One of the best pieces of career advice came from an unlikely place: from Captain James T. Kirk in a scene in ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.’
What can you learn from a battle between starships in a fictional universe? It turns out you can gain a great piece of career advice.
For those of you who aren’t Trekkies, I’ll briefly set the scene: Captain James T. Kirk’s ship, the famous U.S.S. Enterprise is under attack from another ship in the same fleet. That ship, the U.S.S. Reliant, has been seized by an old enemy of Kirk’s who has a major ax to grind.
Kirk is almost out-gunned and out-maneuvered when he turns to a secret trick created for just such an emergency: the Prefix Code.
Stay with me, non-Trekkies: there’s a point coming very quickly.
The Prefix Code, I must explain, is a six-digit numeric code assigned to each ship in the fleet as a defensive measure in case someone seizes a starship. By utilizing the code, true Starfleet personnel can regain control of a ship that has fallen into enemy hands.
In the scene, Kirk and his first officer, Mr. Spock, prepare to utilize the code. A trainee is confused.
That’s when Kirk, just prior to explaining the Prefix Code’s significance, delivers a great piece of advice that, adapted to everyday life, serves as a great lesson no matter what career you’re in.
The line is this:
You have to understand why things work on a starship.
For the starship part, substitute your place of business. If you take a moment to ponder it, you may quickly see how valuable that piece of advice is.
You need to learn why things work the way they do.
A worker just learns what works. A leader learns why that thing works, and can then adapt that bigger understanding into other scenarios.
The interplay between different aspects of a business, different departments, relationships with other companies, can all transcend the basic “do it this way or that way.” If all you know is the answer to one single question, it’s hard to be prepared when a different question pops up. If you know the underlying reasons things work the way they do, you’re better prepared to handle a wider variety of problems successfully.
When I train producers at work, I can tell them exactly which locations on a website to which a story needs to be assigned and stop right there, hoping they’ll make note of those specific locations, memorize them and follow that same procedure time after time.
If, on the other hand, I explain why we’re assigning to those locations and why we’re not assigning to other locations, they have a better understanding of the process.
Soon, when a story that doesn’t necessarily fit into one category comes along, they are now equipped to make a value judgment about where it should and should not go.
With the simple explanation of why things work the way they do, I’ve made them a better-informed employee.
Another example that comes to mind was when I was learning videography. I had a videographer once tell me that I had to “white balance” whenever I started shooting. In broadcast cameras, “white balancing” means showing the camera something that is actually white and allowing the camera to calibrate all the other colors, under the current lighting conditions, so that all colors render correctly.
Have you ever been inside the home and suddenly you decide to go outside and as soon as you open the door, things look very blue for a moment? That’s because the color temperature is higher outside than inside. In the brief moment that things look blue as you open the door, your eyes are automatically “white balancing.”
If all I’d ever been told was to start a shoot with a white balance, I’d do it the one time and never adjust it. If we started a shoot indoors, I’d white balance; but if we moved indoors, I wouldn’t have known to white balance once inside, so that footage would look dark and yellow-tinted.
Fortunately, it was explained to me why we white balance: every time the light temperature changes — moving from outdoors to indoors, from natural to fluorescent to incandescent light, etc. — you need to perform a new white balance because the color temperature will change what the picture looks like.
Because I understood that why, I knew how to handle the camera as conditions changed.
I think too often these days, we focus on the what, not the why.
Thanks, Captain Kirk, for the great career advice.
May you all live long and prosper!