Lessons from Star Trek

June 29th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

One of the best examples of the fulfillment of human potential can actually be found in the Star Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was more than just a TV producer — he was a futurist who spoke at NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, and many universities. His vision began to take root in the original series but became far more mature in Star Trek: The Next Generation. After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the other series and movies drifted from his original vision. So my comments will be focused on the Next Generation series, which originally aired from 1987 to 1994.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’m a trekkie. But what I liked most about the show wasn’t the technology or the aliens but rather the vision of humanity’s future that Roddenberry developed. Despite the fictional elements, it’s actually a compelling model for thinking about where the pursuit of personal development might take us.

Consider the vision of future human beings that Roddenberry created, particularly the way his characters behaved and the social structure in which they lived.

Virtue

First, all the main characters (i.e. the Enterprise crew) behave virtuously. They appear to be guided by an inner moral compass. They’re brave, honest, honorable, just, and self-sacrificing. They don’t rely on religion for their values, and there doesn’t seem to be a pervasive belief in a higher power. Their values are very humanistic in nature and are an integral part of their high-trust society. Every character has its moral failings now and then, but they quickly self-correct.

The three primary virtues are clearly represented in the show’s characters: truth (Data), love (Troi), and courage (Worf). Many of the plots revolve around the interplay of these virtues. For example, “The First Duty” and “Hero Worship” are episodes about the courage to face the truth. “Lessons” is an episode about the courage to love. “The Outcast” is a blend of conflicts between truth, love, and courage. While some episodes are mostly designed to entertain, there are many which explore ethical conflicts between these virtues.

Riker as second in command has all of truth, love, and courage in his character, but they’re more fully balanced in Picard, who serves as the show’s ultimate model of human behavior — the captain that everyone respects and admires. Of all the characters on the show, Picard is the most consistent example of virtuous behavior.

You also have whole alien races representing these virtues: truth/logic (Vulcans), love/empathy (Betazoids), courage/honor (Klingons).

These virtues were present in the original series’ characters as well: truth (Spock), love/passion (McCoy), and courage (Kirk).

If you think about other fictional worlds you like, you’ll often find strong characters representing aspects of truth, love, and courage.

Purpose

Each character is clear about his/her purpose in life. Each one works within the area of overlap between passion, expertise, need, and purpose. They don’t work for money but rather for personal fulfillment. There is some type of economy referenced in the background, but it’s virtually irrelevant because the accumulation of material possessions isn’t highly valued or respected. Social status isn’t determined by wealth but rather by achievement and merit.

There’s an overall purpose of exploration, which all characters help to fulfill. They’re constantly working on goals that derive from that purpose, and they often have tight deadlines.

Technology handles all the gruntwork, which gives characters the freedom to pursue their purpose without worrying so much about meeting their basic needs. People work because they want to, not because they have to. The characters have the freedom to be lazy and do nothing in this world if they wanted to, but they choose to contribute.

Today’s technology doesn’t quite support this level of freedom yet, but I’ve been able to get pretty close in my own life by leveraging technology to create passive income via internet businesses, so I can devote the bulk of my time to fulfilling my purpose instead of meeting my basic needs. This was no accident. One of my long-term goals has been to reduce the importance of money in my life. I think that as technology improves and the level of skill required drops, this will be easier for others to do as well. I know the “need” part of the equation is paramount for many people, but if you can manage to semi-automate the satisfaction of your needs, it will free up tremendous time for higher level pursuits. Working at a job just to make money to meet your needs is certainly not the most interesting thing you can do with your life today.

One question you can ask yourself is this: If you lived in the Star Trek universe, what would you do with your life? My answer would be that I’d do the same thing I’m doing now — working to grow and to help others grow — only my methods of doing this would be altered by the environmental and technological conditions. What would you do if money were irrelevant and all your needs were abundantly met?

Competence

The Star Trek characters are extremely competent, well-educated, and highly skilled. Each has developed themselves in a variety of areas, but they each have an area of expertise at which they’re particularly well-suited. Each seems a near perfect fit for their particular duties. They’ve developed their strengths and worked to minimize their weaknesses.

Characters achieve their social standing primarily based on their level of competence (which contributes to their rank). There’s no sexism or racism, but nor is there anything like affirmative action. Merit is what matters most. The cream rises to the top.

The society is structured such that achievement is expected. Stick an overachiever in this universe (Wesley Crusher), and he receives encouragement and support instead of resistance, red tape, and bureaucracy.

Self-Discipline

The characters have high self-discipline and are emotionally mature. They own themselves. Abundant food and entertainment are available via the replicators, but no one overindulges. You wouldn’t see a character on the show having trouble with oversleeping, unless of course an alien influence is the cause (i.e. “Schisms”).

The characters are even disciplined in their thoughts to the degree that they can feel comfortable around telepathic/empathic beings that can read their minds. Their public and private personas are congruent. They have little to hide.

Maturity

The characters are mature and responsible. They do their jobs without complaint. They assume 100% responsibility for their lives and don’t blame others for their situations. They’re passionate about what they do, but it’s a quiet, mature passion, not an unfocused juvenile passion.

Hard Work

The characters are productive hard workers. They don’t push themselves to the breaking point, but they’re far from lazy. They use technological resources to get things done efficiently, but they direct those resources towards hands-on action rather than overintellectualizing to avoid work.

Mutual Respect

When doing their jobs, the characters interact within a formal structure, but off duty they’re on a first-name basis. At all times they treat each other with mutual respect. If one character begins to self-destruct, the others step in to help restore balance and integrity — they look out for each other. Trust and trustworthiness are high. This is basically the opposite of how the characters in a soap opera would behave.

Principle-Centeredness

The characters place the highest trust in their own individual principles. They respect the laws and customs of other societies as well as those of their own, but in cases of conflict, they will violate laws to uphold their own principles, even when serious personal consequences are likely. They do not follow laws or orders blindly — they think for themselves and do what they believe is best. They will even follow their principles to the grave if necessary.

Intelligence

Given the circumstances they find themselves in, the characters’ behavior is usually reasonable and intelligent. They tend to follow a systematic approach to problem-solving: gather data, form hypothesis, test hypothesis. They are bold but not stupid. They have both intellectual and emotional intelligence.

Growth

The characters are highly growth-oriented. They continually work to develop their skills, they self-educate, and they have many creative interests which they pursue during their leisure time (art, music, drama, poetry, etc). They attend conferences, maintain personal journals, and discuss personal challenges with each other to solicit feedback and advice. They mentor each other.

The value of growth is often shown via interaction with weaker characters. Take a character that is more like the typical human of today such as Lt. Barclay — he’s timid, incompetent, and lazy. So he’s given counseling to help bring him up to speed, and as the series progresses, his character actually begins to mature as he integrates more and more of the social context. Growth is expected.

Even the android character (Data) aspires to be human, not to be like the typical human of today but rather to adopt the best qualities of humanity expressed by the other characters.

Self-Awareness

The characters are highly self-aware. They’re open-minded and often become aware of their own lack of objectivity in certain circumstances. They’re aware of their own weaknesses, but under adverse situations they work from their strengths and do their best. The fish out of water episodes like “Disaster” or “Remember Me” help depict these qualities.

Order

Everyone keeps their quarters neat and orderly. There’s no clutter. Everything is well-organized.

No Marketing

There’s no marketing in the Star Trek universe… no sponsors’ logos emblazoned onto the Enterprise. People select and use objects and technology because of their genuine usefulness, not because of clever sales techniques. The characters on the show are too intelligent to succumb to marketing gimmicks anyway, so today’s type of marketing wouldn’t likely be effective with such people anyway.

What About Us?

To me this is a reasonable model of how mature human beings should behave and interact with each other. Granted this is a fictional universe, but putting aside the fictional elements and the imagined technology, the human aspects are very real. It may be enormously uncommon today, but it’s certainly not impossible for individuals to behave in this manner.

I believe that what holds us back more than anything else is our social conditioning. We’re born into societies that install many values in us, values that most people never take the time to consciously challenge.

The solution is to raise our awareness and begin acting more consciously. This requires self-reflection, using our own consciousness to examine what we currently hold in our own minds. We must force our subconscious beliefs and assumptions to the surface, challenge them, and consciously decide if we wish to keep them or replace them.

In some ways the Star Trek universe reminds me of the world view Ayn Rand created in her book Atlas Shrugged. However, her characters were primarily motivated by selfishness, which Rand considered a virtue in itself. The Star Trek characters seem to be motivated by meaningful contribution. The most selfish alien race (the Ferengi) are looked down upon by the main characters, perhaps as a commentary on the way humans largely behave today.

It would be interesting to build a microcosm of this type of universe today if we could find enough people who’ve achieved this degree of private victory and challenge them to turn it into a greater public victory.



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