What Life Lesson Did William Shatner Just Teach Me? The Unconventional Art of Preparing to Be Unprepared

Life lessons often pop up when you least expect them.

How did you prepare for the Ancient Aliens program?” I ask William Shatner. (The History Channel kicks off a new season of Ancient Aliens on February 12 with a two-hour special starring The UnXplained host Shatner, who leads a roundtable discussion.) “You don’t strike me as the kind of person to just ask a set of questions someone prepared for you.”

Shatner pauses. “What if tell you I didn’t prepare?” he finally says. “What if I say I just let one question lead to another?” 

I pause. This isn’t going how I expected.

“Interesting,” I say, buying time while I glance at my list of questions. “Here’s something else I wanted to ask….”

“Hang on,” Shatner says. “I didn’t say, ‘I didn’t prepare.’ I said, ‘What if I told you I didn’t prepare?’ When you heard that, what did you think?”

I decide to be candid. “My first thought,” I say, “was, ‘Oh no. This is not going to go well.'”

Shatner laughs. “Go on,” he says. “Why did you think that?”

“Your career spans seven decades,” I say. “I felt sure you had developed a process for preparing to try new things, one that I could learn from. When you didn’t, I moved on.”

“So this isn’t going how you expected?” Shatner says, chuckling.

“So now we’re both in a realm where we don’t know where we’re going,” Shatner says. “Now we can explore. Now we can wander down a path, arm in arm, wondering what the next question is, wondering what the next answer will be….”

And then he hits me with it:

So the question is, “How do you prepare?” I get as much information as I can. I learn as much as I can. And then I admit to myself that, in this case, I really can’t know what will happen until we start to talk. Until we start to ask each other questions.

That combination of preparation and humility gives me the confidence to say, “I don’t know.” Or, “I don’t understand.” Or to even look foolish at times.

That approach doesn’t just apply to preparing to host a show. Or for you in preparing to interview me. That’s the best way to live your life. Prepare, be humble, and see any one starting point as just a beginning from which all sorts of possibilities can emanate.

And from which you can find yourself in a completely different place, sometimes a much better place, than the one you expected to be.

“In simple terms,” I say, “that’s the premise behind your show, The UnXplained. You present a set of facts and explore possibilities, but ultimately the answer is, ‘We don’t know.'”

Shatner laughs. “Let me guess,” he says. “One of your questions was something along the lines of, ‘How do you chose the projects you work on?'”

When I don’t say anything right away, he laughs again. “And now you have your answer,” he says. 

Shatner’s approach? Everything is fascinating. Everything is something you don’t know — and therefore worthy of exploring.

Shatner started working in theater in the early 1950s. Over the years he has acted, directed, produced, written books, recorded albums, won two Emmys…and in the process achieved lasting fame as Captain Kirk while also managing to transcend and escape the typecasting bonds of an iconic character.

How? By seeing a starting point for what it is: Not the start of a set destination, but a jumping-off place for all sorts of possibilities.

As a place where preparation for what you think might happen meets the confidence to admit you really don’t — in fact, you really can’t — know what will happen.

Have a plan, then be willing to explore. Where a conversation might lead. Where a chance meeting might lead.

Where a business might lead. 

Because you might find yourself in a much better place than you expected to be.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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