Education vs Experience and How Coaching Helps Make Big Decisions
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Deep Space 9, Playing God (Season 2, Episode 17). He will examine the leadership approaches of Commander Sisko and how he masterfully coaches his team. Jeff will also look at how Sisko makes big decisions when coaching is not available. He also shares his feelings on formal education for leaders of people.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Can you think of a better coach than Benjamin Sisko? After this episode, I think that might be hard for you to do. I’m going to show how you can apply his ability to connect with his team, to listen and to observe. I’m also going to run the risk of really upsetting some people when I talk about my thoughts on education vs experience. So many great topics as we start the 17th episode of the 2nd season of Deep Space 9, Playing God.
Dr Bashir, the head medical officer on Deep Space 9, walks off a transport onto the station with someone named Arjin, a Trill initiate. He’s here to meet with Jadzia Dax, the science officer who is a joined Trill herself.
For this episode to make much sense, you need to understand some stuff about the Trill. They are one of the most unique species in Star Trek. There are two types of people, well, three, really, that make up the Trill. The vast majority are just humanoid people, doing humanoid people things. The second are what they call symbionts. Symbionts are little, lizard-wormy looking things that, as their name suggests, thrive within a host. The third type of person is a joined Trill. This is a humanoid with the symbiont inside of them. This is a very small group of Trill and it is an honor to be joined. In fact, as this episode will flesh out some, it’s something many work most of their lives to aspire to.
There are a lot of cool things about Trill. The symbionts live for centuries so they end up with multiple hosts. Jadzia, for example, was the Dax symbiont’s 8th host. When the Trill are joined, they become a combination of the two lives within them, so there are things in common from one host to another and things that are wildly different; each joined Trill is a unique individual. But, they hold the memories of the hosts before them. This is one of the main reasons there is a grueling process to be approved to be a host.
Ok, so Arjin is here, as an initiate, working to be approved to be a host and he’s going to spend time with Jadzia to see what it’s like to be joined and for her to evaluate his readiness. The Dax symbiont has a reputation for being really tough on initiates, in fact, over the last 200 years, “Dax has personally eliminated 57 candidates.” So Arjin is really nervous.
Bashir takes him to meet Jadzia who is in Quark’s bar playing Tongo with a bunch of Ferengi. “It’s the ears!!” Not at all what Arjin was expecting.
The next day, Arjin and Dax head into the wormhole; Deep Space 9, the station, guards a rare, stable wormhole that leads to the Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy. He meets her at her quarters so they can head out together. She’s been working out…or something…with some guy and is just getting out of the shower. She asks him to get some drinks before they leave; again, she’s not being what Arjin expected from a joined Trill. They’re going into the wormhole for some science stuff and end up with some kind of goop on the outside of their ship. They head back to the station to have it analyzed. On their way, they get to know each other. He is very by the book, doesn’t do anything more than try and overachieve in his studies.
Poor Chief O’Brien, the head of operations on DS9, is busy chasing down rodents called voles. They’re lurking in the bowels of the station and wreaking havoc on systems. Commander Sisko is great here, “Set your phasers for stun, I want the voles taken alive!”
They transfer the goop into a lab on the station so they can study it. Dax is really struggling with Arjin. She keeps trying to connect with him, but he’s overconfident and only tries to tell her what she wants to hear. She does learn that he wants to be joined because it was his father’s dying wish. So she does exactly what I would do, she goes to someone she trusts that isn’t afraid to challenge her assumptions, Commander Sisko.
They’re playing chess and talking through both of the issues – the goop and Arjin. “I have my doubts.” Jadzia is worried that he doesn’t have any goals of his own and that he isn’t actually experiencing life, he’s too academic. Sisko challenges her to step up and show Arjin the truth, but he does it by asking “So, what are you going to do?” And this helps her see that she needs to be up front with him. In fact, she needs to have a difficult conversation with him! She should listen to the episode on Voyager, Rise for the best way to approach those!
One of the voles gets to the containment field for the goop and messes with it. It flies into the walls and a super bright light is shining from it! Now Sisko is really upset! “And take those phasers off stun!” Jadzia and Arjin start trying to figure out how to get the goop out of the bulkheads and to figure out what it is. While they’re working, she confronts him and it does not go well. “Standards for Trill hosts? That is rich, coming from you!” And he storms off.
After all the studies, Jadzia drops a bomb about the goop. “What we have here is a proto-universe.” The stakes here are HUGE! It’s expanding, as universes do, and, over time, it’ll displace and destroy this universe. Taking it out of the wormhole put everything at risk, but there’s no way they could have known that. O’Brien is going to construct a force field to contain it while they decide what to do. And then, it gets even bigger, “I found indications of life in the proto-universe.” The senior team debates what this means. Some of them think they may just be single-cell organisms while others believe there is a chance it’s intelligent life; there’s no way to know. They can either let it expand, potentially destroying their universe, or contain it and allow it to implode in on itself. “I’m sorry, it’s us or them, we have to destroy it.” They’re stuck in a real trolley dilemma here. Sisko tells them to standby and await his decision.
Jadzia meets Arjin at Quark’s bar. He’s drowning his supposed defeat in a big ‘ol glass of blue synthehol, which is honestly kind of dumb. I mean, synthehol is all the parts of alcohol except the getting buzzed or drunk. So, basically, he’s drowning his sorrows in blue kool-aid that tastes super gross. Well, to each their own. She tells Arjin that he needs to “discover what Arjin wants out of life.” Sisko checks in with them and asks if they can pilot the proto-universe back to the wormhole. This will be a real challenge because there are these nodes in there that, if they interact with the proto-universe, will destroy it and the ship they’re on.
Arjin isn’t up to the task, he keeps doubting himself and looking for every reason this won’t work. “It’s never been done.” But Jadzia sees how it will work, “Until now.” It’s super tight, but they make it happen! They get it back to where it’s supposed to be.
The episode ends with Jadzia telling Arjin that someday, he might be ready to be joined. “In time, I might recommend it for you.”
What do you get when you have three kinda cool and fun ideas and you cram them all into one episode? Yep, you get Playing God! This episode is near the end of the second season, and like The Next Generation before it, DS9 really took a solid two or so seasons to find its groove, but this is an episode that went a long way in making that happen. We learned a lot about the Trill and there was even a pretty cool sci-fi story they tried to tell.
Quarks – Ads
Like I said earlier, the Trill are a really unique species. Deep Space 9 used them to explore a lot of issues, some that we’re only now starting to begin to understand as a society. They look at aging and end-of-life, they look at complex family relationships, and they can express things about gender and gender identity in super groundbreaking ways, especially for the mid-90’s. We get a glimpse of that in this episode, “It always takes me longer to get ready as a female.”
Unfortunately, we have to explore their culture through the eyes of Arjin. This character is just totally unlikable and he’s not helped by the actor’s portrayal. Geoffrey Blake is a super prolific actor, he’s been in just about everything. He was even in the Last Starfighter! But in this, wow…they could have just gotten Pinocchio to play him, I mean, that’s the only way they could gotten a more wooden performance. And I can’t fault the director on this one, either. David Livingston directed over 60 episodes of Star Trek! There was some real depth available for this character, but, whew…we got none of it.
But for that strike against it, Armin Shimerman was clearly having a blast! “Well, a sonic, AHHHHHHHH!” He only appeared in a few scenes but he was firing on all cylinders. In this one, he was complaining to O’Brien about the voles and O’Brien was showing him his ingenious plan to take them down! Later, he tries to console Arjin and shares a great story. “I was fired, broke, it was quite a setback.” From an acting standpoint, it’s cool to watch the difference between Quark and Arjin and how really believing in your role can make such a huge difference.
One other scene I want to bring up. I’ve said it before on the podcast but, honestly, I don’t think I can say it enough. A TV show that aired in the mid-90’s showed a black man, a single black man, being a loving and amazing parent. So great! And we get the perfect example of that here, “It’s Mardha, isn’t it?” This aspect of Sisko’s character is one of my favorite things about him. In this scene he’s talking to his emotional base, his son, Jake, to help him figure out what to do about the proto-universe.
First, it’s a lot of fun, Jake thinking he got caught in something, then Sisko reacting as many parents do, but then he shifts and is supportive, compassionate and awesome. Jake wants to have her over for dinner but Sisko is not in the right mindset for that, and even in that, he says no in a really cool way. “Not tonight.” I think anyone that is parenting teenagers, or is about to, need to watch this scene. It shows it all!
I absolutely loved the proto-universe storyline. I mean, total existential questions here. Kira wanting to destroy the universe to save their lives, and Odo going so far as to say he doesn’t even step on ants sets up a huge question about when is life worth preserving and protecting. Awesome, Star Trek stuff…that got totally blown off and was an aside for Jadzia to talk to Pinocchio while he dives into his fourth post-grad degree. I mean, the proto-universe thing would be an entire season in Discovery, but here, it’s like 9 minutes of on-screen time.
What a waste. The vole storyline was fun, and totally appropriate for Deep Space 9, but could be a B or C story in just about any show. Having the Trill initiate and proto-universe stories together kinda ruined both of them. It’s too bad.
Life is so much easier when you have a coach or a trusted confidant to help you see situations from a different perspective. Sisko’s relationship with Jadzia helps make him perfect for this, but this is something you can both offer and receive too. And this is so important when, as a leader, people are relying on you to make huge decisions.
In the last Starfleet Leadership Academy episode, Picard accused the synths of living but not being alive. Jadzia accuses Arjin of the same in this episode. I’m going to use that to talk about the difference between education and experience.
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Let’s start with the one that I am 100% sure is going to really upset at least a few people. If I’m hiring someone into a leadership position, and I have the choice between someone with a lot of education and someone with a lot of experience, I’ll take the experienced person just about 100% of the time.
Now, as I dive into this, please do not hear me saying that education is worthless. That’s just not true, and depending on your field, education may be super necessary! If you’re a rocket scientist, or a doctor, or a lawyer or biologist, for example, heck yes, you go and get those letters after your name! But if you are aspiring to lead people, to be a manager or an executive in an organization, the way to get there and to be any good at it, is to DO IT. Go get experience, put the reps in and learn things in real life.
The traditional path that many people take, especially people that want to be in roles where they are leading people is to start college right out of high school and live there until you get an MBA. So, for most, you’re looking at 6 years of school and somewhere in the neighborhood of six figures of debt and out of pocket expenses. Of course, there are shorter options, later in life paths and other paths, but this is the traditional path. So, with this, you’ll be about 24-years old when you can go out into the world and try to pay off those loans.
Think about that for a second. Most people start school at 4 or 5-years old. So, if you go after that MBA, you’ve spent the most formative 20 years of your life in some form of academia. If you go after a PhD or another Masters degree it’ll be even longer. Now, I’ll bet we can all agree that academia is a very different place than the place I like to call the real world. And, I’m pretty sure we have all had a similar experience with the real world at one time or another. That’s a little experience I like to call…getting punched in the face by life.
Yeah, things seldom go according to plan, and there are real consequences in the real world. But, like I’ve talked about a lot, we learn from those consequences. Those mistakes can make us better leaders. Heck, if we’re doing it right, those mistakes can make us better people.
Now you may or may not know this about me, but I never went to college. Sure, I earned a Certificate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in mid-2020, but that is the extent of my post-secondary education. But, Jeff! You say. If you didn’t go to college, how do you know the things you know? How are you able to help people be better leaders through your podcast and blog? Simple…experience.
So, our traditional path person is 24-years old. They’ve read a bunch of books, written papers, even got to speak in front of a bunch of people with a lot of letters after their names. Super cool stuff. When I was 24, I was the general manager of a retail establishment trying to increase revenue and decrease costs to improve my P&L’s, develop staff, interact with government and regulatory organizations like OSHA and dealing with the really hard parts of working with people. Now, you can read about these things, watch videos, listen to people talk about them. Heck, you can even role play through them! But until you’ve done it, and had real consequences, you don’t really know anything. I mean, my income, my paycheck depended on my profitability! I can assure you that pressure like that is a whole lot different than the pressure around having good grades.
Now, the flip side to that is that if I had gone to college, I might have been better prepared to handle some of those things. I may have had some case studies or management systems I could have used, but, would those be worth 6 years of school and years upon years of debt? And, now that I think of it, would I really have been more prepared? Because, as I see it, a lot of education is learning about what has been done; what we know. If you’re studying a science, there are labs you can test theories and stuff out in. When you’re working with people, the only place you can really test things out in is the real world. So, yeah, I’d have systems and case-studies, all based on what people had already done. Because I didn’t have that, I was able to think innovatively, without even knowing it! I was trying things out that no school would have taught me.
One quick story and I’ll stop my little tirade on education. Not too long ago I worked with a manager who was great. They had a real passion for people and wanted to be a great leader. They went to school and earned both their MBA and a Master’s in HR Management. They had hired someone that wasn’t a good fit and we agreed we were going to end their probationary period and let them go. Now, this manager had nearly a decade of education and had worked as a consultant for 3 or 4 years, so this was the first person they had ever let go. And it was rough!! We got through it, but they were visibly shaking for minutes after the person had gone. Now, I don’t want to make light of letting someone go, that should never be an easy thing to do, but it’s a part of being a manager; part of leading people. And all that education did nothing to prepare them for this core job function.
And here’s something else. If you want to get into a decent school, you’re applying to them as early as like 16 years old. I don’t know about you, but 16-year-old Jeff would never have gone to college for something serious like business. No way! I would have gone for music, or drama, or some other degree that would have me working in an office doing something entirely unrelated to my field of study! And because I didn’t commit to an educational path at a too young age, and I took time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I experienced a lot of what life has to offer. I toured with a band, I worked in pro wrestling, I studied as a journeyman baker, and I did wild stuff like sky-diving and bungee jumping!
Of course, you can do a lot of these things when you’re in college too, but not if you’re that person obsessed with the letters that will come after your name. If you’re that person, you’re in it. You’re working in academia to impress people in academia hoping that will somehow set you up for success in the real world. And that is who Arjin is in this episode. He had no goals outside of being joined, and he only wanted to be joined because his dad wanted him to be joined!
Jadzia asks him what he wants to do with his life. When I play this clip, in your head, substitute the phrase you’re joined with you’ve graduated, “There’s so many possibilities when you’re joined.” Oh yeah, so many possibilities when you’ve graduated. But for what? If you don’t know what you want, what is the point? Arjin is so focused on being joined he doesn’t even know what he’ll do with it.
Do you know this person? Are you this person? The person so focused on their degree, or accolade, that they forget their why and their purpose? I know these people. I’ve worked with a bunch of them; I’ve hired a bunch of them! And mostly into positions they weren’t thinking about when they decided on that course of study.
You have to live life! Experience the world! This is how you get to know yourself, to really know yourself. Without experiencing the world, you’re basically just a robot, with blinders on. And that’s why Jadzia wasn’t ready to recommend Arjin to be joined.
Another reason for this is that he was so blinded by his short-sighted goal, that anything that didn’t fit the narrative of him emerging from everything as the highest grade earner and the best choice for becoming a host was immediately, and aggressively either ignored or pushed back against. When Jadzia attempts to give him feedback, and, honestly, in a really fair and friendly way, he rails against her! “Standards for Trill hosts? That is rich, coming from you!” I mean, he gets outright personal. Jadzia must be a bad person because how could she not see how amazing Arjin is?!?
But this comes from him not listening. She says that she’s worried about him and wants to give him advice and he responds, “That’s it, a day in and you’ve already made up your mind?” All he expects to hear is, “good job, Arjin, you’re so amazing, Arjin, you’re top of the class, Arjin,” and anything other than that is automatically attacked.
We can fall into this trap really easily. When we want something or believe something so much, we refuse to even acknowledge any evidence to the contrary. The thing about this for us, and even for Arjin, is that those red-flags, or that evidence to the contrary is not an attack on you. In fact, it’s super valuable and helpful information. If Arjin had goals beyond just being joined and he wanted more than to be recognized as the smartest or the best, he would have welcomed the feedback. Her feedback was only to help him. And it’s the same for you. If you desperately want a thing but the people you trust, or the people with more experience are giving you feedback to do things differently or to change your approach, they’re not attacking you…they’re helping you. Listen. Listen to what they have to say. Now, whether you take the feedback or not, well, that’s for you to decide, but you need to at least hear it.
And what better resource for this than a coach, a mentor or a trusted colleague? And we see masterful coaching here from Commander Benjamin Sisko. Jadzia is updating him and playing it cool, but he knows things aren’t cool. “Uh oh, I know that look.” He knows this, because he knows his team, he knows Jadzia.
Being a coach is a job you can have, but it’s also a role a lot of us find ourselves in. People coming to you for advice, or looking to you as an example on how to do something. When you’re coaching someone, it is so important that you know them. I will usually spend a little time in each coaching session I have just shooting the breeze and connecting with the person. I get to know them more as they talk through whatever we’re working on, but the important thing here is that coaches don’t just help people solve problems, they help see things they aren’t seeing themselves and they do this, in part, by getting to know the person.
Sisko is able to bring up a whole line of discussion because he’s listening and observing and notices her response. If he hadn’t taken the time to form a connection, this would have blown right passed them and they’d be figuring out how to let Arjin down easily. Instead, he sees this, and they end up going down the path of challenging Arjin to do better.
One of the great things in this scene is that Sisko doesn’t actually answer her questions. He just asks more. A thing I’ve learned over the years is that most people actually know what they should do and they usually even know how to do it. They just need help coming at the situation from a different approach or a different point of view. A skilled coach will ask questions that steer towards the solution. “Have you confronted him? It’s not my job. Isn’t it?” And by doing this, Jadzia changes her approach and ends up, eventually, with Arjin on the right path.
Having a skilled coach helped her to a better outcome. But sometimes you don’t have someone you can go to like she did. Sometimes, you have to look elsewhere. One of the hardest thing a leader has to do is make decisions. I’ve talked about Captain Kirk in TOS episodes before and how one of the things that makes him such an effective leader is that he is very decisive. But sometimes, those decisions can be impossible, and that’s what Sisko finds himself faced with. “I’ll give you my decision in an hour.” Wow. An hour, to decide the fate of two universes.
So how do you do that? He doesn’t have time to work with a coach, in fact, the people around him are already completely polarized in their opinions on this! The progression he makes in this episode is so informative. He starts within himself. “My mind keeps going back to the Borg. Would I be any different?” He thinks about the impact of the decision and weighs those impacts against his values and his experience – oh, see! There’s that word again – experience! And after that, he visits his son. Jake represents everything that’s important to him. By visiting with him, by reminding himself of what’s important to him, by experiencing what’s important to him, he’s able to make a decision.
Now, the episode cheats us out of the cool moment when he thinks he can help everyone win by putting the proto-universe back where it came from, like, that came out of nowhere! But, I have to believe that his thought process, focusing on his values, is what led him to look for a positive outcome. Much like Jadzia telling Arjin that the secret to not blowing up the universe was to not hit the nodes, Sisko realized the secret to not killing two universes was to put them both where they belong.
I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to have to determine the outcome of a developing proto-universe, but I am positive you are going to be faced with real decisions with real world and real life implications. When you are faced with these, try to lean on a coach or a mentor; someone that knows you and that you trust and can help you look at the situation from a different perspective. But if you can’t do that, look to you. What do your values tell you to do? What does your personal mission statement, the one you determined when you listened to the episode on TOS’s Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, what does it say? And who, or what, represents those things to you. Visit that, and look to your experience to guide your decision making.
Hey, I’m a little bit sorry for my mini-tirade on education earlier. Not sorry, because I meant every word of it, but sorry because I know a lot of people are proud of what they’ve achieved academically, and that really is a good and cool thing.
And the magical place where education and experience combine just happens to be in this super cool performance review template I developed. It’s based off of Saru’s experiences in the Discovery episode, Choose Your Pain, and it’s yours, for free! All you have to do is join the Starfleet Leadership Academy mailing list. Don’t worry, I’m super respectful of your inbox and will only send you emails that add value. You can get the template by clicking the link in the show notes or visiting starfleetleadership.academy and clicking on Mailing List at the bottom of the page.
Or, you can just ask me for the link! I’m on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and you can follow me on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Trill, a k i n.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
It’s a Deanna Troi episode! And one that, in the end shows the value of the characters and relationships built over seasons and seasons of a series. It’s the 3rd episode of the 6th season, Man of the People. I think, I think this one is part of a mini-arc that I’ve made up in my head that I call – Worf does Tai Chi but calls it some Klingon thing. I hope I’m right! And we’ll find out together, next time on the Starfleet Leadership Academy.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!