matt's blog

The kobayashi maru

If you’re an analytical type, like me, you like to view life through the lens of problems and solutions:

I think this is largely a good approach and it seems to have served me well up to this point. I think this approach is specifically tailored to institutions with rigid structures and relatively straightforward problems.

For example, if you’re in school, there are clearly defined outcomes in the form of exams, courses, and degrees. Exams make up your grade for a course, and courses make up your degree. There’s a predefined trajectory with a limit on uncertainty (at least, uncertainty from within the institution).

In certain large organizations, the outcomes are similar. There exists a career ladder that you can climb, well-defined milestones, etc.

Yet, as we face a wave of technological innovation and disruption, I would argue we’re seeing a shift away from large organizations and predefined trajectories. The friction to switching jobs has never been lower and, as someone who’s had more than one remote job change, I can attest the easiness of switching jobs is almost eerie.

Now, a problem/solution mindset can be problematic even though many of us have come to depend on solution-oriented thinking.

Things are further complicated when we face complex life problems that appear not to have a solution:

Clearly, the complexities and vagaries of life demand more. Fantastically, I see this as the _same difference _that separates a good/entry-level engineer from a great/staff-level engineer—the ability to steer the ship, not just take it from point A → B.

Aside from a catchy title, Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru is a no-win scenario that was part of the curriculum for cadets at Starfleet Academy in the 23rd century.

It was primarily used to assess a cadet's discipline, character and command capabilities when facing an impossible situation, as there is no (legitimate) strategy that will result in a successful outcome.

Frequently in life, I come across things that appear not to have a successful outcome or are too complex to define a single action that can “fix” my perceived “problem.”

Captain Kirk was the first and only cadet to win the Kobayashi Maru… Not by playing the game— it was rigged— but by reprogramming the computer. Instead of losing at an impossible game, he changed the game.

In that sense, I’m incredibly optimistic, because a problem/solution mindset actually works if you’re willing to challenge the rules. Every problem has a solution if you’re creative with the term “solution.” Is this a pedantic manipulation of the word “solution?” Not quite.

What makes the difference? 1. Questioning fundamental assumptions, 2. Being a rational optimist, i.e. having the belief that a solution is possible, 3. Changing how we view problems.

Our solution-oriented brains tend to think in terms of what I’ll call “positive” solutions, not because they’re good, but because we achieve them by adding work to a system: “I’ll put more effort into my career/relationship to fix things. I’ll go from A → B faster.” rather than “B actually sucks, why not go to C instead” and “I can get there faster by doing XYZ that no one has thought of.”

In reality, there are several other classes of solution that are overlooked:

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite:

I’ve begun to notice in my own life the lack of preparedness for the incredibly broad and open possibilities of the world. I am not someone who wants to be told what to do, but the ability to scope and define the actions necessary to move towards our goals is an incredibly daunting task. This is especially true once you realize the simple truth:

Life is unbounded. You can do/work on/pursue literally anything. Without anyone’s permission or approval. Without anyone caring or saying otherwise.

Want to spend tomorrow in your pajamas eating cookies? Why not? I wouldn’t recommend it, but you certainly can. Want to learn nuclear physics? Brain surgery? Technically, attainable.

Yet hyper-logical, routine-oriented people, like me, create artificial bounds on what we can attain. I think in terms of rigid schedules and rules, because that’s ingrained in my brain: wake up, work on a project, work 9-5, go to the gym, read a book, go to bed. In the age of remote work and endless possibility, that’s totally boring… and limiting!

What about:

  1. Find a job that allows me the flexibility to work when and how I choose (maybe that’s a 9-5! Nothing wrong with that.)
  2. Do things on the side that I’m passionate about… Maybe these become my job one day.
  3. Finagle my life so I can chase #1 and #2 while finding time to make friends, build community, expand my social circle, and, most importantly, have fun.

Today, many of us can do whatever we want, live wherever we want, and be whoever we want, but we lock ourselves into predefined outcomes and put a cap on our talents.

My goal is to challenge you to challenge yourself. Challenge your expectations, assumptions, and habits. Figure out who you want to be and bend the rules, change the game, add, subtract, and rotate until you get there.

I’m not the most talented at many things I’ve tried, but I show up every single day with the will to get better and learn. I think that’s really all you need.

#opinion #work