An unforgettable lesson from segregated America about how to get ahead

Jul 14, 2017

Are you an ambitious graduate in your first job wondering how to get ahead? Perhaps you’ve been eyeing up that lucrative job position, the one that would cause your career to skyrocket and pay you what you know you’re truly worth. Trouble is, although you’re more than capable, you’re not getting a look in from the boss.

You may believe that your career progression is all down to that mean boss who doesn’t notice how hard you’ve been working; but it isn’t. You hold more power over where the career ladder takes you than you may realise.

The graduate who understands this will get the job. And I’d like to explain why with a unforgettable lesson from segregated America that will help you to get ahead in even the bleakest of circumstances.

How to get ahead

Our lesson is taken from the movie Hidden Figures. Sorry to spoil it for you if you’ve not seen it yet. Hidden Figures is set in 1950s and 60s America and based on the true story of three African American women. They worked at NASA as part of a team of human computers (mathematicians) who calculated the coordinates that launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

Our three main characters are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), the maths wiz whose calculations were directly responsible for the success of the mission; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), whose impressive display of reason and persuasion led to her becoming the first of her gender and race to study at a segregated school so she could qualify as an engineer; and last, but not least, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), the overlooked acting supervisor I’d like to focus on in our lesson.

All three have work ethics that are great examples of the teamwork, integrity, communication and perseverance you’ll need if you are to progress in your career but Dorothy’s story will teach you something about how to progress your career even if you’re being deliberately overlooked.

Be observant

Dorothy worked as supervisor for the team of women mathematicians working in the basement at NASA but was blatantly denied both the title and the pay packet to reflect it. What does Dorothy do? She doesn’t wine (much) or complain (for very long) but is observant. She learns that the company is planning to install a new International Business Machine (IBM), which will eventually take their jobs. However, Dorothy also knows that first, someone will need to program it. So, she visits the library to borrow a book on computer programing.

Remember, this movie is set at a time when both women and African Americans experienced blatant discrimination so Dorothy was facing the kind of obstacles I’m guessing few of us reading this post have to deal with. Even borrowing the book was risky because it was in a section of the library off limits to her as a black woman. She could have held this up as reasons why she couldn’t get ahead and stayed put, but she didn’t.

Learn with the future in mind

This is where we see ingenuity at is best. Dorothy reads up on this new language of the future, trains her team and then solves a programing problem that had had NASA’s IBM operators baffled. They notice that Dorothy has a way with the machine and, well, when the need arises for someone who can program the IBM well guess who is called?

It doesn’t end there. Later, when others express a desire to learn how to program the IBM and Dorothy is asked if she will teach them she coolly replies: “That would be the decision of the supervisor.” Well, of course, she’s been overlooked for that position and so there is no supervisor to give the go ahead.

A few days later Dorothy is handed a letter promoting her to the position of supervisor. She gets the job.

The moral of the story

The story brilliantly illustrates how to look ahead, perceive what skills will be in demand in the future, and then go about acquiring them. Then, when the opportunity arises you will be in the right position to walk into it.

It reminds us that the way to get ahead is not to sit back and wait for something to happen but to make things happen for yourself. If you want a better job, you need to prepare the way for the better job to come to you. It doesn’t come by chance.

Having shared this lesson, I have homework for you. I’d like you to answer the following question: What can you do today, right now, to help improve your career prospects for tomorrow?

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