‘Hidden Figures’ offers insight on how to soar
Would you ever stand in the way of a rocket going into space? Do you want to hold your country back, or help it move forward?
These are important questions. They’re examples of how the milieu creates the meaning.
Milieu comprises social conditions and events that provide a backdrop with which we act or live. Tapping into the right milieu is the secret to winning people over and getting big things done.
In the movie “Hidden Figures,” the car of three African-American women is broken down on the side of a lonely road in rural Virginia. It’s 1961, and the three women work as “computers” at NASA doing calculations to put a manned rocket into space.
Unable to start their car, they’re understandably nervous when a police cruiser drives up. The white officer, billy club in hand, approaches. He’s condescending and hostile until the moment that Katherine Goble Johnson says, “We’re on our way to work at NASA. Yes, sir, getting our rockets into space.”
The officer’s entire countenance changes. He changes from hostile to helpful, and he fires up his siren and gives the women a police escort to Langley, Va. Why the change?
His hostility quelled because he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself. He didn’t want to be the guy who caused his country to lose the space race.
President John F. Kennedy had set a big, audacious goal – to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. And the women depicted in “Hidden Figures” used that lens to their advantage.
The social context of the times was terrifying for African-Americans. The officer’s social programming was likely racist. But instead of reacting negatively to the hostility, the women changed the frame through which they were viewed. They tapped into a different milieu.
In an ideal world, you would emulate Kennedy’s sense of mission. You would set the tone; create the big, audacious goal; and remind people of it every day. You would provide the context and meaning for the work.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. Maybe you’re living with hostility or prejudice. Or maybe you’re dealing with apathy and ignorance. In real life, the three women – Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – were diminished and harassed. Yet they prevailed. Instead of playing small, they played big, positioning themselves in the service of something important to people in power.
It’s an important lesson. If you want to win people over, cast yourself as a vital force for advancing a cause that they care about.
Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and others advanced scientific discovery, and they moved the needle socially for the generations that followed.
The milieu is always evolving. We’re the ones who create it, and we’re the ones who decide which aspect of the milieu we want to tap into.
You can help launch the rockets. Or you can be the one who accepts the barriers.
Lisa Earle McLeod