Skywalker is My Homeboy

When I was four, I sat in a movie theater and like millions of others in 1977, my life was changed forever. Everything about the movie (and its merchandise juggernaut) enveloped me and engaged my imagination like nothing before.

The original cast of my bedroom playground theater.

For the following years, Star Wars was at the center of my life. I drew every character, craft and creature I could on every scrap of paper I could find. I cheered on Luke while listening to The Story of Star Wars on my LP record. I traced the logo, slept on the sheets and solved the jigsaw puzzles. I can still recite the docking bay in which the Millennium Falcon was housed in Mos Eisley (94), as well as the number of the infamous Death Star trash compactor (3263827). And of course, there were the toys.

At the end of every school year, my mom would present me with a box when she picked me up in her silver Chevy Vega. Atop each box was a rebus she created that I would have to solve before I could open it. As I worked out the puzzle, I felt like one of those dogs who can balance a treat on their nose and hold it until their master said it was okay to snatch and devour it. Within each box there was usually a collection of four or five Kenner action figures, which would be added to my collection and stored in the Darth Vader carrying case that I still have to this day. These figures were the ideal cast of players that kept me company through many days growing up as an only child. There was plenty of dirt outside for my own little Mos Eisley.

As I grew older and revisited this story again and again (VHS, laserdisc, etc.), the special effects aged, the tale became a bit more charming than awe-inspiring and the magic dimmed ever so slightly. But what remains constant through every viewing of Star Wars is an ideal that is hard to come by these days:

This is what it takes to be a hero.

He’s here to rescue us all.

Over the years, I’ve watched many idols, champions and role models crumble into piles of disappointment and heartbreak. The stalwart president was a calculating liar. The unbeatable athlete was doping for years. The endearing comedian was a serial rapist. It startled me how easily and often good and evil blurred or even dressed up like each other.

But whenever I needed a reminder of what it meant to be a shining example of doing what is right, no matter what, Luke Skywalker was there.

Many people cast Luke aside as one of the weaker Star Wars characters. He was never as cool as Han Solo, as wise as Obi-Wan Kenobi, or as clever and quirky as Yoda. Yet to me, Luke stands out as the greatest character in the entire saga. He defies advice from his friends and masters in hopes of conquering evil. He never yields from the path of genuine righteousness. He trusts his instincts at just the right moment. And all of this yields tremendous results.

Stretching out with his feelings.

Luke destroyed the Death Star not only because he was a bad-ass pilot who knew when to use the Force. What really led to his pocketing two torpedoes into a hole the size of a womp rat was the moment he dug into Han Solo. The young Jedi tore into his smuggler friend with such raw, idealistic criticism that the Kessel Run record-holder was forced (get it?) to change his ways for good.

That is what heroes do. They hold up a mirror to the rest of the world and remind us all that there is something that each of us can do to make things better. It’s easy to give up, act cool and cast aside ideals as pipe dreams. It’s another thing entirely to truly never give up until the impossible job is done.

Now, Luke is by no means perfect. He whines when he has to do his chores. He’s an emotional teenager, prone to fussy outbursts. He can be a little abrupt and dismissive with his sentient machines.

But to me, that just made the desert farm boy more real…and therefore, someone I could emulate. Luke was the perfect compliment to my mother’s warm, nurturing kindness and permanently positive attitude. I firmly believe that the dual influences of my mom and the young Jedi made me who I am (though I’m not nearly as good as either of them).

Today, I’m the Senior Creative Director at XPRIZE. Our foundation incentivizes innovation in aerospace, health care, education, ocean science and more. We are supported by Google, Qualcomm, Elon Musk, James Cameron and many others who are dedicated to bridging the gap between science fiction and science reality. We work every day to make the world a better place. Sometimes we stumble, but we never give up.

The fan favorite makes a comeback.

It occurred to me last year, as the marketing onslaught behind The Force Awakens was gaining a full head of steam, that I work at XPRIZE not just because of Luke Skywalker, but even more so, because of Mark Hamill himself. Watch his audition for the role of Luke. There you will see not just a young, talented actor, but a true idealist. Something about the young thespian’s enthusiasm feels so genuine and pure, that it couldn’t be faked. It’s said that many of the greatest actors bring something that is within them to the parts that define their careers. Mr. Hamill is no different (though his outstanding portrayal as The Joker makes me wonder what he is hiding).

But it wasn’t just his portrayal of Luke that became such a motivation. It was all of the countless hours of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews in which I saw someone who was clever, curious and truly caring toward everyone around them, from fans to co-stars and everyday people. The conversation in which Warwick Davis reminds Mr. Hamill of how generous and welcoming he was on the set of Return of the Jedi is inspiring. It reminded me of how small efforts by major figures can become life-changing for those who benefit from them.

I soon realized that Mr. Hamill’s behavior as a real person also led me to become an idealist, a Big Brother, a school volunteer and someone who looks for every moment in their life to do good. I don’t do this in hopes of becoming someone’s hero, but I’m sure Mr. Hamill didn’t have that in mind when he auditioned for his classic role decades ago.

Today, we could use more heroes. More impatient visionaries who stand for the greater good. More knights who charge into danger with the belief that they can truly make the world a better place. More everyday people who speak up for what is right.

One may suggest that it’s easy to be a hero if you’re not a real person. That may be true, but it misses the point. What those imaginary heroes do to the rest of us in the real world is their greatest contribution. There is a long history of real heroes being inspired by imaginary ones. There would be no Mae Jemison were it not for Lieutenant Uhura. There would be no Carl Sagan were it not for John Carter of Mars. Edwin Hubble would have wasted away as a miserable attorney were it not for Jules Verne.

Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill have been, in no small amount, my heroes all my life, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. They have made me a better person, and it’s wonderful to have them back one more time. Even if it was only for a few moments.

The author (in one of the best moments of his life) learning how to use the Force from the Jedi Master himself.

May the Force Be With You. Always.