Being Kirk

(This is part three of a series that began here.)

One of the qualities of an excellent leader is their willingness to admit that they don’t know everything. While many possess an inherent amount of decisive chutzpah that is often mistaken for arrogance or pride, deep down a leader knows any worthwhile decision is grounded solely on the quality of the information they receive.

Consider James T. Kirk.

The buck stopped with him and he knew it. Attack or parley? Board the vessel? Beam down and explore? These decisions were always his to make. When he flew by the seat of his pants, he often landed in hot water. This stuff makes for good television to be sure. Eventually, however, he found the knowledge he needed to handle each situation in the counsel of his crew. Spock was the logical foil to Kirk’s impulsive side. McCoy knew the biological and medical facts Kirk lacked. And Scotty predated MacGyver in his ability to construct and maintain all those cool gadgets, keeping them running as smooth as a well-oiled crankshaft. These guys knew their place aboard the Enterprise. Each provided what Kirk needed to keep their corner of the universe safe and peaceful.

And as with the character, so with the actor.

Most people have a love-hate response to William Shatner. He can come across as either humorously witty or a complete buffoon. But at least he seems willing to admit when he doesn’t know something.  If he doesn’t know something, he strives to find out all he can about it. That’s the lesson Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch learned when he met Shatner at his virtual reality lab. As a child, and not unlike many boys who grew up watching Star Trek, Pausch had a dream to be James T. Kirk. He knew it was crazy, but boys can dream, can’t they? Years later, having become recognized as an innovator in the field of human-computer interaction, Pausch received a call from author Chip Walter who was working on a book with William Shatner about how the science of Star Trek foretold many of today’s technological breakthroughs. Walter wanted to visit Pausch’s lab at Carnegie Mellon, and he wanted to bring Shatner along. Pausch writes:

Granted, my childhood dream was to be Kirk. But I still considered it a dream realized when Shatner showed up. It’s cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it’s almost indescribably cooler when he comes to you to see stuff you’re doing in your lab.

My students and I worked around the clock to build a virtual reality world that resembled the bridge of the Enterprise. When Shatner arrived, we put this bulky “head-mounted display” on him. It had a screen inside, and as he turned his head, he could immerse himself in 360-degree images of his old ship. “Wow, you even have the turbolift door,” he said. And we had a surprise for him, too: red-alert sirens. Without missing a beat, he barked, “We’re under attack!”

Shatner stayed for three hours and asked tons of questions. A colleague later said to me: “He just kept asking and asking. He doesn’t seem to get it.”

But I was hugely impressed. Kirk, I mean Shatner, was the ultimate example of a man who knew what he didn’t know, was perfectly willing to admit it, and didn’t want to leave until he understood. That’s heroic to me.

As is her way, Pat read my mind with her comment on the last post in this series. Gramma is wise and knew there must be more to my reasons for going back to school. While being an example for my kids is a noble thing, and something we parents should strive to do, the larger reason is a selfish one.

I’m doing this for me.

And I must admit I can be a bit of a nuisance. I’ve walked on the heels of many a professor, following them back to their office or to their next classroom, badgering them with questions. I show up before their scheduled office hours. I camp out at their doorstep with my highlighted and dog-eared text or some other relevant tome in hand and seek further explanations for things I want to grasp with more than a milquetoast mind. I seek practical application for the concepts I’m being exposed to. For if this stuff can’t be made relevant to my life . . . won’t help me be a better person . . . then what’s the point of it all?

And I welcome criticism. Beg for it. If I’m not thinking clearly about a concept, I want to know about it. I expect to be told when I’m getting off track. When I’m screwing up. As Pausch writes, quoting his assistant football coach concerning head coach Graham’s constant badgering about the fundamentals of the game, “[w]hen you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.” None of my professors have given up on me yet. They welcome my perspective and prod me toward an understanding that would make Shatner proud. And for that I’m forever grateful.

At the end of my days, I want to be known as someone who sought wisdom. Not the kind that is an end in itself. Where we put away the books and feel like we’ve got the essentials nailed down. Instead, I seek the kind that pushes me further toward the edge. A scary place, the edge. Teetering on the brink of exhaustion and anxiety. It’s here where one can either shut down and return to the La-Z-Boy of a life lived in complacency or take one more step and find that the journey continues. And is worth taking.

I’m doing this for me. Like Randy Pausch, I want to live knowing that I can still roar.

It’s a sort of twisted irony that I plucked Pausch’s book out of my to-be-read stack just yesterday. Before I learned that yesterday morning he finally succumbed to the ravages of pancreatic cancer. If you need a book to read, run-don’t-walk to your nearest bookstore and pick up The Last Lecture. His story moves me. And you all know how I enjoy being moved . . .

Part One – What Are You Going To Do With That?

Part Two – SOTA

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17 thoughts on “Being Kirk

  1. I STILL think it’s cool to be going back to school! And especially because it’s for you. I’m always happy to see my hero, Captain Kirk, getting a little print time too. We’ve watched the TV program about what Star Trek inspired in the technological world, at least 3 times. I think I recall Pausch in it. I had no idea he had passed away. I will have to check out that book – I bet my husband would love it (he’s a string theory kind of guy).

    Awesome post Brian!

  2. What a wonderful wrap up to the series, Brian. You are indeed a seeker of wisdom, and you don’t need to be gone from us to hear it. Just the way you describe camping out on your professors’ doorsteps, waiting for them with your dog-eared and highlighted text? Good stuff.

    I developed some great relationships with some of my professors, though I was an online student. Eventually I met many of them in person, and they were rather sad to see me graduate. However, I have not only kept in touch, I have kept working for the college on a voluntary basis. I work with the English department to organize the Poetry Reading Series that occurs four times a year. I also have been guest editor on the literary mag. The work I continue to do with the college enriches my life, as it helps them. I think that’s the kind of grad you’ll be, too. Just a hunch…

    Peace – D

  3. Forgive me. I ‘m not kidding. But, something bothers me about these few sentences. I’m not quite sure what it is:

    “And I welcome criticism. Beg for it. If I’m not thinking clearly about a concept, I want to know about it. I expect to be told when I’m getting off track. When I’m screwing up.”

    Gramma is a pain in the rear quarters. Cuz, I’m gonna think out loud. I’m thinking that you may listen to criticism a little too easily in fact. Be a little too open to it. As in presuming that teachers always have something to teach and your mind’s natural state is what was your word? Milquetoast?

    I simply don’t buy that characterization at all, Brian.

    I understand you are open and applaud you for that. But, you seem to start from a place where you feel like a tabula rasa, available to be written on, to sit at the foot of the master to receive the wisdom. Perhaps I am exaggerating this, but there is a whiff of that, no?

    You are a very widely read man. My guess is you’ve read more than many of your professors. They may have more confidence than you. But, I’m not sure you couldn’t teach them a thing or two.

    Having said that.. your description of your pursuit of wisdom worries me: you describe it as bringing you to the edge, a scary place, the brink of exhaustion and anxiety.

    Does the Dali Lama look stressed out to you? By all accounts a very, very wise man. Think about it. Any truly wise person I’ve ever met in my life, has had a sense of calmness about them. What about you? How would you characterize those folks you’ve met who appear to be wise and open to new thoughts and ideas?

    Perhaps, if you could just realize that you’ll always be a seeker Brian, because that is your first instinct, not one that has to be two by four’d into you with a smack to the head, you could relax a little bit?

    Your health issues may be impacting this whole journey, of course. But, I guess, I want you to be a seeker who doesn’t associate exhaustion and anxiety with wisdom.

    So much for thinking out loud. I’m getting the muzzle. I promise.

  4. You know a good teacher by the way they critique and whether or not they do it at all.

    When I was a little girl, we moved. My new school scared me to death. I spent my first year there, my sixth grade year, helping my teacher teach about ten students to read. The small group of us who were on grade level would do all our work as normal, but after lunch, because I was able to do the extra and not get behind, I helped him teach.

    Not because he couldn’t do it or was too lazy. He was a sixth grade teacher. How on earth did those kids make it all the way to him not knowing how to read?

    Because none of the teachers before him cared enough to say, “Wait a minute. You can’t read.”.

    Lack of criticism hurts just as badly as too much. I’m glad you know the difference between good criticism and insults. You do, right? You just seem like such a humble man. Extremely intelligent, yet very humble. That’s a weird combination, by the way, but I like it!

  5. Pat,

    Once again, you’ve stirred something in me. And there’s no need for forgiveness when wise counsel is offered with passion.

    Descartes had his hyperbolic doubt. I have my hyperbolic prose. I rather habitually take my writing to an extreme that lies well beyond the boundary which encircles my thinking.

    When I seek criticism, it is in the hope of further engagement with a concept. If someone can offer a side I haven’t considered, then I am forced to reshape my scaffolding, secure it, make my argument stronger, capable of withstanding the storms of criticism that will inevitably be leveled against it. At its heart, this is what philosophy is all about. We consider a concept, build an argument in favor of a new way of thinking about that concept, and then engage others in an effort to come to a place of greater wisdom and similitude. Within each argument is a measure of solidarity with other arguments, and we reach this point only by building the structures and analyzing them, all in the spirit of the friendship that comes with wisdom.

    Because I am an older student and have lived through many unique experiences, and I do read quite a bit, it behooves me to look for different, sometimes opposing, viewpoints. Otherwise I might fall into the trap of thinking I have it all figured out. Once I hear out the other side, I can then bring to the table a way of looking at things that perhaps others have never considered. By inviting criticism, I seek that which I lack. That doesn’t mean I embrace it all or toss my own convictions out the proverbial window, but when I hear a different side of the story, I am better able to present my take with an understanding that is purposely stretched beyond me.

    Having said all that, I’m ashamed to admit that beyond one lecture in my Asian Folklore class and a long-ago, late-night viewing of Scorese’s Kundun , I’ve never studied much about the Dalai Lama. Perhaps a visit to the library is in order! And you’re right; he does seem very calm and in touch with the concepts that shape his worldview. But I wonder: Was there ever a time, back when he first began to dig into what it meant to live the kind of life he sought (was destined) to live, when he felt anxiety? Or exhaustion? Perhaps not. Those don’t seem to be qualities that many Tibetan Buddhist possess. Or at least display openly. However, in the beginning, when the scaffolding of his mind was fragile, did he feel the pressure? Did he have the sense that big things were just around the bend . . . and get a bit nervous? If not, then I doubt he has much to teach me. For with great ideas come no small amount of trepidation.

    I hope that sheds a bit more light on my post. Your compliments are received by a heart which is often hampered by pride. I’m trying to move beyond that and get to a place where humility brings wisdom. You drag me there, kicking and screaming. 😉 I love it!

    Buy a muzzle, and I’m taking you out . . .

  6. And that goes for the rest of you Tweakers as well.

    It’s an honor to have such a thoughtful collection of readers. You guys digest my musings and leave such heartfelt comments.

    I am grateful . . .

  7. Ooh, I’m such a “come-late-to-the-party-gal” – again!

    Everyone has so wonderfully summarized what I thought while reading your series, so to embellish would just be cheating.

    One of things I love to tell my kids is that the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. I have often toyed with the idea of going back to school, but now that my oldest is just starting his university degree with another one closed behind, I’ll let them have their glory days first. Until then, I’ll live vicariously through you, and tuck away all the inspiration you provide.

    Keep on, dude – you’re a SOTA hero!!

  8. Hey Brian,

    I like what Pat has to say and I wonder if she is talking about faith in one’s self a little bit. And I wonder if you are talking about the turmoil of “becoming?” Maybe seeking is a better word, because we can’t help but always be becoming. I can emphasize with the concept of turmoil, or inferno. I’m so with you on that one.

    Once again, I look to Ford who quotes Emerson (I think): “Discontent is the want of self-reliance; it is the infirmity of will.”

    I like that. It leads me towards the mantra I have pasted on my office wall: This is me taking charge of my life.

    Now I must stop procrastinating and do some taking charge (while the family is asleep!).

    M

  9. Ok. I’ve read the best written comment response known to man. I am prepared to allay my fears by accepting your hyperbolic prose tendency, if and I mean ONLY IF, you include this sentence as another example of your hyperbolicness:

    “Your compliments are received by a heart which is often hampered by pride.”

    Often hampered by pride? “Often”? Now, c’mon. Sometimes, Ok. Often?

    Nope, not buying that.

    So, I await clarification.

  10. The character of Kirk always reminds me of the old army adage. “If it moves, shoot it, eat it or f@#k it!”

    As for being a mature age student, I’ve done it three times. I find that it’s best to sit at the front of the class so that I’m not intimidated by seeing so many other people, from asking questions.

    I remember years ago during a chemistry lecture on redox reactions that my teacher lost his cool with me because I kept asking questions as I couldn’t understand the logic of what he was saying.

    The exasperated teacher basically called me stupid in front of the class. Luckily, I’ve been through much scarier things and I stood up to him and said, “surely you don’t want to proceed if we don’t understand what you’re trying to teach?”

    He replied, “you’re the only one asking questions!”

    I said, “that’s because everyone else is afraid.”

    I then turned around (I was sitting at the front as usual) and asked the people who understood what the teacher was trying to teach, to raise their hands.

    Not a single hand was raised.

    Later in the year during our Chemistry exams, we could hear one of our fellow students sobbing all the way through the hour we had to complete our test paper.

    At the end of the year, our chemistry teacher asked us to raise our hands to show who was going to take chemistry as an elective subject (we were all studying photography) in the next year. It was very satisfying to see him so crestfallen when not a single hand was raised.

  11. Just found you through Maggie, Dammit. So glad I jumped over here.

    Of course the Indiana road up there might have sold me from the first moment, but your excellent posts motivated the feed subscription.

  12. *sigh*

    I’ve been away far too long.

    (By the way, I really, really, reeeeeeally like your new (to me) header image.)

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