The Kobayashi Maru: Lessons of Failure

An inquiry into dealing with defeat

By: Ankita Biswas and Edward Gao

In Star Trek, a science-fiction franchise set several centuries in the future, the Kobayashi Maru is the name of a training exercise. It’s used to assess the skills and character of prospective ship officers. 

The basic premise behind the exercise is simple: Save the civilians aboard the Kobayashi Maru, a disabled freighter inside the Klingon Neutral Zone (a zone that no one can enter without permission). Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there’s a reason the Kobayashi Maru training exercise is infamously known as the “no-win scenario”. It’s literally impossible to successfully save the civilians aboard the freighter and keep you and your crew alive. If you entered the Klingon Neutral Zone, you’d be met with Klingon K’t’inga-class battle cruisers, be shot down quite quickly, and subsequently lose the simulation. The other option is to abstain from the rescue mission and leave the civilians to die of eventual suffocation, hypothermia, and starvation, but that’s not very nice, and you would also lose the simulation. 

The situation might seem bleak, but there is one way to rescue the civilians unscathed. Captain Kirk, one of the main characters in the Star Trek series, reprogrammed the computer that housed the simulation, allowing him to safely and successfully rescue the civilians aboard the Kobayashi Maru. 

It’s admirable when someone ignores what’s put in front of them, and paves their own path. Out of the choices life throws, there never seems to be a “correct” resolution. Success is based on our individual actions, and it should look different in every simulation we run. 

Even so, Kirk was extremely lucky, and the poker player method he uses should be questioned. Obviously, we try to make decisions that attempt to optimize benefits and minimize consequences while fulfilling our obligations. However, when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, is bluffing until it’s time to cut our losses the only feasible solution? 

Limits to our power must exist, and there’s no doubt that they do. But what can we do in these limits? When a patient is facing the triangle of death on the operating room table, or we’ve completely botched our model in the final round of debate, it’s not exactly possible to adjust the circumstances we find ourselves in. Well, there’s great disparity in the severity of those scenarios, but you get the point. 

It’s important to note that there is one unique message that Kirk’s actions do display: Not every moral dilemma has only two options. We’re not forced to choose between two equally terrible options, even if the trolley problem seems to disagree. While we are not omnipotent beings, it’s always possible to seek a more creative solution than what we believe exists. It’s on this basis that innovation exists. 

However, not all of us can be as fortunate or have the same programming prowess as Kirk. When facing a situation with two equally terrible outcomes, our ability to determine the pathway with the most advantageous results is another test of its own.  

Even with this long-time controversy over Kirk, we can all agree that the Kobayashi Maru aids us in grasping a painful yet vital lesson: Though the weight of failure can be overwhelming, we must learn to maintain a steady head in times of crisis. In the same way this exercise evaluates the type of command a cadet is fit for, our character is determined by our response to failure in certain scenarios. Whether personal embarrassments or large-scale catastrophes occur, an ideal leader knows how to accept his blunders with dignity. 

It often seems that choosing the “hard right” over the “easy wrong” will result in fate rewarding us for our tenacity, but the truth is that when weighing our decisions, we must directly confront the ramifications of our actions. As leaders, our job is to understand the responsibilities we bear in the palms of our hands. 

The Kobayashi Maru may serve as a fictitious assessment on a popular oldie tv show, designed to be a plot device that’s dusted off periodically to make a point. To us, and hopefully, to you, it’s a critical reminder that life doesn’t follow a narrative. When we evaluate wins and losses based on the outcomes we produce and the impacts we have on others,  against the hypothetical perfect world that we don’t have the power to produce, we’re bound to lose sometimes. At the end of the day, we just need to figure out a way to move forward when these inexorable mishaps occur. 

P.S. Neither of us have seen Star Trek. Shhh don’t tell anyone!

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