History, Hidden Figures, and One Engineer’s Advice

Book clubs have changed. I know of some that don’t read a book at all (emphasis on wine). My book club DOES read, and takes reading seriously, but we would rather someone join us even if she hasn’t read the book yet. When Hearth and Soul hosted a book club centered on the book Hidden Figures recently, I attended even though I had “only” seen the movie. I appreciate their hospitality and learned so much from the event.

The organizers of the Hearth and Soul Hidden Figures gathering had invited Charmane Caldwell, Ph.D., to share her experiences as an African-American female engineer. She is an alumna of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering (2011) and currently serves as the Diversity and Inclusion Director at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

Female Engineers

Dr. Caldwell talks with attendees at the Hearth and Soul Hidden Figures event.

Dr. Caldwell’s takeaways enhanced our understanding of the book, but more than that, they incorporated messages that any young woman would be wise to consider.

The Difference Between “How” and “Why”

As Dr. Caldwell explained her evolution from college student, to engineer, to faculty member, she said she discovered an important truth along the way:

The person who knows how will always get a job but the person who knows why will always be their boss.

Ever since I read an account long ago of how pilots’ knowledge of the “old fashioned” engineering behind aviation, of having to KNOW and mentally calculate adjustments in order to fly planes rather than relying on automation, resulted in the fact that 185 out of 296 passengers survived the crash of United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, I have felt strongly that the “why” is critical to know in addition to the “how.”

I encourage my kids (a high school senior and a college junior) to understand the “why’s.” Especially in an age of automation, where we barely have to lift a finger to get directions from point A to point B, to order a pizza, or to share a picture with a friend a world away, it’s important to understand what makes all that automation tick. It will make you more valuable as a potential employee and it must might save your (or someone else’s) life someday. 

The Value of a Growth Mindset

A “growth mindset” is one of those things that most of us would probably say “yeah of COURSE it’s important to have a growth mindset.” But what does “growth mindset” really mean?

My friend Jon Mertz defined “growth mindset” well in a recent post:

Individuals with a growth mindset learn and encourage others to do the same. While having a growth mindset is essential, we encounter many who are fixed in their thinking and ways of doing things.

Fixed mindsets are confident in what has been set, and no amount of effort or talent will change what is already known. Growth mindsets know continued practice and learning move us forward to better thinking, plans, and outcomes. Even with solid past results, constant learning and practice propels us forward.

For me, I’ve always aspired to be a lifelong learner, to “dig deeper” on almost any topic. Personally, the bigger challenge is “encouraging others to do the same” as Jon pointed out above.

In this post, Terence Brake of TMA World shares a growth mindset moment from Hidden Figures (movie version):

…Dorothy, who did the supervisor’s job in the “Colored Computer” room—without the appropriate title or pay—was fearful of the large IBM computer that had been installed. She was afraid of the computer’s impact on the jobs of her people. Instead of taking a hammer to the machine, she taught herself Fortran, and then taught it to the others in the pool. When the IBM mainframe took over from the human computers, she became official supervisor of the computer section, and took all of her people with her.

I could blame my reluctance to help others on feeling I don’t have enough time to train someone else, but honestly it’s more often a lack of confidence in my ability to teach them. I am reminded, though, of feedback I received from my staff at Healthy Kids. Almost everyone mentioned a process we had jointly developed (rather than me holed away in my office drafting something) as a favorite memory. They learned, they took ownership — it mattered to them to be asked and to be given an opportunity to grow.

In addition, a growth mindset is beneficial to all of us. Not just emotionally or learning-wise. As my Weaving Influence boss Becky Robinson wrote recently, “any time you can train someone else to become proficient at a task you typically do, you are creating margin for yourself in the future.”

Having a growth mindset helps us do more, for our intellect and for profitability. It’s a win-win.

Don’t Dumb Yourself Down

As book club wound down (well, that’s sort of a relative term — the “formal” book club wound down but many of us stayed long after the formal end to keep talking), I asked Dr. Caldwell to share the ONE thing she would tell today’s female students.

Her answer? DON’T DUMB YOURSELF DOWN.

So much truth to this, and I suspect we parents and supporters of young women *may* inadvertently facilitate this dumbing down without even knowing. How do you impress on a tween or teen girl that the real power is in embracing the subjects they love, even if they aren’t “cool” among their peers?

Sometimes there’s no fighting the pull of peer pressure, but we can support the young women in our lives and model how to have high aspirations, how to tackle subjects that appear difficult, how to confidently be the only girl (or minority, or both) in the room.

Here’s an interesting conundrum — when I started poking around the internet looking for great links about how girls should not “dumb themselves down,” almost everything I found was about how women shouldn’t “dumb themselves down” to get a man.

I think Dr. Caldwell meant something different, more fundamental, and more applicable to an 11-year old (although many of us adults would do well to remember the advice too). I think it was something more related to the advice Liz Ryan gave in Forbes to a job-searcher who wondered if she should dilute her educational background in order to be more appealing to employers who might be scared off by her higher education achievements:

Anybody who needs you to pretend to be less smart and capable than you are is not someone you can afford to work for.

As a practical matter, when you hide your flame in order to get hired, your mojo will leave you. Your mojo is the fuel source for your career and your life. You can’t afford to squander it!

“Mojo” is something that can be inadvertently snuffed out in a young girl’s psyche early in her life, and resurrecting it after she has stopped believing in herself is a Herculean task. Why not keep it alive and thriving from the beginning?

Read The Book, See The Movie

If you have been around my blog for long, you know I am a huge fan of NASA and, from a “women in tech” standpoint, consider hearing Former Deputy Administrator Dava Newman speak to be a pivotal personal moment. She made history by becoming Deputy Administrator of NASA. She made history partially thanks to women who took risks long before her, women whose lessons we in the general public are just now starting to appreciate ….. to learn “why” and not just “how,” to have a growth mindset, to not dumb themselves down.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, said it well:

Female Engineers

Editor’s Note: I asked Dr. Caldwell to elaborate a bit more on “how vs. why” and here is her response:

I’m glad people enjoyed the article. I made the comment about life in general, but specifically as engineers we go through the training (Physics, Calculus, etc.) to be able to determine the why of problems.

10 thoughts on “History, Hidden Figures, and One Engineer’s Advice

  1. WHOA. I don’t know if this is prevailing wisdom I had just missed – – but I had never heard the difference between how and why before. A true eye-opener over here

    • I think it’s true in so many areas of life, but I can see how as a female and a minority in a male-dominated field, knowing the “why” vs the “how” could be a true game changer. /// Somewhat related anecdote — when I was looking up more about Dava Newman to include a reference to her, there was a piece about an around-the-world (or long anyway) boat trip she and a team took. When the hydraulics went out, she used olive oil to solve the problem. Sometimes even rocket scientists need just basic common sense (and deep knowledge of how things work) to get the job done.

    • YES. And I don’t know how to help young girls short-circuit that (or some of us not-so-young girls). I know to an extent it’s part of growing up but I hate to see a love of science/tech/math die before it even has a fighting chance in a kid.

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  3. Brilliant advice! Thank you for sharing. I have 4 daughters myself so this was a very interesting read. I’ve always tried not to limit them in my mind because I know that would come across in the way I interacted with them. It’s difficult though, especially coming from a fundamentalist background. I just want them to explore their minds and interests and lead a life that reflects that.

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