WARNING: If you haven’t seen the new Star Trek movie (and shame on you if you haven’t!) there be SPOILERS AHEAD!
The new Star Trek movie is the chronicle of the birth of a hero: James Tiberius Kirk. From its first act showing his actual physical birth to its finale, Star Trek is the story of his journey to his destiny.
But what kind of man is this new vision of Kirk? Fortunately, we see so much more than a man… who would only… speak… in broken… sentences. (a.k.a. William Shatner’s original portrayal). J. J. Abrams’ film shows Kirk as a true mythic hero; a character that deeply moves us at a soul level. This Captain, although full of human flaws, becomes a man worthy of our admiration for his achievements.
But what kind of man is he? What is it about his life that we come to admire? As my mind reviewed back over the movie, I started composing a list of personality characteristics that embodied what it meant to be James T. Kirk. A person who lived by this code would emulate what it meant to be Kirk.
So, do you really want to live life like Captain Kirk? No, you won’t need to drive a sports car off a cliff or fire any photon torpedoes, but you will need to…
Live Life Full Throttle
Kirk’s opening scene of driving his stepfather’s car sets the stage for the whole movie: this is a man who will live his whole life full throttle. He may not win at everything, but it won’t be for lack of trying. More than anything else, the one word that defines James T. Kirk is ACTION. Kirk personifies the man that Theodore Roosevelt so famously spoke of:
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly… who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Yes, Kirk’s face spent much of the movie marred by dust & sweat & blood. And yes, Kirk knew both victory & defeat, but he most certainly never knew what it meant to have “a cold and timid soul.”
Living a life of action doesn’t mean you can never rest, or that you have to work 80 hour weeks and never have time for friends or family. What it does mean is that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it with all that you’ve got: you’re 100% in the game. If you want to live like James Kirk, then your first step is to live life full throttle.
Drive With the Top Down
Our second movie metaphor is a much needed one for the Type A full speed ahead personalities in the audience: While you’re going full throttle to whatever your destination in life, don’t forget to put your top down and enjoy the ride. And don’t be like young Kirk & wait until you’re doing 80 to try to put the top down either!
Although it’s been said so many times it sounds like a cliche, it still holds true: no one reaches the end of their life wishing they had spent more time at the office. Structure your life and your attitude toward life so that you can enjoy life every day.
The bar scene where Kirk approaches Uhura illustrates a fundamental Kirk trait: take risks. You can’t play it safe and be James Tiberius Kirk, whether it’s trying to pick up a beautiful cadet or attacking a Romulan ship. Taking risks makes Kirk who he is. For you hard-core Trek fans, it’s also worth remembering that we found out in the TNG episode Tapestry that taking risks in a bar made Captain Jean-Luc Picard who he was as well.
Although as a youth Kirk is taking risks for the adrenaline rush of risk-taking itself, as he matures this ability to take risks allows him to achieve greatness. This is one of the profound paradoxes of humanity: a life of no risk is no life at at all, while a life of senseless risk is also a life wasted. Having both the guts to take risks & the wisdom to know when & how is Course 301 in living like Captain Kirk.
Confidence: 1) knowing who you are & being comfortable with it without being a jerk 2) see James T. Kirk
It only takes a few words and a quick smile for our hero to bring down Uhura’s formidable shields in the bar. Why? Because genuine confidence is inherently attractive— knowing who you are and being comfortable with it, without being a jerk about it. Just like with taking risks, there’s a thin line to walk with confidence: without it you will accomplish little, but misplaced confidence and arrogant pride goes before many a fall.
The right kind of confidence allows you to set & accomplish goals, to influence people, and to grow as a person. Living like James Kirk requires learning to skillfully integrate this right kind of confidence into your life.
Get Past Your Past
Everyone has a past to deal with. Memories of personal failure & scars from wounds inflicted by others haunt us all. They are the ghosts that are always telling us that we can’t become our dream; that we are not smart enough, not strong enough, too wounded to make it to the top of the mountain.
James Kirk had his share too: the personal failures of multiple brushes with the law and the personal scars of a childhood without his father. He could have lived up to the low expectations of both himself and others around him, but he chose a different path. But to do so he had to get past his past; he had to say that his past would not define him and would not limit him anymore.
We must do the same; we all must deal with our pasts, on both an intellectual and emotional level. We must recognize how they are holding us back, and resolve to get past our past and refuse to let it define or limit us.
Dare to Do Better
This iconic challenge issued by Captain Pike is the hinge of the story; will the troubled youth respond to his true lineage and become a man in the mold of his father? It is Kirk’s decision to make.
It is our decision to make as well with our lives. Will we accept a life of mediocrity, of doing what everyone else is doing, of never reaching for the exceptional & extraordinary? Some of us have been privileged to have a mentor that has dared us to do better, that has called us to aspire to greatness. But all of us can call ourselves to greatness, and dare to have an extraordinary life.
Refuse to Accept No-Win Scenarios
If it’s one thing that confident, full-throttle guys hate to do, it’s lose. Especially to pesky pointy-eared Vulcans. We find out that ”lose” is not in Kirk’s vocabulary: he simply cannot lose, everything in him rebels against it. He refuses to accept that a way to win doesn’t exist.
Now before you pipe up, “But I’ll never be assigned the Kobayashi Maru test!” think a little more. We all have scenarios in our lives that either are or seem to be unwinnable. We will all have to face death, of our friends, family, & eventually ourselves. Many of us will face situations, relationships, or employment that will seem to be a no-win scenario. How will we face them? Will we crumple in despair & defeat, or will we rise to meet the challenge head-on, and find a way to win?
Think Out of the Box
Although I don’t advocate a lifestyle of academic cheating to get ahead, no one gets written up in the history books for conventional thinking. Think on that one again: no one gets written up in the history books for conventional thinking. Kirk found out that to win no-win scenarios often requires thinking outside of the box.
It was Albert Einstein who once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” If we are going to live heroic lives, an essential component will be to learn to think out of the box. Don’t settle for the conventional solution; find your own that will work best for you.
Challenge the Status Quo
Thinking out of the box often means you have to challenge the status quo. It will require Kirk to stand up to a superior officer & risk court martial (more than once!). It will require him to put aside expediency & possibly his own career for what he knows to be the right path.
What about you? When was the last time you had the courage to speak up against the established view in a situation where you had power or prestige or security to lose? Are you willing to pay the price to stand up for what you know is right, even if success isn’t guaranteed? You will if you want to live like James Kirk.
Never Give Up
Satchel Paige said it first, but James Kirk could have written it too:
Never let your head hang down.
Never give up & sit down & grieve.
Find another way.
Kirk challenges authority, and where does it get him? Marooned on a desolate ice planet. So what does he do? Despair about his situation? Whine about his lot in life? Blame Spock or someone else for his misfortune?
No, a man of action doesn’t even consider those responses. He plows straight ahead, he finds another way, he never gives up.
Take the Lead
The moment comes: the cadet sits in the command chair as captain of the flagship of the fleet. But what brought him here to this point in time? You’re right: it was all of the traits we have already discussed. If Kirk had not been bold & tenacious, if he had never gotten past his past and taken risks, if he had but once chosen to give up he would never had the opportunity to sit in what was now his chair.
We would do well to remember this: the opportunity to take the lead is the fruit of everything else we have done, often over many years. We must be patient in preparing for leadership, but when the opportunity comes, we must like Kirk seize it for all it’s worth.
Listen to Others
Although headstrong and fiercely sure of himself, Kirk displays a mark of mature leadership in that he listens to others. From Pike to Uhura to Scotty to Spock, Kirk understands that collective intelligence is far broader, far deeper, & far more accurate than any one mind. By pooling their intellectual resources Kirk directs the crew toward the path of victory.
How about your track record? Do you make decisions based solely on your insights, or do you have a team that you regularly involve in your life? Kirk chose not to be a “Lone Ranger” and neither should you. Have people of wisdom that you trust give you input to the issues you face.
Ignore the Odds
Yes, there is a time to hear the voice of logic and reason, to make careful preparations based on the best available data. But when the data says your chances of success are “less than 4.3 percent,” if you’re James T. Kirk there comes a time to ignore the odds and do what you know you must anyway.
Some of the greatest joys in life come from when you beat the odds in a noble pursuit, when you exceed everyone’s (perhaps even your own) expectations. Don’t be afraid to sometimes ignore the odds and forge ahead for a greater glory.
Frankly, you can be a master of all the previous character traits, and still wind up as Donald Trump. There’s more to life than just being a driven ego-centric maniac. Kirk knows there is more; he knows the true value of his friends. It has been well said that at its heart Star Trek is not about space battles and weird aliens; it is about the real and lasting friendships that develop between its crew, especially between Kirk, McCoy, & Spock.
What is your life about, really? What really lies at the heart of it, what consumes your time, energy & thoughts? If you want to live life like James Kirk, you won’t put starship captain or corporate CEO or getting that golf score or that dress size or any other goal as your centerpiece, but you will put having true, intimate friends as your highest achievement and greatest treasure.
Be a Hero
There is one more component of James T. Kirk that we need to address. It culminates with a simple medal being pinned to his chest. It is his recognition that he is no longer just a man: he has become a hero.
We have seen these people before in film, from Sergeant York to Indiana Jones to Neo. They come from different backgrounds, face different challenges, and have different destinies. But they all share one thing in common: they make the conscious decision that they will be willing to sacrifice their life for others. It is the decision that Kirk’s father made, and it is the decision that Kirk makes as he & Spock board the Romulan ship.
How about you? You may never be called to physically die, but if you are to play the hero you will be called to die to yourself— to your own self-centered desires & goals. Are you willing to ask yourself these questions: For what greater good are you now sacrificing? How are you now laying your life down for others?
Any great movie, any great character, should both entertain & inspire us. Here’s hoping that reflecting on Star Trek and on James Tiberius Kirk not only entertains, but also inspires you to lead a life of risk, of confidence, of creativity & tenacity, a life that will in its own right be the stuff of legend to inspire others & be a life well lived.