The ‘right stuff’

A short string of words may end up having a much greater resonance in your mind than the entire book in which you read them. These words often have a long yet indirect history that echoes with something in yours.

The novelist Tom Wolfe wrote a story about test pilots trying to become the first astronauts at NASA. Wolfe’s story was picked up by the philosopher Isabelle Stengers in her book on the pace of modern science. Stengers wrote about the ethos surrounding certain professions like pilots, scientists, … and, as it suddenly struck me: philosophers.

“If a test pilot dies on the job, his colleagues would say that ‘he didn’t have the right stuff’. The interesting thing was that there was no positive definition of his stuff, given there were multiple reasons why a pilot could be killed, mostly depending on the plane he was testing.”

The idea that someone has to be made out of some invisible, intangible “right stuff” sounds a bit archaic today. It feels like something someone would say in a movie in the 1960s leaning over some rookie boy while flipping a cigarette. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a revolt, especially on social media, against an idea of ‘the right stuff’ when it’s associated with a certain prototype of an indistinct 1960s white man not aware of his societal status denied to others with comparable talent. This post is not about that kind of story.

One of the current requirements for a green card application in the US is to provide proof not merely of your degrees and diplomas but the transcripts of all the classes you have taken, and grades received. I was born in East Germany. I went to a well-known university — albeit one that remains on the former East of Germany. What that effectively means is that there are no electronic records.

Let me give you a glimpse into the late twentieth-century German soul. One day I had walked along the long hallway of the Philosophy Institute of my alma mater, the Humboldt University in Berlin. It was around 7 am, perhaps closer to half past 7, and something was different. The hallway felt stretched. Or shrunk. Hard to say, but the distance of the walls appeared somewhat distorted. I went to the cleaner working his way through the hallway. We used to cross paths almost every morning, so he greeted me. Impossible to say why this was the question I ended up asking him: “This might sound weird, but did you change the cleaning liquid?” His response tells you everything you need to know about a world that ceased to exist. “Yes, last week we ran out of our stocks of cleaning stuff from the GDR.” This conversation took place nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall.

So I contacted the relevant offices about any, really, any form of documentation about my studies still available for my green card application. They reached out to the archives of the Humboldt. A few weeks later, and I am still grateful for their help, I received the scans of their paper records of my time at the Humboldt. Organizing the lists of classes I had taken made me painfully aware of one thing: I would not have made it far in today’s “only A+” top-school economy. I was not the right stuff, and as a friend from those days was not shy reminding me, I was being shown that I was not seen as having the right stuff either.

Yet, I also remember a professor known for both his work and his choleric temperament. He once sent a student away, telling her that Philosophy was not for her and she may enjoy art history more. She was hurt and angry. Years later, she came back to his office after having graduated successfully… in art history. She thanked him as she had found her element, one she had not known about, and their earlier encounter had prompted her to confront her reasons for doing what she thought she was doing. Sometimes, an honest opinion is not prejudiced dismissal by an evil old white man (as some might judge it from a distance these days), but just that: a genuine impression about someone not being “in it” with their spirit. Because we do not always follow our element and often follow more what we believe our element to be. It’s not transparent where that belief originates. Some people just know. Others believe they know.

One semester I was tutoring for this professor. Unlike his departmental colleagues, he apparently thought I was the right stuff. He never told me why. That part was for me to find out.

More than a decade of rejections in academic philosophy, getting me close to quitting the damn profession, taught me why. The answer is not a story about resistance or grit. It’s that I was the wrong kind of stuff at the right time.

“The most exciting phrase in science is not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s odd…”

I changed my dissertation topic halfway through grad school (not usually recommended). I had picked a subject that, after a while, gave me a sense of fatigue. The scholarly literature began to smear into an indistinct choir. Smell, a topic I came across by pure accident at the time, was a refreshing change. It was, frankly, odd. The subject itself did not have a well-defined outlook with a route to a solution yet. (Wait, we can send a man to the moon, and we do not yet know how smell works?) More importantly, smell lacked a vocabulary to discuss these conceptual tensions in which the scientific discussions took place. These tensions were deeply philosophical in my view: What actually are odors? What kind of information does our nose pick up? And how does the brain make sense of this multitude of scents and their associations? Here, the words we used to describe visual experience failed me quickly. So there was no suitable philosophical framework to understand the experience of smell either. How strange!

And there I was, hooked.

Ten years later I am a philosopher starting an experimental laboratory (so like, with science, and stuff). My CV must confound most academic departments. I am still wondering what the nose knows and continue to have more questions than answers. Only these questions have become more profound. And I found people along the way wondering about similar questions in their own way. Scientists, philosophers, perfumers. Paul Breslin, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, said to me a couple of years ago: “The field [of olfaction] has no discipline. We are united by a common question.”

What had happened?

I had almost crashed my plane.

A few days ago, I watched a talk by Sir Ken Robinson again. You may have seen his TED talks (they are wonderful). This was a talk on bis book(s), about finding one’s element. Robinson tells the story of a kid who could walk on his hands just as well as other people walk on their legs. After some time, it may have looked silly to most people. Yet his mother did not tell him to stop when he continued regardless of the novelty wearing off for other people watching. Instead, she encouraged this peculiar habit. Needless to say, his story finds an inspiring ending making sense only in hindsight. Obviously he had some kind of right stuff. (Which his mother sensed.)

You had to be there.

So what is this intangible thing of having the right stuff? It’s not about having a particular feature that belongs to a specific occupation. It’s not a formalizable thing. That’s why it may sound so handwavy and thus often gets conflated with prototypes and poster boys. It’s not even about being good at something widely recognized as a notable feature of said occupation. It is about finding an echo in an occupation … from something that originates in your way of engagement.

Looking back, I really was not good at philosophy (alas, in the way many philosophers today professionally review something as philosophy). It somehow went against my grain. I started to resent the philosophical profession for it as I tried (perhaps too long) to be good at philosophy, not by doing what drove me to engage with philosophy but by attempting to belong to philosophers. When I stopped doing that, I found the meaning that having the right stuff has for me. I reclaimed being a philosopher by owning the fact I may not count as one in some people’s eyes. I engaged with the practice of thinking that once had enamored me in its deeply philosophical nature and, soon, I was falling in love with philosophy again.

“A cleric who loses his faith abandons his calling, a philosopher who loses his re-defines his subject.”

It’s not the outcome that makes stuff right.

It’s the flight.

A (much) younger self with resting student face.