rush is not real.
I find 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 called The Genius Guide for Smart Kids, and these are just incredible books because there are a lot of books written for kids that are kind of interesting but are kind of childish. But your books are, first of all, interesting even to adults, like I was just reading the one about the human body, and it starts out talking about the elements in the body and how, you know, if you ground up a human body and sold it, that he would go for one hundred and sixty 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 that it really is the power of trivia? It's the fun, approachable side of knowledge. It's always like, you know, how can I present this kind of dry fact about anatomy? You what's the analogy that makes this seem fun? You know, 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 as me, an adult talking to another adult, because kids don't like to be talked down to you. But maybe you're right. Maybe it's me as a kid talking to a kid as a kid.
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 board parent or how did you reconcile who you are with parenting?
Yeah, I really see a lot of myself in that. I do have like a restless mind and kind of 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 like the great for me personally, the great gift of Jeopardy was my schedule was flexible. I could work around my kids. I could see I could see them more. The way we in the West and in the US have conceived work is really the enemy of good parenting.
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 was 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.
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 kind of 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.
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 raised them. So what kind of hopes and dreams do you carry for your children?
You know, that's so tricky because at first you think, you know, you're kind of by default, think they are your hopes and dreams and you you kind of 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 that 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 top that way.
Like, you know, 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, like, what are the essentials of the culture of your family? You know, like your hopes and dreams for your kids might be like 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.
You know, things like this might be better hopes and dreams than I hope my kid one day gets into Juilliard. Exactly.
So I would say my 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?
One hundred percent. And we actually try to talk about it. You know, I tried to make it collaborative just over dinner or whatever. Like I'm glad I said 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 like, how can we make sure we have those? And it really is always just variance on be happy, be nice. I mean, that's any religion that doesn't do that fails.
You were raised Mormon and then you made real choices for yourself about how to bring spirituality. And I think so Limpert 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. Oh, yeah.
I give you 30 seconds. I can I can make that up. I guess the core principle that I want my kids to take away, which is extremely hard and modernity, is the idea that the amazing and explicative power of science has improved our lives in a bazillion ways. But it's not very good at replacing the human need for for meaning and 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 kind of 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, you know, as if all the great thinkers who were trying to figure all this stuff out were dummies. But Spaghetti Monster 69 on Reddit has this all figured out.
And I just felt like I don't keep my kids from inviting like I'm OK if they don't wind up believers, but I don't want them. To have considered it unworthy of consideration, you know, like 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.
So your kids are growing up. You've retired from Jeopardy! What where do you think you're going? What's next for you?
Yeah, it really is an inflection point for me. And as I've said, like 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 kind of keeping the room lively and being a bit of a cruise director and, you know, being the fun dad takes some work. And so having that gone and Jeopardy gone means it means I get to work more on the things that.
I've kind of been spread pretty thin because I like to do everything a little bit. So the book I'm late with, which is kind of 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 Roderic called Omnibus twice a week that we really enjoy because it's fun to stretch a little.
And having this kind of special 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. You know, maybe being on the other side of the screen, you know, people who retire as players, they're going to be coaches, they're going to be GMs, they're going to be both teams.
I don't know if there's such a thing as a professional trivia coach, but hopefully I could do stuff like that from the other side of it. And it's much easier when you have the answers in front of you.
So it's a lot less stressful.
Obviously, some day will come when Jeopardy needs the new host, and I think that there will be a unanimous vote for who that new host should be. And there's going to be. You know, 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, like he's so ingrained in the rhythms of the game to me, having just grown up on his voice, that really people consider him a part of their family. He's in their house for half an hour every night. I can't imagine a version of Jeopardy that is posed to Alex.
So I'm trying not to. 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?
The secret is not necessarily to follow your bliss. Like, I get annoyed when I hear people who have succeeded in probably 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 like the one in one hundred thousand person who did that. Yeah. And, you know, 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 like the talents you have, the things you're good at are really sacred, like those things you really should treat as just a sacred, essential part of you. And you should not do what I did and say computers. That seems like a good way to make a living or get an engineering degree because it really neglected at a very young age, a real source of joy for me, like it is really antithetical to everything about myself.
So, you know, if you love music, it doesn't mean you should drop out of college. And 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 if that's just singing with a community group or a church choir or, you know, like make sure that the thing you're good at is 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 in.
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. Hey there, it's Stephen Dubner to hear future episodes of people I mostly admire, you need to go subscribe to it right now on any podcast that and believe me, you will want to hear future episodes because Levitt has been talking to some of the most interesting people in the world lately, people like Nathan Myhrvold, whose put his astrophysics and economics and Microsoft training to use in trying to solve big global problems.
So you're saying that the lack of new empirical data is impeding the ability of theory to progress at the moment? I would say that's hugely true. Now, Einstein's 1950 in theory of general relativity is just an incredible tour de force because he figured it out without any great clues. Now, unfortunately, we haven't had a scientist like that since Einstein. And if you count Newton as the previous one, we may have to get them every five hundred years.
You'll also hear from Susan Wood, just the CEO of YouTube and one of the earliest employees of Google, which happened because she had a garage to rent out.
Is it common for people in Menlo Park to rent out their garages?
No, it's definitely not common. This was just me being creative with trying to figure out how I was going to pay the mortgage. And it just so happened to be that it was a startup that found me and it was Sergei and Larry, the founders of Google.
It also interviews Greg Norman, a successful entrepreneur who for a good stretch, was also the best golfer on the planet.
I've done a lot of players who have actually reached the number one spot in the world and actually didn't want the limelight. When I first won in 1976, I was an introvert. I couldn't get up in front of the microphone and speak. I said to myself, if I want to be a great golfer, I have to change the way I feel right now.
And Caverly Morgan, a former monk who founded Peace in Schools, an organization trying to introduce mindfulness into the curriculum. So you went to the silent retreat. Did that change you?
Yeah, it changed me deeply. I mean, I heard this voice. It's the same voice that was creating the panic attacks during a test in high school. It's the same voice. If you're going to fail, you don't know what you're doing. You shouldn't be here.
But it was the first time I was being given a tool that allowed me to see I'm not this voice. I'm not this narrative. Along the way, you will learn a lot about Levit himself, like his penchant for strange experiments. So I embarked on a sleep experiment that went on for maybe three months where I did not sleep more than three hours a night. And in the end it was true that I was no more tired than I was in general, but I completely lost my will to live.
It was really an interesting thing to watch. You'll hear it in conversation with economists and neuroscientists.
For now more than 30 years, I've had a conscious commitment in my life to just never line. And then all of a sudden some new piece of evidence finally comes in. It's like, oh, my goodness, it's over here.
Levit will speak with anyone famous or unknown if they've got a truly interesting way of looking at the world.
I vehemently disagree with that approach to science, and I don't think it is, in fact, science.
I had to call the UK publisher and asked for an additional budget so Latoya Jackson could travel with her pet snakes, people I mostly admire.
Steve Levitt is the latest show from the Freakonomics Radio Network. I hope you will go subscribe right now and thanks. People I mostly admire is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Matt Hickey is the producer and our sound designer is David Herman. Our staff also includes Alison Crichlow, Greg Rippin and Karen Wallace. Our intern is Emma Terrell. We had help on this episode from James Foster. All of the music you heard on the show was composed by Louis Scarra to listen ad free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium.
We can be reached at Radio at Freakonomics Dotcom. Thanks for listening.