Lessons on Living a Meaningful Life from Nichelle Nichols

It was 1967 and the Civil Rights Movement was at a tipping point. On this particular evening, African-American leaders were meeting at an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills, California. That's when a woman named Nichelle Nichols turned around and saw Martin Luther King, Jr. smiling at her.

Nichols was an actress and a singer. She had recently finished working on the first season of a science fiction television series called Star Trek. Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura, the Chief Communications Officer onboard the starship, and she was the first black woman on television who wasn't cast in a stereotypical role as a maid or servant.

Even so, Nichols was ready to leave the show. Her role had been largely written out of the script during the first season and, without many lines, she wanted to try acting on Broadway instead. She had written her letter of resignation the day before and now she found herself face-to-face with Dr. King. 12

“We Never Thought We'd See This”

To her surprise, Dr. King loved Star Trek and started the conversation by saying, “Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.” Nichols was grateful and responded, “Dr. King thank you so much, but I'm going to miss my co-stars.” She began to explain her resignation, but King interrupted her.

“You cannot,” King said. “You cannot leave. Do you understand? You have changed the face of television forever. This is not a black role. This is not a female role. It can be filled by a woman of any color, a man of any color. This is a unique role and a unique point in time that breathes the life of what we are marching for: equality.” He went on, “This is why we are marching. We never thought we'd see this on TV.” 3

Nichols was stunned. She thought of herself as a simple cast member, as an actress with little impact and even fewer lines—not as a role model for men and women of color. It was the first time that the importance of her role had become clear to her.

The following Monday, Nichols returned to work on Star Trek and continued to play Lieutenant Uhura in every Star Trek episode and movie of the next 40 years. She remained a trailblazer throughout her career as she performed the first interracial kiss on national television and took on a variety of acting roles that redefined black women in the eyes of society. 45

It wasn't just Dr. King who praised her work. When Whoopi Goldberg met Nichols years later, Goldberg said, “When Star Trek came on, I was 9 years old. And I saw this show and there you were and I ran through the house saying, “Hey! Come everybody! Quick! Quick! Look! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid! I knew from that moment that I could become anything I wanted to be.” 6

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.

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Ordinary to You, Amazing to Someone Else

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nichelle Nichols' story is that she had an obvious impact without it being obvious to her at all. In a 2011 interview Nichols said, “I certainly wasn't a pioneer then in my mind. I was just a young woman, and it was a wonderful opportunity to be on television. To my amazement, it became a lot more.” 7

If you think about any job for long enough, you can find reasons for why it is unimportant, insignificant, or useless.

In the theater of her own mind, Nichelle Nichols convinced herself that her work wasn't useful. She thought it would be better to quit and move on. Meanwhile, people of color everywhere were finding inspiration in her work. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at home watching the show with his children each week. A 9-year-old Whoopi Goldberg was running around the house dreaming of her future.

To paraphrase Derek Sivers: What seems ordinary to you can be amazing to someone else.8 What seems boring or monotonous or trivial can shape the worldview of another person. Your actions create ripples in a pond—even if you never see them reach the shore. You've been given this moment and it's an opportunity to do something. So do something.

Exhaust Your Gifts

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
—Howard Thurman

We all play roles in life. Some have more lines than others, some get more stage time than others, but everyone can be a role model for their values, principles, and beliefs. When performed with compassion and enthusiasm, any job can shift the hearts and minds of the people it touches.

There are people who make each day a work of art by the way they do their work. There are unsung teachers who shift the minds of children, garbage men who keep society running smoothly, grocery store clerks who bring a smile to the face of people in the checkout line, and unknown artists who create beauty for a handful of fans. It's not about what you do, it's about how you do it.

Most of us will never have someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. praise our work. It's unlikely that you'll be on national television or shape the outcome of a major social movement. But we can all exhaust our gifts. We can all focus on giving what we have. And that's enough.

Exhaust your gifts and you can always walk away at peace with yourself and the difference you have made.9

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Footnotes
  1. Nichelle Nichols on Wikipedia.

  2. PBS Series: Pioneers of Television. Created by WNET.

  3. StarTalk Radio with Neil DeGrasse Tyson: A Conversation with Nichelle Nichols. July 11, 2011.

  4. The Wall Street Journal, ‘Star Trek’s’ Nichelle Nichols on How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed Her Life. January 17, 2011.

  5. Nichols actually auditioned for the part of Spock on Star Trek, but the writers liked her so much they created Uhura. However, it was Nichols who actually built the character. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Nichols said, “I walked in to the interview with this magnificent treatise on Africa by [Robert] Ruark called Uhuru, which is Swahili for Freedom. Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura? He said you are Uhura and that belongs to you.”

  6. StarTalk Radio with Neil DeGrasse Tyson: A Conversation with Nichelle Nichols. July 11, 2011.

  7. New York Daily News: ‘Star Trek' actress Nichelle Nichols: Martin Luther King Jr. impacted decision to stay on Enterprise. January 17, 2011.

  8. The original article by Derek Sivers, which I highly recommend, is here: Obvious to you. Amazing to others. November 21, 2010.

  9. Thanks to my dad for sharing his idea of “exhausting your gifts” with me. And for having the courage to exhaust his own gifts on the baseball field and as a parent.