Vision New England Blog

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The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.


The Humbled Gunslinger

            Do you remember Ken Jennings? Maybe a better question is: do you know who Ken Jennings is? When I was younger, I went through a phase where Jennings was one of my heroes. During his run of 74 wins on Jeopardy!, watching him crush his competition was one of the highlights of my day. In many ways, I felt I related to him, because he was a bit of a know-it-all, and I considered myself one, too (although I definitely would have qualified this remark by adding the caveat: “for my age,” to create an excuse for not being as much of a know-it-all as I liked to think.) Naturally, because of how much I enjoyed watching Jennings on Jeopardy!, I tuned in to watch him, and fellow human champion Brad Rutter, face off against what was considered the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence: IBM’s Watson. Over the course of the tournament Watson – literally a thinking computer – completely destroyed the two most prolific champions in the show’s history, giving hope to his creators that they had successfully created a piece of technology capable of quickly and accurately processing oral information, finding the appropriate solution, and then conveying it in actual human language with appropriate context. In all fairness, as much as I would have liked to see mankind triumph over technology, it was amazing, and the evolution of Watson’s practical uses today is just as incredible (albeit subtly terrifying.)

            Recently I came across a TED talk given by Jennings. During the talk (link below), he explained how he felt about both his dominance on Jeopardy!, as well as his loss to Watson. Though the speech wasn’t overtly about humility, I realized some interesting points about the importance of being humble from what Jennings said. These lessons are relevant to us, both as Christians with the direct responsibility to walk humbly, and moreover as global citizens who face challenges every day that push us further away from community, due to a societally created value of self-promotion, external validation, and superficial appearance.

            I was quite struck by hearing Jennings discuss how, after losing to Watson, he wondered for a time about what his life meant, because something had been created to replace him in the only thing he felt he was ever good at. He had achieved widespread fame and wealth due to his performance on Jeopardy!, and naturally he was proud of this accomplishment, and it made him feel validated and important. We can all relate to this in some way or another, because success, accomplishment, external validation and recognition have all become enormous parts of our culture. While I think we should strive to accomplish great things, and take pride in them when we do, I completely admonish the fact that the majority of our worth has become wrapped up in how others see these accomplishments; because this causes us to fear one another, and avoid challenges, thinking they will possibly disturb our sense of value if we fail. We see this reflected not just in our never-ending search for approval, but also in the way we relate to one another. We water down all of our relationships to mere superficial, tenuous, highly controlled interactions, in which we can show others only the positive, and only the success; we don’t have to be threatened by others being better than us, and this attitude is detrimental to both us and our society on the whole.

In truth, though, Jennings shows that we need to all have different strengths and areas of expertise. I found it very humbling when Jennings spoke about how it is virtually impossible to be a Renaissance Man today, and to be an expert on a variety of different subjects. As someone who is probably pathologically competitive, and who has to regularly confront my tendency to try to outdo and one-up everyone, Jennings’ message that we need to embrace the fact that we all have different knowledge and skills, and that we should use this as a basis for community and relationship was one that I really needed to hear.

It’s no secret that I have many unflattering narcissistic tendencies; most of my family and close friends have always known this. My dad used to lecture me when I would go off on some tirade or rant about publicly taking down my “idiot” classmates, and he would often say, “You know, there’s always a faster gun.” Normally I would just respond with anything that would get me out of being lectured through the use of dated gunslinger references, but I heard this line in my head while listening to Jennings’ talk. When we don’t embrace humility, and consider the beauty of our differences with others (even when these differences make others better than us at certain things) we walk through life with a disproportional view of our abilities, and we think we can’t be beat. Additionally, because we fear, deep down, having this grandiose perception shattered, and we create a life for ourselves in which we stifle our own progress by shying away from challenges. In reality, though, there’s always a faster gun, and failure to accept this means you will be dead when you eventually encounter it. With Ken Jennings, this could have come in the form of Watson, beating him when he was originally so confident in his chance of winning. Where Jennings really showed his genuine intelligence, though was in his description of how this experience made him realize that failure doesn’t need to be devastating, but that we should all humble ourselves to the fact that each of us has something unique to offer one another.

Nothing, not even IBM, can take away Jennings’ accomplishments, and the fact that he is one of the greatest trivia wiz bangs to ever live, but his true value doesn’t come from the opinions of gameshow viewers, or prize money, or even the approval of his family and friends. It comes from within, and I think one of the beautiful things about humility is that when you embrace it, you not only find it easier to see your sense of self-worth truly within yourself, independent of society, but also to see others’ worth in the fact that they may be better than you at somethings, and this isn’t scary, hurtful, or shameful, but necessary.

We weren’t created to live in isolation, but our world instills values and beliefs in us that separate us further from one another, replacing real, deep, meaningful connection – where we can rely on one another’s strengths and weakness and see these things as gifts – with superficial, fearful exchanges in which we constantly feel threatened by the mere thought of someone being better than us. Fortunately, humility offers us a solution to this problem. We don’t need to stop trying to learn, grow, know, and achieve, because this fuels community advancement, but humility takes the emphasis off ourselves as individuals, and focuses on the bigger, collective picture, by allowing us to realize that everyone plays a role. This view of humility should help us set a practical foundation for our relationships, in which we teach and learn from one another, and we admire rather than envy one another. Walking humbly helps us bring each other up, and elevate one another, rather than incessantly living condescendingly in order to feel better about ourselves. With humility, we don’t have to go through life, regarding ourselves and others as simply cocky gunslingers that need to be avoided and feared for the sake of psychological survival. Instead, we should appreciate our coexistence with people who are both better and worse than us in different areas, and both learn from them, and educate them in return. This is how we were created; to be neither the best nor the worst, but to live in relationship with others, and humility is the key to managing this in our society that is so focused on competition and success.

 

Link to video: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_jennings_watson_jeopardy_and_me_the_obsolete_know_it_all?language=en





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