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by William H. Benson

August 4, 2011

     “History is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford. “We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worthwhile is the history we made today.” An interesting opinion.

     Late in Ford’s career someone challenged him to a series of trivia questions, and he admitted that he did not know the answers, but he replied, “Why should I know the answers? I have a dozen managers on my staff who could find the answers to those questions within an hour. Why should I clutter my mind with useless knowledge?” An interesting question.

     Thomas Edison, Ford’s mentor and his former employer, was of a different mindset. Those job applicants who wished to work for the Wizard of Menlo Park had to first complete a 150-question trivia questionnaire so difficult that no more than ten percent passed it. Edison thought his questions “exceedingly simple,” and believed that recent college graduates were “amazingly ignorant.”

     Ford and Edison may have been poles apart on the issue of trivia knowledge, but both were successful. Perhaps one could say that Henry Ford saw the “big picture” first without bothering with the minor details, but Edison drew his “big picture” in his mind from those trifling details.

     By the way, Albert Einstein took Edison’s test and failed it miserably, struggling with certain questions, such as, “what country, besides Australia, has native kangaroos, where Napoleon was born, and what is the principal acid in vinegar?”

     Recently, I found at the local public library Ken Jennings’ book Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. It was Jennings who won seventy-four games in a row on Jeopardy! between June 2 and November 30 in 2004, losing his seventy-fifth game when he missed Final Jeopardy!: “Most of the firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work for only four months a year.” He answered incorrectly, with “What is FedEx?”

     His take-home winnings totaled $2,522,700, but he did not stop there: he appeared on other game shows and won even more money, until as of today he has earned $3,773,414.29, more than any other game show contestant.

     How did he prepare himself for such a spectacular achievement? First, he admits that as a child he was drawn toward trivia, that he was predisposed to accumulating factoids of knowledge. In college at BYU, he played on the university’s quiz bowl team, and he admits that he reads a lot, soaking up, like a vacuum sweeper, enormous quantities of facts.

     Jennings confesses in his book though that his reading was not exclusively reference works and encyclopedias. “Should I admit,” he asks, “how many mythology questions I knew only because of the Thor comic books I read as a kid, or how many geography questions I know from globe-trotting reality shows? Almost all my knowledge of stars and constellations comes from bad sci-fi movies. All my national flags come from NBC Olympic coverage.”

     In his book, Jennings explores the interconnectedness between intelligence and knowledge, and  quotes from A. J. Jacobs, the man who has read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, who said, “Knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing, but they do live in the same neighborhood.”

     Jennings writes, “The power of trivia. It ignites our curiosity about things we didn’t think we were interested in.” “Simple facts, even trivial ones, are the building blocks that can be stacked and combined to form substantive knowledge, and even wisdom.” “Trivia is bait on the fishing rod of education. By the time you realize what you’ve swallowed, you’re hooked.”

     A quiz bowl coach, Eric Hilleman, admonished Jennings, “The more facts you accumulate, the easier it becomes to learn new things because you have a web of knowledge to fit those new facts into. Facts and intelligence form a vicious circle.”

     Any kind of achievement or any pursuit of excellence requires time, lots of time, far more than we would expect; plus plenty of discipline and patience; and is best accomplished in steady increments, repeated daily, rather than in one big hysterical push. Someone once said, “People fail to develop excellence the same way they fail to read big books. They either won’t start or they don’t finish.” The answer is “The major character in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.” The question is “Who is John Galt.”

     For the curious, for those with a trivia-oriented mind, the above answers in order are: Papua New Guinea has kangaroos, the island of Corsica was Napoleon’s birthplace, acetic acid is the primary acid in vinegar, and H & R Block furloughs its white-collar employees eight months out of the year.