Trivial Pursuits

Back when I used to watch Jeopardy regularly, I’d jokingly tell myself I was validating my intense liberal arts education. After all, being able to answer rapid-fire questions on a broad range of subjects clearly demonstrated my intelligence, right? If I wasn’t earning multi-thousand-dollar payouts, surely I could take comfort in imagining I was just as smart as the contestants.

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Jeopardy on a regular basis, but I have been playing pub trivia most of the past seven or so years. This particular game is rather well-designed, with neither schoolish geeks nor those steeped in pop music, entertainment, and sports having a marked advantage. (And while I wouldn’t mind big cash prizes, the coupons for food and drink are a reasonable substitute.)

Why do I play trivia? Because it’s fun, of course. Hanging out with friends, eating and drinking and competing against strangers–what’s not to love? Still, enjoyment aside, I’ve come to appreciate over time how much this silly, social game has to teach.

It all begins with the team. Given the mixed nature of the questions, you want a group with complementary strengths, enough people that you have a decent chance at all the questions but not so many that you talk yourself out of right answers or spend all your time debating. If there’s a sweet spot in terms of size, though, I haven’t found it: we’ve won with two and lost with our best roster.

While that roster has shifted over the years, a core of perhaps four or five of us have been playing since I started. Getting to know each other pretty well, I believe, has been crucial to our success. With time, you develop a pretty good sense of when someone’s hunches are reliable, and when they know the answer but are having trouble accessing it. Also, knowing how much space to allow someone wrestling with memory, and when and how to help that memory surface, is best done with people you know.

We’ve also developed a few rules of thumb to help us over the years. For example, I’ve been amazed time and again at the reliability of going with one’s first instinct. And when it comes down to a fifty-fifty chance, there’s no shame in flipping a coin (and, once the game shifted to a format where you choose the point value for each question, it’s best to go with the middle point value on a 50/50 guess).

Being simultaneously competitive and remembering to have fun seems like another good life lesson. While some teams keep the same name from week to week, we change it up, looking for a topical (and if possible, somewhat risqué or off-color) team name. After a South American earthquake, we were “Chile Con Carnage,” and when Tiger Woods wrecked his SUV, we went as “Crashing Tiger, Hidden Tree.”

That playfulness helps when frustration sets in. Not long ago we had a perfect score heading into the final question. Even though we fell short, I’m more pleased that we went for it than I would have been if we’d settled for a safe, non-perfect win. (Besides, we have one perfect game in our history, and nobody’s taking that away from us.) I also recall arguing vociferously with the emcee once over differing interpretations of a final question. Remembering it’s “just a game” can be challenging for someone as competitive as I, but I’ve come to believe it’s possible both to play all-out and to tell yourself when it’s time to let go.

One of the bigger surprises to me has been that, as deeply introverted as I am, I’ve come to enjoy this highly social, overstimulating competition. My teammates act as though I contribute significantly to the cause, and cultivating this little community has been worth far more than the occasional sandwich or beer prize. Indeed, it’s quite possible I’ve honed my social skills through this game, through regular practice in simple social scenarios. Learning how to connect with people, how not to fear the nuts and bolts of interacting with them, has been a huge win in itself.

Naturally, I can’t help but apply all this to my work with Sudbury schools. In a sense, what I get with my trivia friends is what these young people enjoy as students. Blending work and play, learning how to be an active part of a community, acquiring random knowledge thanks to the open, playful, respectful nature of that community: it’s like they’re playing trivia throughout their childhoods, a profoundly enjoyable game that ends up helping them learn and grow so, so much.

Writing so thoughtfully about a trivia game, it might appear I’m taking it too seriously or exaggerating its value, but I really don’t think so. Learning about myself and others; picking up new bits of knowledge; being able to blend intuition and logic; knowing when to play it safe and when to go all-out — these hardly seem like trivial lessons. Indeed, trivia has taught me:

  • What you know doesn’t matter if you can’t access and apply it. 
  • Being part of a team that draws out each other’s best makes success and happiness easier to achieve. 
  • Life is a game, and being able to throw yourself into it and still have a good time is the way to win.

What does it mean to be intelligent, or to win at life? What counts as useful or valuable knowledge and skills? I don’t know, but both my pub trivia habit and my work at Sudbury schools has taught me there’s a lot more to success than getting right answers and high scores on silly little tests. Playing deeply, creating community, and learning about the world, yourself, and each other — these are pursuits I find far from trivial.

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