PQB Interview: Steven Levitt

Steven D. Levitt is an award-winning economist and is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Additionally, Steven is the co-author of the New York Times best seller Freakonomics, which bridged the gap between economics and popular culture and sold over 4 million copies. Since its release he has co-authored several followup books and presented multiple TED talks. In his earlier years, Steven played for the quiz bowl team at St. Paul Academy in Minnesota. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Steven about his days as a player and the impact it left on him.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

Steven Levitt -My sister Linda, who was five years older, was on the team.  So I would sit and listen while my dad quizzed her. I was a much more willing subject than she was, so then my dad quizzed me. I still remember how nervous I was taking the test to make the team in eighth grade. I think I scored the highest of anyone and they let me on the team!

PQB – Tell us a bit about your playing career – where did you play? What were some of your career highlights?

SL – I played for the quiz bowl team at Saint Paul Academy, and over those five years I competed, we had a good run!  We pretty much always won the state championship and did reasonably well at nationals.

PQB – In general, what was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

SL – I loved the challenge of trying to answer questions quickly, when the question had barely begun. My teammates were so good that if I didn’t go quickly, I’d never get a chance to answer.

PQB – How has your experience with quiz bowl impacted your professional career, the writing of Freakonomics, or your other endeavors?

SL – I think that being really good at something sets you up to do well at something else later in life. But I also learned some valuable lessons.  For a long time, I thought I was “the best.”  I got a lot of positive attention for quiz bowl.  I was about four feet tall when I started, so they actually gave me phone books to sit on so my head was visible on the TV show.  It was a big part of my identity. But then I discovered, when we went to nationals, that there were people way better than me at quiz bowl (in particular there was one guy from Centralia, Missouri who was a phenom).  I had no choice but to accept that I really wasn’t very good.  Accepting that others are better is one of the best skills I ever learned.

PQB – A few years ago, you recorded an episode of the Freakonomics podcast with St. Paul Academy’s quiz bowl team and played against them. What was it like playing again, if only informally?

SL – Awful!  I couldn’t remember anything. It was humiliating!

PQB – In high school, you were coached by George Leiter, who went on to be a major influence on the Minnesota quiz bowl circuit (including as a moderator when this interviewer was playing in high school). What are your fondest memories of George?

SL – There are not enough good things to say about George Leiter. He is one of my favorite people on the planet.

PQB – What advice would you give to a new quiz bowl player who wants to get better?

SL -The new mnemonic tools for memorization are amazing. Learn about them! [Editor’s note: one such tool, Mnemosyne, is truly an excellent resource.]

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