My husband, two sons, and I were invited to participate in filming the pilot episode of a proposed new game show called “The Smartest Family in America.” Initially, they were only looking for parents and two kids over the age of 12, but my then 5th-grader impressed them with his impassioned explanation of what he would do when he became president:
-Eliminate Daylight Savings time.
-Put America on the metric system.
(Anyone who agrees, feel free to add him as a write-in candidate come November.)
Though the show was called “The Smartest Family in America,” my Upper West Side of Manhattan family competed against a family from… the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Here’s what I learned from taking part:
1. Knowledge is situational. My older son missed a question on “Romeo & Juliet” because the hero was described as “emo,” and he didn’t know what that meant. My younger son missed a question where the answer was “gif,” because they put it in the context of Jiffy peanut butter, and we don’t eat peanut butter (my older son is allergic). So the next time I’m tempted to dismiss someone (especially a person who disagrees with me) as ignorant, I am going to remind myself, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
2. Don’t over-think. Most TV shows—and most people—just want to hear the simplest, most basic answer, the one that corresponds with their own perceptions. They’re not interested in your nuances and interpretation. Think of the scene in “The Simpsons” where Apu is taking his immigration test and is asked about the cause of the American Civil War. Apu launches into a treatise about economic factors, state’s rights, the Triangle Trade, etc… The interviewer prompts him, “Just say slavery.” Or, to get more culturally (and timely) relevant about it, “Don’t give me the whole Megillah.”
3. No matter how much you think you know about something, you still have things to learn. My older son, who developed his own Latin teaching curriculum for a young entrepreneur program, didn’t know what “caveat emptor” means. How could someone who studied Latin not know what “caveat emptor” means? (Especially since, at our house, whenever my husband or I complain about something the other did, the standard rejoinder is, “Caveat emptor, baby!”)
Which brings me to the main thing I learned about myself in particular from filming a game show pilot: It seems that I am a slightly competitive person.
I didn’t think I was. It’s not a particularly praiseworthy character trait. It’s just that I’m fundamentally lazy and self-absorbed. To be competitive, you have to care about what other people are achieving vis-à-vis yourself. And I’m just so focused on doing my own thing, I rarely look up to take stock of others, even in the same category.
The way “The Smartest Family in America” was structured, you could earn points in every round, with their value rising as you went along. My family and I were leading right up until the last question, when the other one got it right and won it all.
That upset me. I didn’t expect it to upset me. But it did. For days afterward, I ruminated on it, until I finally came to the conclusion that what was really upsetting me was that there were questions I didn’t buzz in to answer—even though I was pretty sure I knew them—because I was afraid of being wrong.
Which taught me another lesson—for game shows and life in general: Don’t be timid, go for it!
That’s why, when we were invited back to tape a second pilot, this time against another family (no more Upper West Side of Manhattan, these guys were from upstate!), I leapt at the opportunity to put my new life philosophy into action. This time, I played aggressively.
And we still lost. (Again in the final round after leading the rest of the way.)
But I didn’t feel bad about it. I felt like I’d given it my best shot.
I was also rewarded with the kind of moment that you can’t script, but every mom hopes for. In the elimination round, with me, my husband, and older son out, the competition came down to the other family’s dad… and my 11-year-old.
The two faced off (well, it was more face to chest). The category was math. The dad missed the question. And now it was my son’s chance to steal.
We urged him to go for it.
He stared doing the calculation in his head. “Um…”
“Do you have the answer?” the host asked.
Based on what I’d learned last time, I told him to just go ahead and say it, there was more to lose by keeping quiet than by taking the chance.
He blurted it out with literally a second left on the countdown clock.
He got it right.
We might not be the “Smartest Family in America.”
But I feel like participating made us all at least a little bit smarter.