What I learned from Luke (yes, Skywalker)

I was sitting and pondering Star Wars (Episodes IV, V, and VI only) today, as all serious journalists often do, when I realized that contrary to popular belief, Luke Skywalker is not a total idiot.

If you think about it, our whiny hero does in fact succeed in saving the entire galaxy, despite all odds and a bad haircut, and I’d argue that it has everything to do with his approach to life that sets him up for success, and not just his gift with The Force, because as everyone knows, we all have a little bit of The Force in us. Most of us just don’t know how to channel it.

1. Luke chooses a path that will get him somewhere.
At first when Obi-Wan tells Luke that he has to come with him on his mission to Alderaan and learn the ways of The Force, Luke understandably balks. There’s the harvest, Alderaan is far away–whine, whine, deflect. He’s making excuses, because the status quo always seems easier. But when he finds the only world he’s ever known burnt to a crisp, he pulls himself together and guns his speeder straight to the first freighter off of Tatooine. “I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father,” Luke says. Definitive and declarative. He’s not turning back. The first step in letting The Force flow through you is recognizing there’s an opportunity. The second is committing to it.

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Luke isn’t afraid to dream big.

2. Luke is willing to save a princess for free.
Take Han Solo, who you’ll notice is smarter, hotter, and a better shot but doesn’t actually achieve anything close to what Luke does. Solo’s goals aren’t even that out of reach. They are, in this order: (1) making enough money to pay off Jabba, and (2) getting with Leia. Solo succeeds with the second one but mostly by default. Luke on the other hand achieves transcendence, because he is willing to do difficult things regardless of immediate returns.

3. Luke frames big challenges in familiar terms.
When it’s time to take down the small moon-sized battle station that is the Death Star, Luke just has to to maneuver his one-manned fighter along a trench while avoiding surface defenses and TIE fighters and shooting a few proton torpedoes into a hole that’s two meters wide. Impossible, say the real pilots who know better. “It’s not impossible. I used to bull’s-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two meters,” Luke says. Naive? Maybe. But at least he doesn’t default to self-sabotage like that hotshot, know-it-all Wedge Antilles. (Okay, I’ll cut Wedge a little slack, because he’s only sixteen, but just think how far he could go if he dared to dream a little, no?)

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Luke knows when to ignore the odds.

4. Luke’s mentors are doing what he wants to do.
Luke may have chanced into meeting R2-D2, but R2 set him up with old Ben Kenobi, who then set him up with last and greatest, Master Yoda. Luke’s not just hanging with other newbs (of course, that’d be impossible in Luke’s case). And even when others are turned off by the packaging (“Where did you dig up that old fossil?”), Luke stays open-minded. (True, he’s a speciest jerk when he meets Yoda, but at least he figures things out just in time to feel bad when Yoda dies.)

5. Luke’s not afraid to make big mistakes.
You ever try pulling your X-Wing out of a swamp with just your mind? It’s hard. Yoda offers some now famous advice: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Wise words, wise words. But what does that really mean? Luke thinks he knows. He thinks it means flitting off to Bespin, doing nothing to help his friends, and getting his hand chopped off. He was wrong. But he learns from that. The next time he tries to save his friends, he makes plans and brings back-up.

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Luke knows it’s okay to make mistakes. And cry about them.
6. Luke comes prepared to succeed–when it really matters.

In the final showdown, Luke confronts his father and the Emperor. Does he make a big deal of it? No. He arrives to do the job, dressed in simple black pants and a Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. His manner and his outfit say, he’s not afraid to let his skills speak for themselves. When he starts to let his emotions get the best of him, he steps back, takes a few deep breaths, thinks about why he’s there, and pulls himself together again. Then he ditches his light saber. You might think by doing this, he’s saying, “I’m a religious zealot who believes The Force makes me invincible!” But maybe he’s saying, “I’m so sure that I am pure and good and skilled, I don’t even need to prove it to you to win.” Try it sometime. Drop the pageantry (aka the bullshit). Prepare and show that you care. Close your laptop, look up from your phone, be present. That level of confidence and actual skill is enough to intimidate any rival, and it might even inspire one to take your side.

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Luke knows that things get out of hand sometimes. (Here he is about to realize that he does not want to kill his dad.)

7. Luke believes in something.
I used to think this was just missionary double-talk, but over the years, I’ve realized belief isn’t about blind faith or religion but about having a cause. Each of us may die alone, but before that point, life is so much better having something (or someone) that is meaningful enough to inspire us to try every day. For Luke, at first the thing that gives him purpose is avenging his Uncle and Aunt’s deaths, but while that anger lights a fire under his ass, it doesn’t give him real strength. When he finds his purpose is to carry on The Force, everything falls into place. Maybe the thing you decide to believe in is a god or the goodness of your kids or the love of your spouse. Maybe it’s the belief that society needs to clean up Washington or reduce consumption. Maybe it’s that your dog is really just a hairy little baby or your macaroni diorama will bring peace to the world. Whatever it is, believing in something from which you can draw hope, that will inspire you when things are tough, help you to quiet your doubts, or at least balance out the disappointments–whatever that is is what will keep you going, looking forward to your next challenge, and a new dawn.

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Luke knows that to succeed you have to be willing to jump–even if that means into an anus-shaped mouth.
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