Hidden Figures: What Three Women From NASA Taught Me About Overcoming Insurmountable Odds

Over the weekend I saw the movie HIDDEN FIGURES.  It is the incredible, untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – three brilliant African-American women working at NASA in 1961, who worked behind the scenes in one of the greatest achievements in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn.

What makes their accomplishments extraordinary – beyond being rocket scientists, is that they did it during turbulent times of women’s rights, social, racial and economic inequality.

The women knew they couldn’t settle for being just good; they had to stand up for what they believed and stand out for making a difference. They didn’t waste valuable time focusing on the unfairness of their circumstances. Instead they persevered, enabling this visionary trio to cross all gender and race lines to inspire future generations to dream big.

Similar to these individuals, who ultimately went on to leave an indelible mark on the American space program, we have all – men and women, at one time or another faced daunting challenges in both our careers and personal lives – perhaps at the same time.

Have you ever felt like your back was against the wall and that circumstances beyond your control stacked the deck against you?

What did you do?

In my experiences – both in my personal life, as well as coaching others, there are three critical things that people do to rise above their respective situations to create success. You can do the same!


Like Katherine Johnson, who had to solve complex mathematical problems with only partial information, you need to maintain your commitment and focus despite the challenges you face. This means keeping your head high to showcase your brilliance, even when your contributions go unrecognized.


As an African American female in the early ‘60’s, Mary Jackson had to go to court to get permission to attend night classes to obtain her engineering degree. Nothing was going to stop her from acquiring the knowledge she needed to excel in her chosen profession. Knowledge is power. Once you stop learning, you stop growing and moving forward.  Enroll in courses to keep yourself sharp, informed, and current in your area of expertise.


Dorothy Vaughan continued to take control of her destiny. As a skilled mathematician, she achieved her success by secretly teaching herself the programming language for the new IBM computer. She then became the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at the center. You have to take the initiative to stay ahead of the curve. Know what skills are needed so that you can become essential.


What most moved me in the Hidden Figures story is that the women didn’t let the obstacles they faced define them or deter them from making significant contributions.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to apply these same three principles in your life. If you have the courage and confidence to persevere, your contributions, value, and career will blast off into a whole new stratosphere.