Hidden Figures, Ancient Secrets 6/2

I am working on the “STEM for Women” project, and central to the free webinar we’ll be doing is analysis of the movie “Hidden Figures” using principles from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War” to create a framework to understand the emotions and behaviors exhibited by three exemplary women.   Here is what I wrote today:



“Generally in war, the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this….For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  Sun Tzu


“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”  –Sun Tzu


Dorothy Vaughn was an unofficial supervisor who seized an opportunity to display her programming skills on an IBM mainframe. In other words, she “captured” her castle by educing flawless performance from her employees, knowing that an opportunity would arise eventually.  Crisis appeared: a new computer what would replace hundreds of women. But instead of being consumed by fear, she saw an opportunity: someone would have to operate the machine. Why not her?


A quote from Wikipedia:

“During her 28-year career, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff the programming language of FORTRAN



(WARNING:  I am perfectly aware that the film was not totally historically accurate. But the major players agree that the SPIRIT was correct, and we will take them at their word.  No film is, or ever can be, perfectly accurate, and I have to suspect that people who nit-pick obsessively are specifically attempting to destroy the value of the metaphor, for personal reasons.)


Dorothy Vaughn grew up in a time of segregation and racial terror, when the old system fought to maintain control over the descendants of slaves. Both the mythologies (inferiority) and fears of social upheaval and retaliation were a part of this.


Combine this with the insistence that women remain within carefully defined social boxes, and you have a nightmare scenario for an ambitious black woman.   One barrier was the dishonesty of the controlling system.   The rule of the day was “separate but equal”, but she knew:

Separate and equal are two different things. Just ’cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right, understand?”

So she had motivations that ran up and down the scale, from the personal (self expression)  to the social (uplift the race)  to the cosmic (conquer space).  That left no room for excuses or resentment: she had to Win.


Have enough “whys” and the “hows” will present themselves.


OUTCOME: to operate as an equal, and to LEAD within NASA.

EMOTIONAL MOTIVATIONS: everything, from the personal to the cosmic.

ACTIONS: to do her job impeccably, never letting herself rise to the “bait” of anger and resentment (which would be briefly satisfying but destroy her career), and wait for the right opportunity to “pounce”.


The ability to care enough to shatter your ego scars (known colloquially as “butthurt”) was essential.   She was fighting for her heart, her family, her mind, her people, her country, the world.  She was COMMITTED TO A CAUSE BIGGER THAN SHE WAS.


And she saw that the people around her were, as well.  This is one of the reasons that war is such a leveler. When you fight the larger cause, if you PROVE you can help the person to your right and left survive, THEY will fight for you, unless they are insane.

Most people, even gender or racial bigots, are NOT insane.

They are programmed, asleep, willing to go along with society’s rules.  But they generally obey those rules because they think those rules protect them. The instant they stop believing that, they will no longer protect the rules.


By being impeccable on a personal level, as well as providing unique resources on the project level, Dorothy Vaughn’s her PERSONAL characteristics trumped her racial or gender characteristics.



  • The project was the most important thing
  • The computer was necessary to complete the project
  • She was the only one who knew how to use the computer.
  • Therefore, they could not stop her unless they wanted the project to fail.



All she had to do was find the people more interested in the PROJECT than maintaining the racial/gender order.   Remember: prior to women or blacks entering NASA,  advancement was based on who the people within the project believed would best serve the project.  They had to have VASTLY greater than average investment in reaching the stars.  On the other hand, on average, they would likely have only an average amount of bigotry. As you go up in the organization, you are more and more likely to find people whose commitment to mission outweighs their bigotry. Because most of excellence at anything is obsessive focus, over time.  the instant you find someone who is an “8”in focus on the task, but only a “7” in focus on race and gender, you have someone you can enroll on your side–IF YOU ARE READY.


Look at that again: the better people are at a particular thing, the more likely they are to care more about the thing than about oppressing YOU.   You just aren’t that important to them. What they care about is their OWN advancement, their own pleasures and pains. The instant you become an asset to them, they will start protecting you.  But they have to believe that they gain MORE by protecting you than they get by maintaining social order or personal prejudices. Again…aim high in the organization. That’s where the more obsessive people are.   Love what they love, and they will love you.


THESE PEOPLE ARE YOUR POTENTIAL ALLIES because for their own naked self-interest they will overlook the fact that you belong to a group they are uncomfortable with.


In my own career, I noticed that pitching in Hollywood had an odd twist to it. All the people I pitched to were white.  If race came up in the conversation, I almost never got the job.  I had to keep their attention OFF race, and used the Aikido technique of redirecting their energy: I got them to think about the wonderful project we were going to do, together.  And got the job.


Every time I felt the discussion drifting toward “him and me” (a possible point of racial enmity) I metaphorically took them by their shoulder and turned them to look at the mountain we were both trying to climb. If you’re climbing a mountain, and slip, and someone throws you a rope, do you care what color they are?  What gender, so long as you believe they are strong enough to anchor the other end of the rope?  If you do, you will die.


Simply choose the people who want to live. Find the things more important to them than their bigotry.  Remain impeccable while you look for the chance to pounce.


Then…fall on them like a thunderbolt, and they’ll never know what hit them.


Dorothy Vaughn had a clear outcome. She had enough reasons to keep her going, no matter what the indignity.   And when the opportunity came…she pounced.

WHAT do you intend to accomplish?

WHY do you want it?

Only then, bother with “how”.  “How” is just details.

Be like Dorothy Vaughn.






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