Most of us haven’t heard the term “the right stuff” in a while, especially in reference to the movie or the book that inspired it. Even more of us knew nothing, or close to it, of the man who made the phrase famous.
Tom Wolfe’s recent passing was indeed a significant loss, maybe one we’ve only begun to fully realize. Perhaps the most famous of his works was The Right Stuff. Not only did Wolfe seek to encapsulate all the rigors and stresses undertaken by Cold War era astronauts, he sought the exact measurements of the intangible and verbally illusive “right stuff.” The stuff that sustained countless astronauts and scientists to risk life and limb for a higher purpose.
Within the vignette of that pivotal moment of human history, Wolfe eloquently put words to that which most of us describe as indescribable. He took moments of great danger and inspiration, of heart and determination, and made them personally investable.
For the time it seemed a gifted writer had managed to articulate, in the most captivating of ways, the feelings that transcend any worldly differences among us – those tingling moments of awesome inspiration and the tears of gratitude when witnessing true acts of selflessness and heroism.
It was not, however, that Wolfe had shown which few of us possessed the right stuff, rather that we all possessed in some form or another the right stuff.
His accounts of American astronauts undoubtedly made an indelible impression on countless scientists, academics, literary experts and critics alike. To put a finger on what kindles the flame of humanity’s soul should resonate with another generation of Americans soon to push their own envelopes – the Millennials.
Soon, Millennials will outnumber all other generational counterparts and have already surpassed Baby Boomers. Sheer numbers do not necessitate the passing of the mantle of leadership but our time is fast approaching.
Some charge Millennials are woefully unprepared and simply too soft. Others say we’re too self-absorbed and consumed by reality entertainment. Still more criticize our digital upbringing as an automatic disqualifier for possessing and developing any semblance of strategic insight or high levels of emotional intelligence.
Whatever the critics say, they say we don’t have the right stuff.
While critics of Millennials have some valid points regarding perceived generational shortcomings, they are not, however, disqualifying.
Instead, as Millennials, we should endeavor to cultivate the right stuff necessary to succeed in the historical vignette of here and now. Before we are handed the proverbial keys to the kingdom, we must first believe we can possess the right stuff, and we must let that take root.
We can lean on the lessons from the greatest generations who came before us. We can reappreciate our history, with all its blemishes and triumphs together, to glean profound takeaways, not animosities. We can learn so much about ourselves in the present by examining the complexities of our collective past.
We can begin cultivating the right stuff by conducting ourselves in a manner incongruent to the stagnation and division wrought by the generations currently stewarding our great nation.
This may sound easy, Millennials, but it won’t be. We’ve largely been shielded from massive generational turmoil nor have we been called upon to serve before our time was due. As part of establishing the belief that we can accept of mantle of leadership, let us also accept that aside from The Great Recession with its high unemployment among young people, we’ve had it pretty good.
The challenges we face, known and unknown, are significant. To overcome each one, large and small, will require far more than the brains, brawn, and skill of Cold War astronauts.
It will require heart.
With heart we can acknowledge the abundance of life is endless and that creating more for others is better than taking from them. With heart we can see the counter productivity of mean tweets and the veil of digital anonymity. With heart we can forgive more often and grow more steadily. With heart we can broker great compromises and leave principles unshaken. With heart we can have good policy over good politics and good stewards over false idols.
According to Wolfe, “A man either had it or he didn't! There was no such thing as having most of it.” With more heart, we can begin the pursuit of the right stuff – all of it.