What I Learned From "The Captains"

I started watching William Shatner's documentary "The Captains" the other night, and found myself sucked into it until the end. What I thought was going to be about Star Trek was really a series of meditations about life and work from six actors - six people who have mortgages and kids and wants and desires, just like the rest of us.

Two aspects of these interviews affected me deeply. The first was the personal price these actors all paid to crank out episode after episode of the various incarnations of the Star Trek television series. Hearing William Shatner, Scott Bakula and Patrick Stewart all say, one right after the other, that their marriages ended while filming a TV series was sobering, to say the least. Episodic television often requires 12-15 hour days. At that point, there is no "work-life balance." There's work, and little else - and all of these actors paid steep prices to pursue that work. 

There was a time when I'd have paid that price myself, and very nearly did. I don't know that I would, today. 

The second thing that struck me stemmed from a truly remarkable exchange between Shatner and Stewart about the perception of their work. Both Shatner and Stewart had careers on stage and screen prior to Star Trek, including prominent lead roles in a number of Shakespeare plays. Shatner lamented the derisiveness that others displayed towards his choices as an actor - and that he would forever be remembered as something...less than serious. Stewart, too, took his lumps from the British press: why, after all, would so venerable a stage actor as Stewart move to Hollywood for seven years and play the role of a starship captain on TV (and in the shadow of Shatner's iconic portrayal, to boot?) Wasn't he "slumming," as Stewart himself put it?

Stewart's answer affected me, and also clearly affected Shatner - who called it a "great gift." Stewart acknowedged that yes, he had played Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, and was now dressing up in skin-tight polyester to sit in a fake captain's chair on a fake spaceship. But what he told himself - and Shatner - was that all of those Shakespearean leads were not "better" than the role of Jean-Luc Picard; rather, they had prepared him to play the role of the Captain of the Enterprise. He didn't view the move as a step down, but as a natural progression, calling upon what he had learned from the stage to fully inhabit and create the role of Captain Picard as we now know it. His point: the gravitas, charisma and presence of Picard were products of his entire body of work to date - the culmination of his art - and that by treating his Shakespearian years as preparation, not as "the good ole' days," he managed to create one of the truly memorable and iconic characters in television history.

He's right, of course - both Shatner and Stewart will forever be known as Star Trek captains. And while Shatner initially lamented being typecast, he seemed to genuinely come around to Stewart's mindset - after all, how many actors are truly remembered for something so lasting as Kirk or Picard? Or cheered at conventions for over 40 years on the strength of a single role? Not many. 

I think there are two lessons here - a career lesson, and a more personal lesson. The career lesson is this: there is no such thing as "grunt work." The modern trend towards "personal branding" began in my mind with a book by the great Tom Peters called The Brand You 50, written in the late 90's. This little book was given to me as a gift by a wise friend, who recognized that I was struggling in work that I felt was "beneath me." What I learned from this slim, invaluable little book, was that the "unglamorous" work often held the greatest potential for career advancement. Finding the things that others won't do - the grunt work, the behind-the-scenes work - and transforming them into "Wow! projects" is the key to building your personal brand and standing out.

The workplace parallels between Stewart's choice and our choices at work are obvious. We've all been given work that appears to be "beneath us." A step down in responsibility, visibility or importance. Yet, if we take all that we have done previously, all that we have learned from our work to date, and bring it to bear upon these less-than-glamorous roles, we might very well find a better way, and create something far greater than we or others could have imagined. Often, these jobs and roles are discarded not because they are inherently not worth doing, but because others before us have deemed them to be inherently not worth doing, and have thus not brought their full powers to the task. So, if you've been asked to do some filing after already having demonstrated your abilities as a project manager, you can either grudgingly do the work, pining after more "important" tasks, or you can bring all of your experience as a project manager to the seemingly mundane task of filing, and find a better way. You might become a company legend.

Of course, sometimes grunt work is just grunt work, and no amount of reframing will polish a turd, so to speak. Here, though, lies the second and more important lesson I took from Stewart (and have recently been drilling back into my head through repeated readings of "This Is Water," by David Foster Wallace): the only thing we are truly in control of is what we choose to think about. What Stewart is suggesting (and DFW adamantly declares) is that the greatest danger we face is our "default thinking."

Stewart's default thinking could very well have been that the role of Picard is no Lear, and episodic TV isn't exactly the RSC. Instead, he chose what to think. We can all choose what to think. He chose to think that Picard represented the culmination of his career, and thus (to paraphrase his legendary catchphrase) he made it so. This isn't "the power of positive thinking." Nor is it acting the pollyana. It's choosing what to think amongst a range of choices. It's choosing the way of thinking that brings strength, not weakness. And it's choosing to accept things as they are.

Accepting things as they are is not passive. No, I see the opposite choice - pining for things to be other than the way they are - as passive. It's genuinely default thinking. But to accept - no, embrace - things the way they are is an active state. It's choosing what to think. It's rejecting what Stewart could have thought - "What am I doing here?" - and choosing to do more than just "get through it." 

It's really the only sane path. When I am the best me I can be, I choose what to think. It's a practice, not a switch you flip. I don't always succeed. But I'm working on it.