What Teen Jeopardy winner Leonard Cooper can teach us all about life

What Teen Jeopardy winner Leonard Cooper can teach us all about life

Feb 14, 2013

Leonard Cooper of Little Rock, Arkansas won Teen Jeopardy yesterday with a witty final answer that charmed the pants off the internet—the video of his victory has racked up over 2 million plays in just a couple days and earned an avalanche of praise. It’s one thing to win a game show—it’s another to do so with this kind of panache.

We tip our hats to you Leonard, not just for winning, but for imparting a few values along the way. Here are 6 life lessons from Leonard’s Teen Jeopardy triumph we can all take with us:

1. Be an underdog

You don’t need any more than a glance at the two pre-teen i-bankers to Leonard’s right to feel a little nervous about his odds at winning Teen Jeopardy. They seem to embody the unfair socioeconomic reality that the American ruling class is bred and groomed from a young age, for the most part. Which makes Leonard’s victory all the sweeter. Next time the odds appear to be against you, remember that starting out as the underdog is what defines every truly great success story.

2. Take a risk now and then

At one point Alex Trebek asks the question: “Clavicle is another name for this bone.” Leonard instantly hits the buzzer, but you can see him panic a little immediately after—he knows this one, but he can’t quite bring it to mind. He feels his clavicle, reaching for the words… neck-bone… collarbone! He finally gets it. Sometimes in life you have to make a split-second decision. When that happens, if your instincts tell you to, take a risk. You can’t win if you can’t risk losing.

3. Don’t conform

A wiser friend than myself told me that we don’t get to choose whether to have style, only what our style communicates. When you leave the house you have to pull on pants and your hair has to be shaped like something. The two guys at Leonard’s right communicate very clearly that they’re there to fit in and play the game—the game of Teen Jeopardy and the game of life. Leonard, on the other hand, communicates with his moss green shirt that he’s not afraid to be different and stand out. It might be distasteful to the conformists, but the rest of us see an underdog poised for greatness.

4. Know what you know

The key to Leonard winning Teen Jeopardy, in addition to knowing a lot of right answers, was being honest about what he didn’t know. On the final question that let contestants wager a certain portion of their current winnings, Trebek issued the final question: “On June 6, 1944, he said, ‘The eyes of the world are upon you.’” I didn’t know this one, and Leonard didn’t either. He was in the lead, but if he had gotten cocky and taken a dumb risk, wagering a decent stake of his winnings, he easily could have ceded the game to one of the junior Wall Street execs at his right. Instead, Leonard had the good sense to know what he didn’t know. He wagered $0 and intentionally gave a wrong answer, knowing it was his best shot of keeping his current winnings.

5. It’s how you play the game

With his headline-making intentionally wrong answer, Leonard illustrated beautifully the maxim that how you play the game is more important than whether you win or lose. Wagering $0, his answer to who issued the quote above was “Some guy in Normandy. But I just won $75,000.” In life, you’re going to win some and your going to lose some. You might even lose a lot more than you win. But if you play every game with this much grace, inserting your personality at every turn, at the end of the day you’ll look back, probably while listening to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and think to yourself, “I had a damn good ride.”

6. Keep your dignity

Faced with what were probably pretty intimidating opponents on national television, Leonard didn’t get desperate to prove himself by reaching for glory on that last question. He was perfectly willing to botch the final answer and create his own kind of glory. He did what he knew was right, rather than simply what was expected of him. That’s how you keep your dignity. It can be scary, and it can be hard to pull off in life. But when you do, everyone applauds.

And for that, Leonard, we salute you. Watch Leonard’s performance below if you haven’t so far.

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