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The 5 Hidden Career Lessons in ‘Hidden Figures’

Women and men can learn from NASA's black female pioneers


The new Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures is a true story about three African American women who worked as “human computers” at the NASA Research Center in Langley, Va. in the early ‘60s: programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), math genius Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). At its core, the film is a powerful reminder of the destructive consequences of discrimination. But it also holds important career lessons about how to manage and excel at work, even under challenging circumstances.

Set in the Jim Crow South, the women are subjected to constant racial and gender discrimination. They are denied promotions, forced to use separate, distant bathrooms and are expected to never complain. But if not for the critical contributions of these three, NASA might never have successfully sent John Glenn into orbit.

Here are five key career lessons I gleaned from the film and ones I think could help women and men at work:

1. Be indispensable. At the start of Hidden Figures, the three women are assigned to a larger group of “human calculators” who toil away anonymously in a back room, far away from the more important male scientists. But thanks to their hard work, smarts, dogged determination and prowess, each of the women eventually finds her way to a promotion.

When you connect with meaning at work, it inspires you to work harder. And that, in turn, leads to better outcomes for you and your employer.

For example, after discovering NASA has installed a new “IBM machine” that can work far faster than humans, Vaughan decides to teach herself the FORTRAN programming language needed to operate it. This is a formidable challenge, but by being the first to master the new technology, Vaughan not only saves her job, she gets bumped up to supervisor of the new computing department.

The takeaway: Whether you want a raise, a promotion or a flexible work schedule, the single best thing you can do is find a way to make yourself indispensable. That means doing a great job and contributing to projects that are critical to your employer’s success. In other words, make yourself so valuable, they can’t afford to lose you.

2. Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. The working conditions at NASA for African American women at the time were discriminatory, degrading and demoralizing. In particularly disturbing moments in the film, Johnson is forced to use a colored-only bathroom a half-mile away from her desk and then gets reprimanded for “taking breaks.”

Rather than allow the negativity to defeat them, however, the women do what they can to lift themselves up: they work hard, bond together and find significant ways to contribute that others can’t ignore.

The takeaway: Fortunately, few of us will ever face such extreme conditions at work. But no matter what frustrations you do face, you’ll be happier when you focus on your work, your attitude and your professionalism. As Spencer explained to People and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle in an interview about the film, “No matter what is going on, you have power.”

3. Cultivate a strong support group. One of the more uplifting themes in Hidden Figures is the power of sisterhood. The women depend upon each other for advice, laughter, support and a safe haven from the daily stresses of their lives and workplace.

The takeaway: As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in this essay, “Everyone needs this kind of connection. We need people who encourage us, believe in us, support us, and remind us that we are not alone. For women, this kind of support can be especially important — because, too often, the world tells women what we can’t do.”

4. Look for the greater meaning in your work. Despite all the injustices at their jobs, the women in the film clearly take tremendous pride from their association with NASA. One of my favorite scenes is when Glenn requests that Johnson be the one to double-check NASA’s calculations before the final approval for his lift-off. (The look of surprise on Henson’s face when Glenn asks for her input is priceless). Knowing that her work is vital to the outcome of such an important national mission clearly sustains Johnson, even though her colleagues are shamefully reticent to acknowledge her efforts.

The takeaway: Admittedly, it’s unlikely that you’ll find an employer with a mission quite as grand as NASA. But, meaning can be derived in any number of ways — by having a positive impact on customers; contributing to your community or by offering a much-needed product or service. When you connect with meaning at work, it inspires you to work harder. And that, in turn, leads to better outcomes for you and your employer.

5. Never leave a high-stakes career moment to chance. In one of the most riveting scenes of Hidden Figures, Jackson petitions the Virginia State Court for the right to enroll in engineering classes at the local segregated high school. She makes an impassioned plea to the judge for his help making her the first female engineer at NASA, reminding him that he was the first in his family to join the Armed Forces and to attend college.

“Your Honor,” Jackson says, “Out of all the cases you’re going to hear today, which one is going to matter one hundred years from now? Which one is going to make you the first?”

The judge is clearly swayed by Jackson’s personal appeal and, to the amazement of everyone (including himself), agrees to her request — with the caveat that she only attend night classes.

The takeaway: There are high-stakes moments in every career — job interviews, performance reviews, making important presentations — when careful preparation is a must. So the next time you have a critical career moment like this, do your homework, refine your message and practice relentlessly before making your pitch.

Who knows? Done well, it just might lead to your own Oscar-worthy performance.

Nancy Collamer
By Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.@NancyCollamer

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