👨🏻🔧 Opinion: The Kobayashi Maru
"No-win" scenarios and mindset, in work & life.
If you’re an analytical type, like me, you like to view life through the lense of problems and solutions:
P: The tread on my tires are low.
S: I make some money and buy new tires.
P: I don’t fully understand how graph databases work.
S: I take a course and create a project on graph databases.
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-off against complex life problems that appear not to have a solution:
P: Despite your passion for work, you feel unfulfilled in your current situation. Your life is composed of various activities, hobbies, and passions of your choosing. You have friends and family scattered across the country. You feel surrounded by people, but at the same time incredibly alone.
P: You’re beginning to feel overwhelmed and burnt out in your job. Everyday seems to slip through your fingers without the ability to control or slow things down. By the weekend, you’re too exhausted to put forth the energy to steer your life in a meaningful direction.
P: You’ve been on the cusp of a relationship with a new and exciting person, but lately things have been off. You feel there’s a poor level of communication, but you’re unsure of how to broach the subject, given a lack of empathy or understanding.
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:
“Negative” solutions: It’s common knowledge at elite levels of fitness that less is more. Have you considered it might be the same in life? Relationships? Consider lean manufacturing as a source of inspiration.
Mindset shift: If I’m trying to get physically strong and I hate exercise, little is likely to happen. If I find a way to change my mindset or motivations, by simply firing a some different neurons, I might achieve my goal. This might look like gamification or a change in how we see ourselves.
Perspective shift: I was moving a couch with a coworker and we were perplexed as to how we’d get it up his narrow staircase, which had a sharp 90 degree angle near the top. We were both stumped until we realized rotating the couch would allow us to navigate the final steps. We tend to think in predefined planes, up/down, back/forth… What if we change our perspective? Can we rotate our problems and attack them from a different angle?
Change the game: This is the Kobyashi Maru. Instead of playing an impossible game, change the rules. This is easier said than done, but maybe you have unrealistic goals for yourself. Would adjusting them allow you to get more done? Could eliminating dogma and stereotypes unlock powerful new trajectories in your life?
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite:
Do nothing: Have you considered that doing precisely nothing is a solution to your problem? Maybe you’re actually making great progress and could use some more compassion. I overlook this far too often.
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 you 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 engrained 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!
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.)
Do things on the side that I’m passionate about… Maybe these become my job one day.
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 you 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.