Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Success and Motivation I Learned from the Borg


Why is Darth Vader so fascinating?

We have the obvious reasons: his big black cape, his cunning with the Force, his James Earl Jones subwoofer, his trademark “kooo-cheee” respirator, his very own soundtrack. But if Darth Vader were a passive weenie, none of this would matter—Darth Vader is fascinating simply because he’s so darn motivated. Think back to The Empire Strikes Back: do you recall a single scene where Darth Vader had a coffee break, or took a private moment to express doubts about his abilities? Of course not; he’s relentless. In one movie, he attacks Hoth, fires (ahem) an Admiral for incompetence, follows our heroes into an asteroid field, colludes with the Emperor, colludes with Lando Calrissian, hires bounty hunters, freezes Han Solo in carbonite, sells the Dark Side to Luke, throws out a proposal to overthrow the Emperor and take over the galaxy, and by the end he’s not even breathing hard. Darth Vader is always on. Whenever we see him on screen, it’s bad news. The audience knows it. Han knows it. Darth Vader might be on the Dark Side of the Force, but if he had used those powers for good, he would have made the galaxy a better place. If Darth Vader had lived in Silicon Valley, he would have created the next Google.

Now imagine an entire species of Darth Vaders and you have Star Trek’s “Borg.”

You likely know them. They’re a race of cybernetic, transhuman drones, famous for their catchphrase “resistance is futile.” The Borg number in the billions—maybe more—but since they’re technically a united, singular hive mind, you don’t use the plural “Borgs.” When Q introduces Picard & Co. to the Borg in the episode “Q Who,” our heroes are so out of their element that they assume Q’s just up to one of his practical jokes. But even the stoic Picard is shaken when he finds out the Borg are real. Finally Picard admits defeat to Q, who teaches them a lesson about humility in the face of overwhelming capability and motivation:

“You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. They are relentless.”

-Q

Goosebumps. My 13-year-old heart leapt with giddiness. Finally a Star Trek villain more serious than bro Klingons and sneaky Romulans. Finally someone more like Darth Vader—more relentless. Even better, the Borg were like Darth Vader without the soft spot for Luke, devoid of anything resembling emotion except the drive to control the entire universe.

Naturally, they’d make great entrepreneurs.

Clarity / Chief Definite Purpose / A Turbolift Pitch

The Borg don’t waste time with self-doubt and rationalization; they know their chief definite purpose, to borrow from Napoleon Hill. If they encounter a Gordian Knot they don’t fret and analyze how to untie it. They just chop it and keep going.

But Borg don’t only know their chief definite purpose, they’ve whittled it down into a simple elevator pitch that anyone can understand. When you meet them, they invariably say:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

There’s no questioning the Borg brand. They have a catchphrase, a mission statement, and a business plan, and it’s all devoid of buzzwords and tech-speak.

The lesson for entrepreneurs: Get crystal-clear about what it is you want to do to help customers and clients, turn it into a 15-second elevator pitch, and gear every aspect of your business to this chief definite purpose.

Focus / Contempt for Distractions / Everything Else is “Irrelevant”

The very first Borg seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation isn’t a menace like Darth Vader. He’s not a scheming villain twiddling his fingers together and laughing manically. Instead, he’s studying, hooking himself up to the Enterprise computer and learning all he can about his enemy. And when he comes face-to-face with Picard & Co., he does the last thing you’d expect a villain to do:

He ignores them.

When Worf sends in a Federation goon to take care of the Borg, the Borg shoves him off without so much as looking away from his work.

The crew of the Enterprise are surprised that they can beam right aboard a Borg ship when they’re not perceived as a threat; the Borg just don’t care. They’re too busy doing Borg things. It’s when you get in their way that you have a problem.

The Borg universally stick to their mission statement and consider everything else to be—and this is their favorite word—”irrelevant.” Watch this conversation when they capture Jean-Luc Picard:

Picard: I have nothing to say to you. And I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.

But the Borg don’t care, they simply dismiss his objections and repeat their mission statement:

Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

Picard: We would rather die.

Picard puts it in no uncertain terms that he would rather die than cooperate. There is no possible way he’ll ever cooperate with the Borg or surrender, even if it means the end of his life. What do the Borg say? You guessed it:

Borg: Death is irrelevant.

This is irrelevant, that is irrelevant, life is irrelevant; they’d sound like glum teenagers if they weren’t so darn certain about it. The Borg have a unique single-mindedness that makes them more frightening than even the warlike Klingons; the Klingons at least consider other things to be relevant. The Borg just want to take over the universe and they’re not concerned with anything else.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: Unless they interfere with your entrepreneurial goals, ignore obstacles and doubts. If your workflow gets interrupted by a telemarketer, tell them “My business being pre-approved for a loan is irrelevant.”

Adaptation / Assimilation / Treating the Entire Universe as a Learning Experience

The Borg’s goal is to “assimilate” the entire universe. Essentially, they want to turn everyone and everything they meet into Borg technology.

But they don’t care how they get there. Their single-mindedness isn’t closed-mindedness. In fact, it’s part of their mission statement: “we will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” They want to learn so that they can improve. And every obstacle in their way is simply another way to learn. The Borg figure that since they’re after technological perfection, there’s nothing they can’t learn, even from technologically inferior powers like the Federation.

The Borg are also big on adapting. In Star Trek, phasers typically work against most villains; and they work on the Borg, too, for a while. The Borg are biological and technological, so they’re just as vulnerable to a Worf head-smash as any other species. But our heroes find that the Borg adapt to the frequency settings of the phasers, adjust their shields as necessary, and simply keep on coming. It’s a common frustration of fighting Borg: you only get a few shots off before they figure you out. And they always do. You can see this process in Star Trek: First Contact:

The Borg, in other words, can handle criticism.

I remember a fellow student in a writing workshop who was particularly strong. He gave good criticism and it was clear he knew how to write. When it was our turn to read his work and offer criticism, I was able to point out what I perceived to be a flaw in an otherwise well-written story. Of course, writing is a really personal and subjective thing; he could have dug in deeper, muttered that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and stuck to his vision. He was certainly a strong enough writer to feel superior to us in many ways. But when I saw his revision, he had taken the class feedback to heart and made improvements everywhere. Now there was nothing to criticize. The piece had gotten even stronger because he wasn’t afraid to learn from anything, even weaker writers than he—and he kept on coming.

In the NFL, one of the ways you can tell that a team has strong coaches is to watch how the second half differs from the first half. Good coaches “adapt like the Borg,” which is to say they learn from the first half, adjust, and stick to their goals. You see it all the time from the Seattle Seahawks, who overcame a 7-3 deficit last season against the 49ers to ultimately win 17-7. Asked one sportswriter:

What happened? How could a team that appeared so average in the first half look so dominating in the second half?

I know what happened. The Seahawks didn’t get butthurt when they were down at halftime and give in to self-doubt. They simply adapted. Like the Borg.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: The world is full of feedback, but only if you see it that way. Measure your efforts so you can monitor your results and adjust as necessary. For example, I don’t send out client proposals now without tracking their success rate in an Excel spreadsheet. Everything can be analyzed. Treat all failures and successes as learning experiences: adapt as necessary and keep on coming. Maybe you’re not even in the right business sector; but that’s no reason to abandon business altogether. See the mistake, adapt, continue.

Persistence / Persistence / Persistence

None of this adaptation would be worth a darn if the Borg weren’t so relentless.

In one of the videos above, you saw the Enterprise crew kill a Borg. The Borg didn’t get scared. They simply beamed over another drone, who finished the work and cleaned up after his dead colleague. This becomes a common theme with the Borg: persistence. They’ll persist to the last breath.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Picard miraculously uses his Borg insight to defeat a new Borg cube. (The Borg, of course, had been defeated before…but they don’t stop sending cubes.) The Borg don’t cry, they just launch another ship and keep on going like nothing ever happened, and that’s the basis for the rest of the First Contact plot:

In the Star Trek universe, it’s accepted as a given that the Borg never surrender, give up, or stop trying to assimilate the entire universe. Every single time the Federation wins (and they have to, otherwise we wouldn’t have more Star Trek), it simply starts a countdown until the next cube arrives.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: You can change strategies, even change companies, but never deviate from your ultimate goal of success.

Action is More Important Than Ability

Charles Schwab did an interesting study that tested five different investment strategies:

  1. “Perfect timing” (which you can only do with the help of a time machine)
  2. Investing immediately once you have the money
  3. Dollar-cost averaging
  4. Bad timing
  5. Staying in cash investments.

The best results were from timing your investments perfectly. That’s impossible, of course. So what’s the second-best strategy? It turns out that investing immediately isn’t that far off from timing the market perfectly. In other words, even if you wait to time a market perfectly with the help of a time machine, you’ll match most of those results if you simply take action. Analyzing everything to death before you work will only slightly improve your chances—and that’s if you analyze everything perfectly. We’re humans. We never analyze perfectly.

We see this everywhere. The world’s most dangerous snakes aren’t necessarily the most poisonous. Wikipedia separates them by “most venemous” and “most dangerous” because simply being poisonous isn’t enough to be a scary snake. If you’re a poisonous snake that never bites people, no one cares. I’m not saying entrepreneurs should go out and bite people, but you can learn something here: you are only as effective as the actions you take.

Consider this quote from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

It solves the problems of the Borg race, too.

Maybe it can solve yours.

This is the kind of stuff I write for businesses and individuals. If you want content like it in your next book or on your blog, contact me.

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