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  • Writer's pictureShelley Boyd

The Kobayashi Maru

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

“That’s it!” I said, springing up from the couch and surprising the two snoozing German shepherds at my feet.

“What’s it?” John asked, searching for the remote to pause the movie.

“The Kobayashi Maru!”

“The what?”

“The Kobayashi Maru,” I pointed to the screen, paused in the middle of a simulated battle scene between Captain James T. Kirk (the Chris Pine incarnation) and the Klingons, “the game is rigged!”

John’s eyebrows told me he still wasn’t sure where I was going with this.

In case you’re not a super-nerd like we are, in the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise that sets up a no-win scenario to test a cadet’s character and strength in the face of certain death. They can either leave a distressed ship to certain death, or attempt to rescue them and fight an unwinnable battle.

In short, the game was rigged.

My ah-ha moment sprung to life when I realized just how much we could take the sting out of burnout, if we could realize that, sometimes, in life, the game is rigged.

Burnout, after all, is the inevitable end result of feeling like you have no control and get no say in your own life. It’s a state of learned helplessness. It’s throwing your hands in the air and saying “f*ck it.”

When we constantly find ourselves in bad situations that we can’t escape from, eventually we don’t even try to escape, even given the opportunity. And it’s not a rational choice, it’s not that we’re bad people or just lazy, it is literally our brains trying to protect us by telling us the surest way for self-preservation is not to try.

There are tons of studies that show how the realization that the game is rigged has an immediate ameliorating effect on the participants, both human and lab rat.

One of these studies, as discussed in Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, researchers subjected participants to an abrasive buzzing sound. One group had the ability to turn this annoying sound off, the other group had no control. Many of the participants in the “helpless” group, who had no control, simply shut down and stopped trying to solve the problem. But these were benevolent researchers who didn’t want to leave their participants feeling miserable, and so they told them, at the end, that the noise was rigged and the problem was unsolvable. Their misery and despair dissolved instantly!

Sometimes, just knowing the game is rigged can help you feel better right away.

In the Star Trek movie, James T. Kirk becomes the first cadet to beat the game because he figured out it was rigged. The realization changed his mindset completely. Rather than throwing up his hands and giving up, (which would have made for a boring movie) he was able to do something about it. He gives us that sly Chris Pine side-smile and surreptitiously re-programs the test and beats it his own way. In short, he cheats. But to be fair, they cheated first be making the training exercise unwinnable in the first place.

Now, in life, we don’t always have the option of re-programming the game on the fly when it looks like things are stacked against us. But if we realize the game is rigged, it can change our mindset completely and let the stress melt right off our shoulders.

And maybe we can re-program this game of life, just a bit, here and there, by focusing on the things we can control. This is where we could take a leaf from the AA handbook and accept the things we can’t change, find the courage to change the things we can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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