Jeopardy! champ and bestselling author Ken Jennings shares his secret to knowing it all — well, knowing a LOT — with the NOOK Blog in this Guest Post. His latest Junior Genius book for kids, U.S. PRESIDENTS, is out today.
“How do you know all that stuff?”
It’s the question I hear most often from people who still recognize me in public as “that Jeopardy! guy.” I get it even more often than “If I call my Nana right now, will you talk to her?” I get it even more often than “What’s Alex Trebek really like?”
Early on, “How do you know all that stuff?” was my archenemy. It irritated me, mostly because I didn’t have a great answer. It seemed condescending, too. If you saw LeBron James/Placido Domingo/Jennifer Lawrence at a bar, would you ask, “Hey, how are you so good at playing basketball/singing opera/likably tripping over things?” No, right? They just are. Everyone knows the answer: some mix of genetic gifts plus decades of honing a specific talent. Expecting me to have a different answer seemed to imply that they thought “knowing a lot of stuff” was just a parlor trick, not any kind of real accomplishment. “Sure, pal, we’ve got ten seconds. Let me show you The Secret of winning on Jeopardy! for six months.”
But then a few years ago I had an epiphany: I was understanding the question all wrong. I should be flattered. They don’t ask LeBron to explain his talent for one simple reason: they don’t aspire to be NBA Hall of Fame power forwards! That ship has probably sailed. But everybody notices every day how much smoother their life would be if they were a little better at learning and remembering stuff. It’s just that important a skill.
Also, I was realizing, there is a secret.
I write a series of children’s books called the Junior Genius guides, and the whole idea is to get kids interested in stuff while their brains are still young and pink and pliable. I don’t even care what the thing is — what matters is getting them passionate about it. Greek myths? Maps? Dinosaurs? Space? We’ve got a book for it.
Because that’s the secret. Everything is easy to learn when you want to learn it. Think about how you don’t have to try to remember the words of your favorite songs, or the rosters of the sports teams you cheer for, or the characters on your favorite TV show. (Well, unless it’s Game of Thrones.) The stuff we like, we remember automatically.
The three people you see on Jeopardy! every night? They’re not Rain Man-style savants, sitting at home reading the almanac all day. They didn’t use complicated mnemonic devices to remember all those facts. They were just curious about stuff. Weirdly, their whole lives, they were curious about everything. Facts just stuck.
So that’s it. Your brain can do it too, if you can trick it into liking things.
Trivia’s good for that, by the way. The latest Junior Genius guide is about U.S. presidents. “Benjamin Harrison signed the Tariff Act of 1890 and the Sherman Antitrust Act”—that’s boring. But “Benjamin Harrison was scared of electricity and refused to touch the new light switches in the White House”—now that might stick in your head.
Suddenly you have Benjamin Harrison neurons up there. Who knows what else they might start to learn?