(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