Lessons from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

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Books / Tuesday

I will be honest, unlike many of the authors about whose books I have written about on this blog, I did not follow Tom Wolfe’s work closely. In fact, I don’t even want to attempt to give a description for him because I’m not sure it will do justice to his legend. So, here’s an introduction to Tom Wolfe from his obituary by the New York Times:

Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

When he passed away, there were many similar articles with similar sentiments and I was brainstorming about which books to read for this blog. I decided to go with The Right Stuff because it seemed most adjacent to my interests. It’s a story about the space race era that asks the simple question – what’s the right stuff for an astronaut that sit on the top of a rocket that can blow up in tragic ways.

When you read a book like this, you experience a cocktail of different emotions on each page. Sometimes you gall at the bravery, sometimes you roll your eyes at the clash of personalities.

But no matter what, you get a lot of takeaways out of it. So let’s get into those:

Skin in the Game – literally

If you haven’t read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, please do so. I wrote about the book here. The Right Stuff talks about a fundamental principal in Skin in the Game and takes it to the extreme. I love finding these connections.

Here’s a quote from The Right Stuff describing how young men going into military flight training were made to feel:

Herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not.

Now, of course this “it” is the right stuff. But what’s more interesting is to think about the young cadets who did not have “it”. What happened to them?

Well, there was the one statistic that struck fear into the hearts of the pilots’ family: 23% percent change of death. Those are not good odds.

But this is the game that they were in, and in this game the weak do not survive. This was laid out extremely well in Skin in the Game:

Imagine people with similar mental handicaps, people who don’t understand asymmetry, piloting planes. Incompetent pilots, those who cannot learn from experience, or don’t mind taking risks they don’t understand, may kill many. But they will themselves end up at the bottom of, say, the Bermuda Triangle, and cease to represent a threat to others and mankind.

This time it’s different

It’s conventional wisdom that one of the biggest red flags that signal an impending financial crisis is the sentiment “This time it’s different”.

The idea is also applicable to individuals. Fighter pilots, when confronted and asked about the 23% death rate, would quip:

The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.

It’s tempting – some may even say necessary – to think you’re different. But keeping an eye on the odds is not cowardice, it’s prudence. But I guess fighter pilots do a different kind of calculus.

Resisting progress

Reading through the initial launch of Project Mercury, one of the things that surprised me the most was the opposition from the status quo. Even the fighter pilots that were flying these missions had a prevailing sentiment:

They was not going to be a lot of piloting in Mercury.

This was because astronauts were essentially put in a capsule and shot into space. They had a nickname for the project: “Spam in a can”.

All progress is resisted. Today any “patriot” would bend over backwards to praise these astronauts. Then, they were laughing at them.


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