Distress Tolerance 9: The Kobayashi Maru

For those who don’t speak nerd, the Kobayashi Maru is a Star Trek reference.

It’s relevant, I promise!

Its a test cadets in Starfleet academy have to pass if they ever want to captain a Starship, but it’s designed to put them into a no-win situation to see how they react to failure.

The test is a simulation in which a civilian vessel known as the Kobayashi Maru is in battle with the Klingons. The disabled ship is located in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would cause an interstellar border incident.

The cadet must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew—endangering their own ship and lives—or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. Both choices will lead to certain death of civilians and crew. There is no chance of winning in any circumstances. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobayashi_Maru)

Unless your name is James T. Kirk.

I gotta get me one of these!

In the Star Trek film released in 2009, James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) passes the test by cheating. After having faced the test a few times and realising its unwinnability, he decides that the only way to win is to reprogramme the test before he takes it, making the Klingon shields drop at the last minute, allowing him to destroy the Klingons and save the Kobayashi Maru.

When questioned about his dishonest tactic, Kirk replies that he doesn’t believe in no-win situations, and besides, the test itself is a cheat since it is designed to be unwinnable. The only logical solution is to change the test.

I’ll take it! I’ll take twelve!

There is so much more to unpack in the story and philosophy of the Kobayashi Maru but here is where my point is.

Kirk finds himself facing a situation that is, to most, beyond hope. An unwinnable test. He takes the situation presented to him and turns it to his advantage in an unconventional way, but it works. He would rather face his circumstances head on and force it to work for him than admit defeat.

Kirk is practicing radical acceptance by seeing reality for what it is and facing it creatively so he always wins.

As he is often reminded by his faithful head of enginieering “Ye canna’ change the laws o’ physics”, Kirk often finds a way to make an impossible situation work out to his advantage. And one of the things I love so much about Star Trek is that it leans on real science more often than science fiction to solve problems.

Granted, the problems are usually solved in a tidy 44 minutes with all the main characters intact, but it’s still a good reminder to those of us who face impossible odds, fighting the mechanisms of our own brains and behaviours, that there is a way to turn our circumstances to our advantage, even if it means going a little against the norm.

We have to be creative and brave. We have to have our eyes open to what is right in front of us, to what is real. Even if its ugly, or painful, we still have to face it eventually so you might as well find a way to make it work.

Cancel my previous orders, this is the only Captain for me!