Saturday, July 11, 2009

Crash-landing over Chesley Sullenberger.

I invite anyone who harbors any lingering doubts about the vacuousness and empty opportunism of self-help to open up Parade magazine when it arrives tomorrow morning*; there you'll read about Chesley Sullenberger's plans to return to the cockpit "later this summer after completing his memoirs, Highest Duty: My Seach for What Really Matters." The book is phase one of a two-book deal for which Sullenberger reportedly was paid $3.2 million. Think about this. The man flies an airplane into the Hudson River. ("Hell," said my youngest son when it happened, "I can do that..!") And now, by apparent virtue of that chance actthat moment when fate picked him to be in one of the infinitesimally small number of commercial jets that actually go downhe's qualified to mentor the rest of us on the meaning of life.

Of course, that's not really what it's about. What it's really about is that publishers know that the usual mob of inspiration-mainliners and corporate types who feel obliged to buy such books for their mid-level minions will queue up to hear what Sully has to say...even if what Sully has to say is something like, "Life is always testing us, and the question is, How do we respond to that test?", which I'm betting is something very like what Sully will say, and which is something that Sully (or anyone else) could say without ever flying an Airbus into a river even once.

No matter. Cha-ching. Collect your 3 mill!

The whole thing somewhat reminds me of ol' Beck Weathers, the Texas pathologist who was part of the ill-fated May 1996 Everest expedition that became the subject of Jon Krakauer's spellbinding best-seller, Into Thin Air. Weathers lost his nose, his left hand and part of his right hand to frostbite. He nearly lost his life itself. For purposes of expediency, I quote the balance of my point from SHAM pp. 15-16:

Weathers, now in his late fifties, travels the lecture circuit, expounding on the theme of 'surviving against all odds.' You wonder, though: How many people live in situations that are truly analogous to what Beck faced up on that mountain? For that matter, what role did any of Weathers' own actions play in his survival? According to Krakauer, Weathers was like a hapless pinball bounced around the mountaintop for sixteen hours, and he almost surely would have died if others hadn't helped him down the treacherous slopes at significant risk to themselves, and if his wife had not arranged for a dangerous helicopter rescue. (To be blunt about it, Weathers probably had no business being up on that mountain in the first place, as Krakauer himself strongly implies.) So what do we learn from Beck Weathers? Tellingly, he informs his admiring audiences that "Everest, in many ways, was one of the best things to happen to me." At $15,000 a speech, he's not kidding....
Needless to say, $15,000 a speech is chump change compared to the windfall Sullenberger has collectedand is sure to continue to collect once the inevitable film is green-lighted.

I bet this sounds a lot like envy. Let me clear things up for you: You're damned right it is. It's envy on more levels than you can imagine.** Some of us, after all, have devoted decades of our lives to honing our craft, which is Writing, which believe it or not isn't something just anyone can do well. Yet the only time we're gonna see $3 million is when we see it being handed to waterlogged pilots to write their inspirational "memoirs." And anyway, does one act, one discrete moment in time, really qualify a person to write "memoirs"? (Andy Warhol was never more pertinent than here, where the pivotal star-making action did indeed unfold over the course of about 15 minutes.) The whole thing is as absurd as my walking into USAirways' corporate HQ and demanding (1) to fly a plane, and (2) to be paid $3 million for the privilege. And in case you think that comparison is a bit too easily drawn, I dare say that the skill set that underlies good writing
or is supposed to, in any caseis far more specialized and difficult to master than the skill set that underlies piloting. (I've written about pilots and piloting. And I talked about it often with my nephew, who ultimately died in the course of crash-landing his plane in a way that didn't lay waste to the surrounding neighborhood.)

But my envy is far broader than that. It extends to matters philosophical as well. Some of us take pride in asking the hard questions, in avoiding the easy answers, in saying things that people don't want to hear (e.g. my recent post on pedophilia), all of it in an effort to poke at the crust of a less superficial level of truth. I think also of my piece in the current Skeptic, where, for rather less than $3 million, I expended 5000*** words tackling such questions as, "Why are certain things crimes and other things not crimes even though some of those other things clearly have wider, more harmful effects than the things that are crimes?" Such thoughts have to struggle to find an audience (in truth, they have to struggle to find a forum, first). Meanwhile, millions of us will mob stadiums to hear people like Tommy Lasorda yell, "You gotta want it!"

Oh, I see. I gotta want it. Well thank you for sharing those words of wisdom, Tommy.

I don't understand why we're so fascinated by cheap, easy "motivation." I don't understand what makes us so inclined to confer instant guru status upon people, like Sully and Beck, who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the right time, a la Michael Phelps. Even in cases where people achieve remarkable things, what makes us think these people have anything to teach us? And if they do have something meaningful to say, what makes us think their skills are translatable to our own lives?

I guess I'll just have to buy Sully's book to find out.

* Mine comes with the Saturday paper.
** OTOH, it's pointed envy, not the generalized kind. For example, I do not envy Jon Krakauer for the fame and fortune he enjoyed as a result of Into Thin Air, even though it was also an obvious bit of happenstance that put him up on that mountain. Krakauer is a wonderful writer, and his book on the disaster is as seamless a blend of journalistic description and authorly lyricism as you'll find anywhere. Although, I do recall some writers (half-)joking at the time, "Can you believe that lucky sonofabitch! How come he gets to be a member of a climbing party where almost everybody dies!" Incidentally, if you think I'm envious, try to imagine what some of the nation's starving poets must feel, hearing the rumors that Sully's second book may turn out to be a volume of poetry! John Berryman must be spewing profane verse in his grave.
*** That's a ton of words for a magazine feature these days, and I am eternally grateful to Michael Shermer for allotting me that kind of space.


Anonymous said...


By being a commercial pilot, Sully put himself in the position to potentially be a hero one day when things go wrong. He greatly increased his (admittedly remote) chances of being a hero every time he took over the aircraft controls. My job doesn't allow me to save a few hundred people -I would have to rescue kids from a burning school bus, but even that wouldn't get me a book deal - maybe, possibly a 4th-hour Today Show interview, tops.

Let Sully enjoy his big payday. He delivered when he had to. His book will be in the remainder bin in time for the Christmas season.

Stever Robbins said...

This coming Monday, I'll be attending a motivational speech by a self-help author who just published his second book. I'm very curious to hear whether he says anything beyond the empty catch-phrases they all use.

The whole industry really is fascinating. I'm keenly aware that I spent several-hundred-thousand dollars and years of my life on my Bachelor's and Masters, and my lifetime income isn't even remotely likely to approach what Paris Hilton gets for one film. (And I'm talking Paris Hilton here, not Meryl Streep, who at least is a master of her craft.)

At the end of the day, we pay for popularity, not skill. We pay for fads, not substance. And we pay for quick hits and flash, not thoughtful, methodical work.

I've spoken with several friends of mine in sciences and engineering who are changing careers into sales, consulting, and other high paying activities. The consensus among that group: why spend a lifetime doing high skill work and being paid mediocre wages when you can make bigger bucks doing easier work?

At an individual level, it makes tremendous sense. Heck, that's why I shifted from engineering to business--I could see that a lousy manager made more than a good engineer would ever make. As much as I loved engineering, it was clearly a very limited field.

At a national level, I think this is a serious problem. I hear the business world claiming that what will make America economically competitive with the rest of the world this century is "innovation." When our smart innovators are ignoring their talents in favor of sales, consulting, and banking because of the pay, it's going to make it hard to sustain any real innovation.

Neuroskeptic said...

He delivered when he had too - but that was his job. He was trained, and paid, to do what he did. I'm sure he's an excellent pilot, but I'm also sure that there are thousands of equally good ones in America.

A surgeon is trained and paid not to kill people during surgery. Which is a hard job. Every day, thousands of surgeons do their jobs. You don't see them getting book deals for inspirational books, although I'm sure any surgeon would be able to write a pretty useful self-help book ("Stop smoking, no really, no really, positive thinking will not stop lung cancer" would be a good start).

Elizabeth said...

"try to imagine what some of the nation's starving poets must feel, hearing the rumors that Sully's second book may turn out to be a volume of poetry!"


VW: beast...

Athol Kay said...

I think it's an unfair lumping in of Sullenberger with Weathers. Climbing Everest has always been a risky gambit, and it takes a bit of luck along with good planning to get to the top. Botching a climb shouldn't really get you a lecture circuit gig.

However Sullenberger is different. Based on the published reactions of other pilots, the landing was an outstanding achievement. He was clearly a distinguished pilot with a major influence in safety and air disaster response - before the landing in New York.

"Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric, Sullenberger said, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

I dunno, sounds like he just might have something worth saying. And perhaps it won't be as gagging as a professional self-help book.

Steve Salerno said...

One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal...

I'll tell you what bothers me about that quote, Athol. It implies two things: (1) that there was something about him, and his particular skill set, that enabled him to land that plane, and, related (2), it implies that other pilots might not have been able to achieve the same landing. We have no way of verifying either of those "truths"--in fact, I suspect that a lot of pilots could've handled this situation with similar aplomb (though we'll never know, of course)--and yet we're handing this guy $3.2 mill as if he's some kind of inspirational messiah. And you know, if maybe one more goose had gotten sucked into his engine a moment sooner, or if he'd taken off in another direction and been farther from the river, we might be writing about him and his passengers in the past tense. It could all be one huge quirk of fate.

I'm reminded of a quote I once heard from a local firefighter who ran into a burning building and saved several small children. The newsperson asked him, "What made you do that?", and the firefighter shrugged and replied a la Mallory's famous quote about Everest: "I was there." Sometimes that's all there is to it. There are no heroic reasons that explain somebody does something, and there is no special wisdom that the person has to share with us.

He was just...there.

Anonymous said...

'He was just...there.'

He was more than just there, he was there and took appropriate action that saved numerous lives.

The fireman was more than just there gawping at a burning building, he took appropriate action, at great risk to himself, and helped others who needed help.

And no, just doing his job is not sufficient recognition and your paltry, jealous whinge about writers having a higher skill set is indicative of your narcissistic self-centerenedss.

When did you last risk your life for others?

Anonymous said...

"It implies two things: (1) that there was something about him, and his particular skill set, that enabled him to land that plane, and, related (2), it implies that other pilots might not have been able to achieve the same landing."

(1) But there was something about his skill set that enabled him to land the plane! The proof of that is that the plane isn't at the bottom of the Hudson. I don't know exactly what it is - or what combination of things it is - but it isn't just because of 42 years experience. It can't be true that all older pilots are great older pilots. They could all be absolutely competent but not great.

Do you agree there could be varying levels of ability even among people with the same amojunt of experience? I would think yes. It's called the Major and Minor Leagues.

(2) How does this remark imply that other pilots couldn't do it? In terms of pilots with less experience, yes, he does imply his experience made this landing possible. But I don't see the implication that someone with a very similar background and skill set couldn't have done it.

I'm wondering where all this angst squares with your deterministic view. Everyone who boarded that plane that day was destined to do so; and he was always going to land it. And there would never be one more bird, or a different direction or any other variable that would change the situation. Otherwise, that would have been destined as well.

Tyro said...

Years back when I was working for a big tech company during the boom, we got trucked to an inspirational speech called "The Right Mountain". It was by an ageing business exec who paid a small fortune to have him and his son dragged up Everest. The old duffer quit and came down, suffering an epiphany that he was "on the wrong mountain". He turned the experience into a series of trite vignettes for business folk, like walking down a trail, turning back and seeing different sights ("sometimes in business you have to look back at what you've achieved") or the time he saw his son get washed down a river but didn't do anything to save him, instead letting the guide throw ropes and organize a human ladder ("Sometimes you have to trust your team").

The highlight of the talk came when, back at basecamp, he befriended the doctor for a French expedition and got to overhear him organize a rescue where some climbers got hurt and died. Our armchair climber delivered his verdict: they were on the wrong mountain. Their heart was elsewhere and they made a mistake and so they died. _HE_ was on the right mountain, that's why he lived.

As background, I come from a family of mountaineers and I personally know two people that have been killed mountaineering. Some people die from silly mistakes but mountaineering is a dangerous activity and there are unavoidable hazards which can kill the most skilled and focused climbers, yet many people are consumed with a passion which keeps putting them back on the mountains. How dare he make pronouncements on people's life and death and to _blame_ them when he knows nothing about their situation? I was furious and after the speech I told the lab director just what I thought. (Reminds me of The Secretophiles and their blame-the-victim mentality.)

As a side note, the highlight of the evening came when the lab director came up afterwards to give a closing speech. The speaker had given his closing pitch that we can do anything if we are prepared to sacrifice everything to get it. The lab director stood up and said thank you but we value work-life balance, it's very important that work is one small part of our lives and we should not be sacrificing anything in order to achieve our work goals. I loved it, score one for the reality boys.

BTW: I do give Beck W some credit - it must have taken a lot of strength and willpower to fight so hard for so long. I do wonder whether these actions (like that of Sully) are as a result of their insight into life or simply a part of who they are and an instinctual reaction to circumstances. How can that be taught or even expressed?

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:38AM - you are much too generous with your remainder bin comment. Sully's book of inspirational poems will start in the remainder bin.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 10:46: I'm sorry about my self-centerened whinging. But there have indeed been times in my life when I did more than just gawp. This (tiny'd below) is not the most recent such time, but it's one that comes to mind. And yes, it was fact-checked by the Times:

Firemen are paid to go into burning buildings. Pilots are paid to land planes, sometimes under adverse conditions. Don't talk to me about heroism unless you're talking about people who step outside their normal defined roles in order to do extraordinary things on behalf of others.

Athol Kay said...

I'll tell you what bothers me about that quote, Athol. It implies two things: (1) that there was something about him, and his particular skill set, that enabled him to land that plane, and, related (2), it implies that other pilots might not have been able to achieve the same landing.

That's exactly my point though - other pilots went "that's an unbelievable landing".

cf "Water Landing" on Wikipedia. "While there have been several 'successful' (survivable) water landings by narrow-body and propeller-driven airliners, few commercial jets have ever touched down 'perfectly' on water. There has been a good deal of popular controversy over the efficiency of life vests and rafts. For example, Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project had been quoted as saying that a wide body jet would “shatter like a raw egg dropped on pavement, killing most if not all passengers on impact, even in calm seas with well-trained pilots and good landing trajectories."[1]

"Also, in December 2002, The Economist had quoted an expert as claiming that "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water" in an article that goes on to charge, "So the life jackets ... have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better."[2][3] This idea was repeated in The Economist in September 2006 in an article which reported that "in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero."[4]

The landing is astounding.

The entire crew of Flight 1549 was later awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. The award citation read, "This emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement."[12]

I agree there has been a lot of hype about all of this. But seriously, there's a nugget of gold at the center of this story.

Steve Salerno said...

AK: I'm not saying it wasn't an extraordinary incident; I still shake my head every time I see that shot of the passengers standing at parade rest along both wings. I guess I'm just always asking myself in cases of such "remarkable" achievements: (1) is it repeatable? I.e. could he do it again? (2) Awards or no awards from his peers (and let's face it, peers always have a selfish motivation in giving such awards, as it naturally tends to bring acclaim to the species as a whole), is it really something that other pilots couldn't have done?

And since I brought up the all-star game in my most recent post on Sully, I'll give you an analogy from my favorite realm. There was a player for the Cards once, Mark Whitten. A decent player but nothing to write home about, in the overall. One day in September 1993 he stepped up to the plate and hit four home runs, driving in 12 runs in the process. Here's the box score from that game:

That is a remarkable achievement, by any standard. But he'd never done it before, and was certainly not expected to ever do it again. (Which, of course, he did not.) In fact, Whitten was batting seventh for the Cards that day. So in retrospect, the only way to conceptualize that event, to put it in perspective, is that something magical happened to Mark Whitten that day. Fate picked him--just as it could have picked anyone else--to hit those four home runs. He wasn't really "capable" of it (even though he did it), or maybe a better way of putting it would be that he was no more or less capable than any other professional ballplayer.

As Cole Porter told us some decades earlier, it was just one of those things.

Anonymous said...

"The whole thing is as absurd as my walking into USAirways' corporate HQ and demanding (1) to fly a plane, and (2) to be paid $3 million for the privilege."

What's absurd is your logic. Sully didn't walk into a publisher and demand to (1) to write books and (2) to be paid $3 million for them.

Whoever is ghost-writing it for him will be well compensated I'm sure. Maybe even get a "with" credit on the cover.

It's called the free market. If a publisher paid $3 million for his name, they're planning to make even more on that name. And people will buy it or they won't.
End of story.

Cosmic Connie said...

Yeah, occasionally I get bitten by the envy bug too. You wrote:

"Some of us, after all, have devoted decades of our lives to honing our craft, which is Writing, which believe it or not isn't something just anyone can do well."

The key word there is "well." Just about anyone can WRITE. But it seems that writing *well* doesn't count so much these days.

I do admire one thing about Sully, though (apart from his obvious piloting expertise): despite the leading questions from interviewers shortly after the incident, he didn't go on and on about how prayer and faith got him through the ordeal on the Hudson. But who knows how his personal account might get "miracled up" by the time it gets to print. Maybe he'll retroactively remember that G_d was his co-pilot after all. Even without a mystical element, though, I definitely see the obnoxiousness potential of the motivational element in his story. Not that I have anything against Sully, his ghostwriter(s) or his publisher making big bucks, but as for the end users of the product, all I can say is this: "Corporate drones and cube-farm denizens (those few of you who are left) out! Incoming!"

Anonymous said...

Is it repeatable? is beside the point.
This was a unique situation, not a controlled experiment in a lab. Those exact circumstances are unlikely ever to occur again. Is it repeatable? belittles the fact that when it was required he used his skill and experience, and supposedly his experience with gliders was a contributing factor to his successful landing, to make the best possible job of what he was facing.
If only two people got out alive that would have been an achievement.
The fact that you are annoyed that no-one has offered you 3 mill for a book deal has clouded your judgement.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 7:54, I think you make a fair comment, in a sense, but I don't see how you could ignore the logic of my Mark Whitten example, above. If repeatability doesn't count, then is Mark Whitten the greatest hitter ever to play baseball? If he were playing today, should they give him twice what they give to players like A-Rod and Pujols?

To me, repeatability is everything. Almost anything can happen once, just by accident. And if we're really going to take this far do we know that another pilot might not have been able to land the plane at an actual airport?

Anonymous said...

' do we know that another pilot might not have been able to land the plane at an actual airport?' do we know that another pilot might not have been able to fly out into outer space and land on the moon?
We were discussing what actually happened which was a quite amazing feat of flying skill that saved all the lives aboard, not a hypothetical fantasy baseball league.
I bet old Sully had no thoughts of 'Hm, maybe I'll get a $3 mill book deal out of this' while he was doing his best to land that plane, I am willing to bet that he was fully concentrated on getting himself and his passengers to safety any way he could. And for that he deserves our respect.

Steve Salerno said...


Anonymous said...

BTW, I read your piece in the Times:

'Over the years, those two or three minutes in that alley have never been far from my thoughts. I have replayed them countless times, trying to make sense of them. Usually I think of them as a scene from a long-ago movie or a nightmare I once had. I can think that way until present circumstances intrude: my first glimpse of the Rodney King video. The night James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death. And now the Diallo verdict. Then the reality of that night comes as a dull ache in the gut.'

The last sentence says it all, that is what life feels like when you are not hiding behind the defensive idea of determinism or any other man-made concept of what life might be.

Life in the raw. How it really is. The real reason pilots fly and people climb forbidding mountains, pitting their wits and experience against mother nature--who we all know wins in the end, every time.

One day old ma nature will sweep away all those precious ideas in each individual head and each individual will experience life in the raw, no comfort then from the carefully constructed concepts of what life might hypothetically be.

Sully employed his wits and experience and won a brief reprieve for himself and his passengers. Not much maybe, if you take the omniscient view--which is a simple cognitive trick, not a truth grounded in the only reality we can know.

For a grounded human point of view, which is our only real measure of reality as it is lived, you would have to ask Sully's passengers whether the brief reprieve was worth the fear and terror that accompanied it.

LizaJane said...

I'd say that Anon wins this one, Steve. Yes, I agree with your main point (i.e. doing a singular act deemed newsworthy -- whether by Fox or NPR -- doesn't, in and of itself, qualify you as an expert on life in general, make you a "real" writer, or mean you should be paid gobs of money for your "view on life, the universe, and everything").

I think, however, you (for no good reason) deny the particular skills and abilities of this particular pilot.

People, whether highly trained or barely functional, are not interchangeable. You simply cannot say that another pilot -- even one with the same flight hours, military background, IQ, and moral compass -- would have or could have done what Sully did. And those who couldn't, or didn't, complete the landing so perfectly are NOT necessarily truly "bad" or "incompetent" pilots.

Furthermore, just because a surgeon doesn't kill his patients does not make him the equivalent of, interchangeable with, all other surgeons who don't kill their patients. He might actually be better, or worse (perhaps he leaves ugly, avoidable scars).

Sully (it's shorter) didn't "fly a plane into a river." Saying so sounds as if you didn't know the full story. And I'd surely rather have had Sully in the cockpit than your youngest son, despite your son's confidence in his ability to pilot the plane into the river.

To say he was simply in the right place at the right time is also dismissive and silly. Yes, people get lucky breaks that boost their careers. Some people know the right people (whether through family or because you got stuck in an elevator or on a mountaintop together), others have "ins" of various sorts (e.g. a name, a famous daddy). But do you think Sully would consider a bird flying into the engine a "lucky break" simply because it ended up with a book deal, rather than with hundreds of bodies floating down the Hudson?

Will I buy his book? No. Had I been on that plane, however, I might have a copy already reserved. No, not because I'd think he could teach me the meaning of life, but because I might be interested to know more about him -- his thoughts, background, point of view.

If someone saved my life, I might be curious to know who they are. And I think other people probably feel the same way, even though they, themselves, weren't on the plane. It's an empathetic sort of curiosity.

Sure, many might think he holds the key to the wonders of the universe. There are plenty of stupid people. No doubt about that. But my guess is that for most potential book buyers, as it would be for me, it's less about "self-help" and more about "who is this guy and what has he got to say for himself?" I really don't think that's so horrible (and trust me, I make a wide arc around the self-help section. I find it completely creepy).

I also think that successfully landing a powerless jet on the Hudson river is not comparable to any feat of baseball (or other sport) prowess, no matter how spectacular. Was the ball player thinking, at the time, "If I don't do this exactly right, hundreds of men, women, and children, including me, will die?"

Yes, pilots are trained to, supposed to, and required to -- handle emergencies. That really doesn't detract from the fact that this was special. Perhaps the guy DOES have something worthwhile to say. Perhaps not. Heck, maybe he's even a good poet (it's not entirely improbable. Who knows, maybe he tossed a coin and went with flight school instead of the PhD in Comp. Lit.).