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.

Editor’s Note Two: Here’s another great Hidden Figures-related post: On ‘Hidden Figures’ and Being the Only Woman in the Room.

Raindrops on Roses and Music from Elders

Is it possible to discuss “favorite things” without having visions of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens?

It’s a challenge but I’m going to try to branch out from those whiskers on kittens, thanks to a Mama’s Losin’ It writing prompt: list your five most recent favorite things.

Favorite Things

Here are mine:

Music Therapy

Specifically, the music therapist from Big Bend Hospice who has visited my father-in-law twice. Although I am grateful for the many services provided by Big Bend Hospice, I have jokingly referred to this process as “the revolving door of people who are ‘here to help you,'” inferring that it is an additional chore for me to coordinate them all.

I had put the music therapist pretty far down the “necessary” list, under the nurse (definitely, for health reasons), shower aide (definitely, because Wayne and I can’t do it at this point), social worker ( sanity, please), and incredible volunteer Jim who told him, “yeah, I have a DNR (do not resuscitate) form too,” a perfect response to divert my FIL’s attention from the always-present reminder that this is a very final process.

I had definitely put our music therapist, Marisa (sp?) into the “nice but not necessary” bucket …….. until I heard my FIL, always a man of few words and subdued emotions, SINGING ALONG WITH HER. It really is true about music … it can unlock a person’s heart in a way nothing else can. (Music therapy is especially effective because it doesn’t demand cognitive functioning to succeed. More here via the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.)

Side note: the music therapist uses a little tripod stool like hunters use in the woods (sample here) … and says she can only find ones with camo designs. Anyone know someone who makes little stool covers with music notes (or other non-camo designs)? There has to be a way.

My New Part-Time Job

When I wrote about trying to sharpen my memory recently by using Lumosity, I didn’t know that something else was going to come along that would challenge my brain and shape up my life in other ways.

While I love my contractor work for Weaving Influence, I am also happy to have taken on additional work that adds to our family bottom line, provides needed structure to my days, and challenges me every single time (even though I have had to part ways with my beloved Oxford comma in the process).

In my independent contractor work for a digital B2B company, my duties so far include searching for news items related to certain terms, summarizing news stories into concise (yet informative!) two-sentence summaries, and contributing to the curation of industry-specific newsletters.

Observations along the way:

  • It’s humbling for an editor to be edited
  • Having to be “on duty” at a specific time (7 am) is the best thing in the world to keep me from a slow, easily-distracted slide into the work of the day. Having to report in to someone, and knowing others down the line are waiting on me, is BIG
  • I should have gone to AP Style boot camp at some point in the past; I definitely feel l like I’m doing catch-up on that front
  • It’s humbling to be at square one with a job again. ALL THE QUESTIONS
  • This arrangement was the kick in the butt I needed to file for my LLC
  • It’s so funny to me to be full-circle back at supporting myself by summarizing the news (one of the ways I supported myself during my New York years was by working at a place where we typed summaries of the news FROM VHS TAPES (yes, I’m that old))
  • I’ve been sufficiently a part of the gig economy long enough now that this doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it’s still so interesting to be working for and with people who you aren’t going to run into at the water cooler or trade funny quips with (yet)

All that said, I’m so fortunate to have the challenge of being an independent contractor for Smartbrief. Check out their website and choose a newsletter that fits for you — here has to be something among all the options, ranging from leadership (my fave!) to supply chain. For career opportunities, click here (but leave your oxford comma at the door.)

Writing

Maybe writing isn’t a “thing” like a smartphone, key chain, or cronut, but it’s a perennial favorite with me. Since I’m not running (for now), it has taken on even more of a role as my outlet.

When I write for myself, I process my thoughts. When I write to try to convey a message to others, I am forced to see multiple sides of the issue, and that is not a bad thing.

People Who Give Me Tools to Advocate Effectively

When I wrote my #One20Today-inspired post in advance of Inauguration Day, I committed to various acts of advocacy in the face of an administration headed by someone who did not receive my vote, and whose administration’s choices threaten the rights and peace of mind of many of my fellow Americans (and me).

The challenge is: the craziness, threats, and insults to the integrity of our democracy are coming so fast and furious, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and get paralyzed by indecision (and, frankly, fear of speaking out).

One incredibly bright and insightful friend I met via Shot at Life has created a periodic (at least weekly, sometimes more) list of 4 action items (something to read, a concept to understand, an action to do, a donation to consider) that can help us break out of the paralysis and do something.

As she said, “We don’t get to reimagine history to make ourselves better. We get to be loud right now or we’re not better.”

Here are four of my favorite examples, taken from the action emails:

Read every executive order President Trump has signed so far

Understand why the United States’ signature on the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol impacted (prior to the stay of the Executive Order) choices by government entities to try to revoke peoples’ ability to board planes and to keep them from setting foot in the US

Do pick something you care deeply about and write a letter to the editor (LTE) of your local newspaper. Here’s a guide and here’s an example. Side note: it’s always a good idea to be aware of your newspaper’s guidelines for an LTE. Increase your chances of getting published by adhering to those rules to the extent possible (i.e., if the limit is 200 words, don’t send 325 and make it harder for them to use your piece). Also, it is a good idea to have civil and friendly relationships with your local journalists. No one likes always being asked for something — it’s totally acceptable to chat with them about the weather or praise their cute puppy pictures if you happen to be involved in their social media streams. AND — not everything you submit will get accepted. Don’t take it personally. (Sometimes if I don’t get something accepted, I run it on my blog. Medium is another choice. Your thoughts/opinions still matter.)

Donate to the International Refugee Assistance Project

If you would like to be on the list, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with my friend!

Naps

When our incredible hospice volunteer, Jim, arrived recently,  I said, “I’ll be working on something in the bedroom.” Do you think every hospice volunteer knows “working on something in the bedroom” means “napping”?

One of the huge benefits of working from home is that it is so much easier to customize my life around my energy needs and fit in a 15-minute power nap around 3 pm. As this article states, power naps are beneficial for alertness and motor learning skills. I am not sure if “and making Paula a lot less irritable” is documented anywhere but I tell you, it’s a thing.

If/when I ever return to the traditional office-based workforce, I can only hope I find someplace with nap pods.Google says “no workplace is complete without a nap pod.” That’s what I’m talking about! Maybe Google will open a Tallahassee branch in the future!

FOR FUN

I asked my Facebook friends what they thought I would say. Although they didn’t hit on the five things I listed above, they were all spot-on (good job, friends!). Here are their answers:

  • Green pens (yes!)
  • Audiobooks (oh yes yes yes)
  • Hidden Figures (yes!)
  • Global vaccinations (for sure)
  • Exchanging pleasant conversation over a good meal (the best thing ever)
  • Disney
  • Wine (for sure)

Good job, friends — you get me, you really get me.

Several people also shared THEIR favorite things, which was fun to see! Also a great segue to the end of this post.

What are your current faves?

Favorite Things