‘Hid­den Figures’ of­fers in­sight on how to soar

The Buffalo News - - LIFE & ARTS -

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

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