Randy was a huge fan of Star Trek as a kid and dreamed of being Captain Kirk—not Captain Pausch, but literally being Kirk himself. That’s because Captain Kirk was, to Randy, the perfect role model for young boys who like science, and watching Kirk’s leadership tactics made Randy a better teacher, colleague, and husband. Randy attributes this to Kirk having never been “the smartest guy on the ship”—Dr. McCoy was a medical expert, Scotty was chief engineer, Spock was the most logical intellect. Kirk was a good captain, then, not because of his intellect, but because he was “the distilled essence of the dynamic manager”—he knew how to delegate, inspire passion, look professional, and he always trusted his subordinates in their knowledge. In other words, Kirk possessed the perfect skills to be a leader.
Captain Kirk’s attitude is what Randy believes we should all aspire to—positive, realistic, trusting in others, acknowledging of our limitations, but ultimately decisive once we’ve weighed all the factors of a decision appropriately. Rather than seeing himself inaccurately and thinking he always knows best, Captain Kirk relies on others with skills and knowledge greater than his own, and he uses them to improve his own thought process and decision making. This creates a kind of feedback loop on the Enterprise that Kirk oversees.
Randy also loved Captain Kirk because of the cool futurist toys he would play with—including, Randy notes, a communicator device like the ones we all now carry around in our pockets (cell phones). Randy then says that a few years ago, he got a call that William Shatner (who played Captain Kirk) wanted to visit Randy’s lab for research about a book he was co-writing about how Star Trek foreshadowed many real scientific discoveries. Randy and his students worked tirelessly to create a virtual reality world that looked just like the Enterprise ship from Star Trek. Shatner came, loved the display, stayed for three hours, and asked a ton of questions.
When Randy gets the chance to get close to one of his childhood dreams (meeting William Shatner), he doesn’t feel entitled to the opportunity. Rather than simply wait for Shatner to arrive, Randy and his students seize the opportunity to wow William Shatner, working their butts off to create a virtual reality world that looks just like the Starship Enterprise in order to earn Shatner’s respect.
While one of Randy’s colleagues is frustrated at all of William Shatner’s questions, Randy is impressed—Shatner, Randy says, is the ultimate example of a man who knows what he doesn’t know, and is willing to admit his ignorance until he does understand. That, to Randy, is heroic, and he wishes every grad student had that attitude. Later, when Randy is getting cancer treatment, a moment from the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan jumps into his head. It’s typical for young cadets to be faced with a simulated scenario where, no matter what, the whole crew is killed, but when Kirk was a cadet, “he reprogrammed the simulation because he ‘didn’t believe in the no-win scenario.’” When William Shatner learns of Randy’s diagnosis, he sends him a Captain Kirk headshot, signed with the words, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”
Being realistic, self-reflective, and honest about your limitations while striving to improve them is, to Randy, heroic. William Shatner, in his attitude that day in Randy’s lab, entirely embodied that idea. Also, the idea of not believing in a no-win scenario is, in itself, an example of using an obstacle as an opportunity—when the game is rigged for you to lose, it is an opportunity for you to change the game.