Catch 22 and The Kobayashi Maru

The term Catch 22 is broadly used to describe a tricky problem or a no win, or even an absurd situation. You have a couple of choices for solving a problem but neither of them actually solve it and likely make the problem worse.

If you were, or are, a fan of the Star Trek television series or movies then you know that The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in a no-win scenario. It’s a Catch 22 on steroids. 

With the Kobayashi Maru cadets were put in a situation where they had two options and neither of them were good. But the test required that they select one the two available options. When they picked one they discovered just how bad their choices were. Both choices resulted in the loss of their ship and the entire crew. 

No cadet had ever “survived” the Kobayashi Maru until James T. Kirk arrived at Starfleet Academy. He was given the same two terrible choices and told he must pick one. Yet both his ship and crew came through intact. 

So how did this Kirk guy do it? Well when presented with two horrible options he declined to pick either one. He manufactured a third. 

All the other cadets stayed within the guidelines given to them, even knowing the likely outcome. Kirk refused to be limited to choices that would lead to his destruction. So he created a third option, seemingly out of thin air. 

Some people would say he cheated. Some would say he was very creative. I would say he merely broke the rule that needed to be broken in order to survive. 

Many of the things we take for granted today were at one time thought impossible. The people who overcame the impossible didn’t do it with conventional wisdom. They didn’t do it by applying the same limited thinking that made whatever it was impossible in the first place. They also didn’t meekly follow every direction that was given. 

They took a risk by breaking a rule or two that apparently didn’t need to be a rule to begin with. They colored outside the lines a bit to determine what was possible. They pushed the widely accepted limits.

People don’t often create new things with old thinking. People don’t change their lives and the lives of others by doing what they have always done. No one overcomes the impossible by asking for permission to do it. 

When they run out of options they do what James T. Kirk did, they manufacture another option. 

They don’t quit and they don’t accept options that will lead to failure. They beat the Kobayashi Maru. 

Can you beat it too?

10 thoughts on “Catch 22 and The Kobayashi Maru

  1. Challenging reading… It is nice to have the chance to read and learn about it

  2. You knocked this one out of the park!!! I am a principal and it has been a year of beating the Kobayashi Maru! I have shared it with my district leadership team as well! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, it has been a full year of “seemingly” no win situations yet so many organizations won. We’ve really seen the difference strong leadership can make and just how expensive, maybe even fatal, weak leadership is. Congrats on continuously beating the Kobayashi Maru, Captain Kirk would be proud of you.

  3. Thanks for the great article. Kirk’s success with Kobayashi Maru is a great example of succeeding through innovation. That’s how progress happens. It reminds me of a quote from someone who is a great inspiration to me, Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who said, “The most damaging phrase in the language is: ‘It’s always been done that way.'”

    1. I know that quote by the Admiral well. There would be so many useful things we wouldn’t have if we just stuck with “we’re always done it that way.”

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