The Kobayashi Maru

This post is about The Kobayashi Maru

The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in the fictional Star Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in a no-win scenario.

The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and also appears in the 2009 film Star Trek.

The test’s name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe a no-win scenario, a test of one’s character or a solution that involves redefining the problem and managing an insurmountable scenario gracefully. [Wikipedia]

The Kobayashi Maru is a lesson about grace in the face of adversity, especially seemingly-impossible situations. In Star Trek, the impossible situation is (back to wikipedia):

The notional primary goal of the exercise is to rescue the civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons.

The disabled ship is located in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would cause an interstellar border incident. The approaching cadet crew must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew—endangering their own ship and lives—or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction.

If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the cadet’s ship will have absolutely no chance of winning, escaping, negotiating, or surviving.

[Wikipedia]

By putting cadets into an impossible situation, Star Fleet creates a test of character a test of character. When new starfleet captains are put through in starfleet academy, it prepares them for the many impossible situations they will encounter in the real world.

Beyond being a test of character, the Kobayashi Maru is also a test of skill. From Star Trek:

James T. Kirk took the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Before his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprogrammed the simulator so that it was possible to rescue the freighter. Despite having cheated, Kirk was awarded a commendation for “original thinking”.

Saavik accuses Kirk of never having faced the no-win scenario. Kirk replies that he does not believe in it, so he changed the conditions of the test.

Elsewhere in the film, Kirk likewise changes the conditions of two apparent no-win scenarios in his conflict with Khan: once remotely hijacking Khan’s bridge console to lower shields, allowing the heavily damaged Enterprise to attack and similarly damage the other ship; and once taking the nearly “blind” Enterprise into an ionizing nebula to render both ships equally blind. [Wikipedia]

Kirk, as an experienced captain with a lot of skill, takes a novel approach. He hacks the impossible situation, reframes the situation, and through sheer decisiveness, hard work, and good faith, saves BOTH his crew.

Sometimes the Kobayashi Maru really is a no-win situation. Sometimes it is not. Until the protagonist tries to reframe the situation, it is unknown.

Here’s how I visualize the Kobayashi Maru. A series of decision that leads you to an impossible decision in which there are two terminal states (states where you lose):

Here’s how I visualize two ways to beat the Kobayashi Maru. The first is by reframing the problem

And the second is to rewire your decision tree (either by foresight, or going back in time) such that you avoid the Kobayashi Maru all together.

Lessons for DAO/Startup Life

For me, this whole story is a metaphor for being a founder or early team member at an ambitious projects.

As the founder of a few different startups over the past 13 years, I’ve been in this situation more & more & more.

When we are in this situation at Gitcoin, it can feel like this:

Sometimes being in the no-win situation reveals complicated tradeoffs about the dualistic nature of pragmatism vs dogmatism and tradeoffs required to make a big idea real…

Other times, I’m just sad because can’t “win” every Kobayashi Maru I come across, and that has a negative impact on the community that we set out to serve. That feels be like:

If a community member of GitcoinDAO has been caught in a no-win situation, and it creates a negative externality for you, in all sincerety - I am sorry we let you down.

If, as a member of GitcoinDAO, you find yourself in a no-win situation, I hope this post creates some shared understanding for you - you are not alone.

If you are a member of GitcoinDAO who has found a graceful way to navigate through no-win situations, I would love to hear your story (Dms open).

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