The Answers Are Out There, We Just Need The Right Questions (RIP Alex Trebek)

Merv Griffin and his wife Julann were talking about how knowledge-based game shows were dead. After the quiz show scandals, everybody assumed any similar game was rigged. If a contestant knew the answer, it was only because some shady executive was feeding it to them. One simple idea would turn that idea on its head and create one of the most popular game shows ever.

“Well, why don’t you give them the answer? And make people come up with the question?” Julann asked. Merv didn’t get it at first. Julann said, “The answer is 5,280.” He thought about it. “The question is how many feet are in a mile?” Bingo. They kept coming up with more and more. It was hard, but it was also addictive. And that’s how Jeopardy was born.

We lost Alex Trebek this week. Beyond the gimmick of answering in the form of a question, he embodied a special ethos of what it meant to do a job and do it well. For more than 8,200 episodes he taught viewers how to think, listen, and compete. Talk about a run. It even earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

There’s a reason to bring up the Jeopardy origin story alongside his legacy. Alex Trebek became symbolic of the “answer in the form of a question” ethos. For all of us professionals who make our living listening to what people need and trying to help our clients think in the right frame of reference, Trebek’s career reminds us that the answers are out there, but we’ll need to find the right questions to make them count.

Trebek showed up. He did the work. He got people to think about the questions and not just the answers. He hosted Jeopardy from 1984 until his passing in 2020. Julann‘s idea proved to make for a brilliant show. It also turned out to be a wonderful character trait. Trebek’s life is a reminder to think about that simple, inverted idea. Sometimes the questions are even more valuable than the answers. RIP Alex Trebek, you will be missed.

Here’s Ken Jennings in Smithsonian telling the story of “How Merv Griffin Came Up With That Weird Question Answer Format for Jeopardy,” and some of the kind words Jennings and others said about Trebek on his passing.