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“How are you so smart?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked all my life, along with its many variations, and having a successful run on Jeopardy! has, unsurprisingly, prompted it to be asked of me more often, by friends, strangers, and Safeway cashiers. And yet, I’ve never found a satisfying answer. I’m tempted to reply, “How does anyone know anything?” but, unless the questioner is really into Kantian epistemology, that response is unlikely to really drive the conversation forward. And given my traditional Catholic upbringing, I obviously can’t just let somebody compliment me without resistance. If I just go around letting people praise me willy-nilly, what’s next? Having self-worth? Pursuing my dreams? Pre-marital sex?!?! In order to avoid such dire outcomes, I generally take one of two approaches.

One is to attribute my intelligence to factors outside of my control. With this approach, I’ll generally observe that I was born with a brain that, for whatever reason, retains knowledge well. I don’t have a “photographic” memory or anything like that; God knows I’ve spent enough time hunting my apartment for my phone to disprove that idea. But while many people, upon learning that, for example, “oviparous” is an adjective meaning “egg-laying,” will quite sensibly forget it almost immediately, I will probably remember it, and without any particular effort. 

Another factor, of course, is my privilege. Unlike most people in history, I wasn’t born into grinding poverty, and my parents believed in the value of knowledge as its own reward. Moreover, I am white, and until well into adulthood, was perceived as male. Had that not been the case, my intelligence would have been seen as surprising at best, and threatening at worst, which undoubtedly would have impacted my intellectual development. But it was the case, and I was never discouraged from acquiring knowledge. (Well, almost never; I was strongly discouraged from acquiring any knowledge whatsoever about human sexuality, with … mixed results.)  

My other general approach is to dispute the premise of the question, that I’m even “so smart” to begin with. After all, being able to do things like name all the monarchs from the House of Stuart is a pretty narrow definition of “smart,” don’t you think? There are many types of intelligence, and the one I have is far from the most useful. God knows, for most of my life I would have happily traded the type of intelligence that can name the decisive battles of the Thirty Years’ War for the type of intelligence that can determine whether or not a girl is flirting with me. My financial and time management skills are abysmal, and even in the realm of “pure intelligence,” I have plenty of shortcomings; I’m terrible at chess, and higher math is just as bewildering to me as to most people. Being on Jeopardy! has given me a whole new set of avenues for this approach, because being good at Jeopardy! is more than just being knowledgeable; like sports, it is an attempt to measure a natural talent via an unnatural competition. So you don’t just need to “know stuff,” you need to know the right stuff. Jeopardy! is currently airing a tournament for college professors, meaning that they are essentially professional knowers of stuff, and yet their performance has not been particularly elite. Jeopardy! rewards breadth of knowledge, not depth. Buzzer timing is also critical, and the fact that I have, for whatever reason, been good at that aspect has been a vital part of my success.

But there’s one other skill that Jeopardy! requires, and it’s the one that I think has taught me why my deflections and self-deprecation have begun to feel false. Jeopardy!’s central gimmick (“the contestants give answers, not questions!”) is a remnant of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, and for a long time I thought it was kind of embarrassingly outdated. But I’ve come to see that this gimmick, perhaps inadvertently, teaches an underrated skill, which is simply understanding what you’re being asked. The gimmick of the show forces a weird kind of syntax on the clues, so that, oftentimes, you have to untangle the question before you can even begin to find the answer. A recent clue read “M is for moonlight, as in ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ by Starbuck, as well as this xylophone with an unexpected–& amazing!–solo,” which requires some deciphering to realize that the actual question being asked is, “What type of xylophone is used in the song ‘Moonlight Feels Right’?” (or even just, “What’s a type of xylophone that we might expect you to know?”). And that skill, to cut through imprecise and convoluted language in order to recognize the real question at hand, is the only Jeopardy! skill that’s actually useful in daily life. And ironically, I see now that it’s a failure at that skill which is giving me so much trouble here.

See, it is definitely the case at times that, when a person asks me, “How did you get so smart?” what they’re really asking is, “So you think you’re better than me?” But the approaches I describe above assume that that is always the real question. And that’s just not true. Sometimes what people are really asking is, “How can I get smarter?” And for that question, my answers are not just wrong, but almost hostile. Saying “I’m just lucky” implies that you can never be as smart as I am, since you weren’t born with it. And saying “I’m not really that smart” implies that you can never get smarter, because you’re chasing an illusion. And the thing is, deep down, I don’t even believe myself when I say those things. They’re true, but they’re hardly the entire truth. The fact is, I know how I got so smart, and I know how you can, too. The real answer to “How did you get so smart?” is simply this: I wanted to. And you can, too! 

For example: One response I gave on Jeopardy!, which my friends found particularly impressive, was knowing the meaning of “oviparous.” How could I know such a random fact? Well, if that definition was really just a bare, unadorned fact, then it wouldn’t interest me, and thus I wouldn’t remember it. But in reality, there are no “bare” facts. Everything is a strand in the infinite tapestry of possible knowledge, and I want to explore as much of that tapestry as I can, in the pleasant knowledge that I will never, ever be done. So, oviparous is an adjective for animals which lay eggs. I know that “ovi-” means eggs, related to “ovum,” so “-parous” might mean something like “giving birth.” And aha! I remember that an old-fashioned word for giving birth is “parturition,” so that “par” is probably the same root, and now I have two weird vocabulary words connected in my mind, and so each much more likely to be recalled. And it goes beyond that: Wherever I saw the word “oviparous” originally, it was almost certainly in some at least somewhat academic context. So this is another reminder that scientists have a tendency to prefer obscure words like “oviparous” to straightforward words like “egg-laying.” Why is that? Well, in part, it’s a reflection of the fact that, in Western society, academia grew from two sources: the Catholic Church (which wrote in Latin) and the surviving work of Greek philosophers (who wrote, as you might expect, in Greek). Which isn’t in itself a good reason to know those languages, but the other thing baked into our academic tradition is that it is for the elite. Having sufficient time to learn one dead language, let alone two, is a pretty surefire sign that you aren’t plowing your fields from dawn to dusk in the desperate hope of having enough to eat, and thus must have some relatively high place in society. And the ego hit of that status signaling is quite sufficient to explain the prevalence of Greek/Latin jargon in academia, and indeed, the tendency towards jargon in any specialized field. So now not only have I acquired the (fairly useless) knowledge of the definition of oviparous, I’ve gained greater insight into how our society organizes itself, and the motivations (and thus implicit biases) that drive scientists. And of course any of these threads will lead in their turn to an ever increasing array of further threads, and following those threads is a richly rewarding experience, and one that will not just make you better at Jeopardy!, but better at living in society. At understanding what is going on around you, and why, and what might happen next, and how you might prepare for it. It will make it harder for you to be scammed; it’s no coincidence that right-wing talk show hosts will promote anti-intellectualism during their shows, and bullshit prepper kits and reverse mortgage scams. If your knowledge is limited, then you’re an easy mark for people who wish you harm. Knowledge is a shield and a sword, a joy and a duty, and while you may never remember things quite as easily as I do, or win a bunch of games on Jeopardy!, if you have the desire, not just to know but to understand, then you will grow more and more powerful every day, and nobody will be able to stop you.

Plus, it’s just fun to say. “Oviparous.” Very satisfying.