ReThinking with Adam Grant
Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly on reframing the stories we tell
July 4, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Margot Lee Shetterly. She's best known as the author of Hidden Figures, the hugely influential book turned movie about the Black women mathematicians at NASA who were responsible for some of the key calculations in the space race.
But Margot wore many hats before becoming an author. For years, she worked in investment banking and media startups. She's also the founder of the Human Computer Project, which archives the work of female mathematicians and computers in early US air and space programs. Margot has a lot to say about career transitions, following passions, and finding stories in your own community.
I think that for some people you're a hidden figure. They know there's the incredible story that you've told. They've seen the movie, probably, but they may not know nearly as much about you and your contribution in bringing that story to the table. So, I would love to hear how this all came to be. Who are you?
[00:01:18] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Just to how the story came to be, it is my origin story in a lot of ways. My dad is a now-retired NASA research scientist. I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, which is where this story takes place. I knew the women that I wrote about, even when I was a little girl, knowing them. Many of them had already retired. They were at the end of their careers. My dad was still young, and I knew them more as people in the community. People whose kids had actually gone to college with my mom. People who were part of, you know, my community, my parents' sort of social and civic circle, and I knew they worked at NASA, but I, I didn't know the very specifics of what they did, and I certainly didn't know or really think to question at that time why it was they were there. Why were there so many women, in general, working at NASA when I'd go to visit my dad?
And why were so many of those women Black? It seemed absolutely normal to me. And it wasn't until I started writing the book that the full kind of, huh, that sort of runs contrary to so much of the popular belief and understanding about who does science, who does math about the South, and yet that was such a fundamental part of my childhood and thus my identity. So it was really when I started working on the book, and this was after my own multiple careers in investment banking and technology, like my fifth career or something, that I got to understand the deep history of these women and to see the, you know, what I consider a very strong connection between what they did back then and the opportunities that I have had professionally today.
[00:03:07] Adam Grant:
As you mentioned, you’ve had quite a series of careers before moving into writing. I don't think I met another investment banker turned media person turned, “I'm gonna pick up my life and start over in Mexico,” turned, “I’m gonna become an author”. What drove the exit from finance?
[00:03:25] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Going to Wall Street was something that I really wanted to do from the time I was like nine, fourth grade. They still printed the stock tables in the back of the newspaper. Would take those, and like, you know, I had like, 10 stocks like IBM, whatever the, Kodak, you know, I had this concept that this was a very powerful job. It was a way to have work that was very interesting and very actively engaged in the world and a way to exercise a lot of control over my life, I guess? Certainly through having enough money to do what you wanted to do.
And so that's what I did. I went to the University of Virginia. I studied finance. graduated from the McIntyre School of Commerce, and I went to Wall Street. You know, worked at JP Morgan, worked at Merrill Lynch and fixed first in foreign exchange trading, and then in fixed-income capital markets. And so why leaving Wall Street? That is very interesting because it was something that I wanted to do for so long.
At that time, there was such an excitement over internet—dot com, new media, you know, whatever it was that people called it back then. And so I left. I think maybe the thing that ties together both of those two things and then the subsequent things is really wanting to have both control and freedom over the work. Like to work really hard and you know, will admit to being kind of a workaholic. My parents have a lot of very strong work identity and my siblings absorbed that, I suppose, but to have a certain amount of control and freedom over when and how I work.
[00:05:03] Adam Grant:
How did you know when it was time to pick up and start over? I think this is a dilemma that everyone grapples with.
[00:05:09] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I think there are two different circumstances. One is when you decide and you just say, “I, I have to go.” There's something about it where you just say, “You know what? I, I just can't do this anymore. I don't wanna do this anymore. I just can’t.” And I think, you know, that's both a good thing and a challenging thing as a person to be able to do that.
And then there are times when the, the circumstances say to you, “Guess what? You're not gonna do this anymore.” When you start a business as my husband and I did, you know, ran a couple of businesses and the business runs outta steam. And, and then, you know, no matter how hard you try to keep that going, you can't at some point, and the decision is made for you, and you are forced to reinvent yourself.
Both of those things have happened to me along the career. I've learned different things from each of them, but I think always trying to find a place where I loved the work, loved the autonomy of the work and the control over the work. Getting to this job of being a writer, I've used everything that I've learned and picked up along the way, and this job is the best job I've ever had. Like this job, I'm not giving up at all.
[00:06:21] Adam Grant:
Well, it better be because you designed this job. So if you don't like it, I—
[00:06:24] Margot Lee Shetterly:
It's on me. It's on me.
[00:06:25] Adam Grant:
[00:06:26] Margot Lee Shetterly:
My terrible boss who wrote my job description, whoops. That was all my doing.
[00:06:32] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Exactly. Exactly. Now this is a good one. It feels like the place I've been trying to get my entire career, and now I've finally arrived.
[00:06:38] Adam Grant:
I speak for a lot of readers and a lot of humans when I say I'm really glad you arrived here. I've seen people sort of land at writing through at least two different paths. One is, “I have a story that I have to tell and no one else is gonna tell it, and so I've gotta figure out how to write because this story needs to see the light of day.”
The reverse is often “I love to write, or I love the product of writing. I really enjoy reading. I wanna create that experience for other people, and now I've gotta find a story worth telling.”
[00:07:10] Margot Lee Shetterly:
[00:07:10] Adam Grant:
I assume you were the former to some extent, or were you the latter as well? Did you do both?
[00:07:15] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I would categorize myself as the former. I've always loved to read, loved books. Enjoyed writing in different ways. Certainly, a lot of business writing and a lot of business plan writing and a lot of that kind of writing, which I also really enjoyed and, and I think is underestimated as a creative kind of writing. I think there's a lot of creativity and imagination that's required also in that writing. I became a writer in a professional sense and in a work identity sense through telling the story of Hidden Figures. I feel the story chose me and the profession thus chose me after I chose that story.
[00:08:00] Adam Grant:
What was it that transitioned you from “This is an incredible story, it needs to be told,” to “It picked me and I'm gonna write it”?
[00:08:09] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Well, you know what? I am married to a writer. I'm married to a writer who is also my business partner, and before I wrote this book, I had seen up close what it took for somebody to do the research in writing of a narrative non-fiction book. I understood a certain amount about that, which I wouldn't have known if I had just come into it cold. And um, my husband really was the first person.
We were actually home in Virginia, where my parents still live, over Christmas visiting when we were living in Mexico and had run into one of the women who worked at NASA, former computer, and just provoked a conversation. You know, my dad started talking about her, and he was listening and you know, and it was like telling the story of Hidden Figures through this one woman that had been my Sunday school teacher all those years ago.
And my husband said, “Wow, I, I'd never heard this story before.” That was the inciting incident because it caused me to say, “Hmm, I've been listening to these stories. I've known these people. I've known a little bit about this my entire life, but I've never looked at it to say, ‘Well, why were these women here? What were they doing at NASA? Why is that relevant to me and my life and to the modern NASA and modern opportunities for women?’ Et cetera, et cetera.”
That began this long process of learning how to be a writer. How do you research this kind of story? How do you conduct interviews? How do you dig through the archives? How do you write about something when you're not totally sure what happened? How do you bridge those gaps of what’s… between what's knowable and what's not knowable to make something that has a larger truth, um, and that might resonate with people?
[00:09:56] Adam Grant:
You what the psychologist Karl Weick would call a vujá de moment, which is sort of the opposite of deja vu. You had a story that you'd heard many times before but was almost too normal of an experience for you to think about, “Wow, this needs to be told.” And your husband looks at it and says, “Wait a minute, like, I had no idea about this.” And suddenly you look at that familiar experience through unfamiliar eyes and realize, in fact, there's a book that needs to be written here.
[00:10:24] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah. In writing this book, I got a chance to ask and answer and think about a lot of the questions I had always thought about—social mobility and race and class and work identity and technology, and all of these things that had been a part of my personal experience, I got to examine without having to be the person in front of the camera.
I got to sort of sit back and, and watch all of these people in their lives historically, as all of these things played out, and to come up with some conclusions for myself and, and maybe more broadly than myself, but to do it from the sidelines, which for whatever reason, is very satisfying.
[00:11:13] Adam Grant:
Let's talk about the, the protagonist of Hidden Figures and some of the revelations that learning from them generated. You tell the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Christine Darden. I guess my first question is: why were they overlooked? Why didn't we know their story?
[00:11:30] Margot Lee Shetterly:
That is a very interesting question. I did an event with Christine Darden maybe four years ago—I think it was right before the pandemic—speaking to engineering students here in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia.
And somebody asked her that question, and she said, “You know what? I, we didn't know we were hidden.” They were doing their job. They were doing satisfying work. They were pursuing their interests. They were fighting the same battles that, you know, people fight in workplaces. They were doing all this, but they didn't have a sense of themselves as hidden per se, because they were visible to each other. They were visible to their colleagues. When I'd interview Katherine Johnson and say, “Well, did you have a sense of breaking ground, and did you have a sense of treading new ground?” You know, all of this that we, we see them in retrospect, we see them as, as groundbreaking women, as barrier breakers.
And she said, “You know what? I was just doing my job. I, I was doing it extremely well.” Obviously, her standards were very high. It meant a lot to them to bring excellence to their work, but this sort of self-regarding nature of it was never something that came out in their conversations in their interviews with me.
They were hidden from history. Certainly, I think some of that is because the nature of this work… So computing in the earliest days was considered women's work. The men were the engineers. They were the hardcore mathematicians. The women were doing the rote computing. This is the way the division of labor was and, and was perceived even when it wasn't exactly that. The Black women were hidden away in a different office. Both of these pools, they were segregated. One for black women, one for white women. So to a certain extent, they were physically hidden away. They were not integrated, at least until the later years, with the main engineering operations.
And then scientists, I mean, we make heroes out of sports figures, politicians, business people to a certain extent. Scientists, not so much. Astronauts, absolutely. Right? Very high profile job description. Superheroes. But the people behind the scenes—the engineers, the mathematicians, and certainly the women who were on the lower part of that rung—they weren't part of, of our national imagination. The historical imagination is something that mattered for all of us. For each of us, there is a role in history. It's not just the people on the top that make history. It's the weighted average of what each of us, all of us do every single day. And I think there's just more interest in quote-unquote “regular people” and how each of us contributes to these, these great sweeps of history. So I think overlooked by history, but not invisible to themselves.
[00:14:21] Adam Grant:
One of the things you write about in depth is just the incredible disadvantages and challenges that these women faced. Some of the stories of stereotypes and prejudice and discrimination are downright chilling. But suffice it to say that there was a massive uphill battle when it came to beliefs about women's mathematical abilities, stereotypes about the intelligence of Black people, and having to confront the intersection of, of both sets of barriers, I think would've been overwhelming to many, many people in their shoes. What did you learn about how they overcame those barriers?
[00:14:55] Margot Lee Shetterly:
They were very good at math, and they had very good educations. The first barrier is, “Are you a good mathematician and have you been trained to the point where you can perform in this workplace?” In both cases, the answer was yes. These were women who were at the top of their classes in high school and in college. They went to Black colleges. They got very, very good educations there. The raw material was there, and the training was there. There's an interesting thing, sort of the double-edged sword of how they came up through those segregated systems.
And I was listening to the interview that you did with Claude Steele, who is somebody else whose work I've known and really find very, very interesting. And his idea of stereotype threat. You know, the idea that the negative stereotype based on who you are, whoever that is, affects your performance negatively.
And so one of the advantages that these women had in going to Black college or going to an all-female college and then going into these computing pools that were segregated by gender or by race, is that they were surrounded by people who looked just like them, who had their background, very interested and ambitious about their work in their math and science.
So, I, I think, you know, that we would presume that there was a conflict between being a woman and being good at math, being Black and being good at math and science, and yet, they got to see all of these other people who were exactly like they were. That was very powerful, that that this idea of stereotype threat got to be muted because they were an environment where it was neutralized.
Everybody here is a mathematician, and they are Black, and they are a woman, and all three of those things are allowed to coexist. You know, Dorothy Vaughan and, uh, Katherine Johnson talked about the mentoring that they did with the younger women, with each other, the advocacy that they were able to do in the workplace.
Dorothy Vaughan in particular really pushed the women that she managed to make sure that they were staying ahead of the technology curve so that when computers came into the workplace there would be no surprise and they would have a chance to stay in those jobs and not make themselves redundant.
[00:17:11] Adam Grant:
It sounds like what happened is they got to see the stereotypes shattered right before their eyes. Even if they confronted people who held them, it was almost irrelevant. “What do you mean women aren't good at math?” Like, I've watched a bunch of women do calculations that will make the difference between returning astronauts to Earth and not making it back.
[00:17:31] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Or that they actually didn't have the stereotype inside of them because they were trained without it. They had to fight the external battle, but to a certain extent, the internal battle, they had already won.
[00:17:46] Adam Grant:
This reminds me of some research on how do we get more women and minorities into STEM and what can we do to open that door. And one of the, the big surprises that still puzzles me a little bit is there was one experiment in particular, this was done in physics classrooms, where there was no benefit for attracting women, for example, into science of having a female teacher. Which, I was like, “Wait a minute. Role models are supposed to matter.” But what the data suggested was what really moved the needle of motivation was discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. And to a group of young women, listen, like there are tremendous numbers of talented people who are not ending up in these fields because they don't think it's for them or because someone tells them it's not for them.
And I think that in some ways the, the Hidden Figures story seems to contradict that. I wonder if you can shed some light on what's going on there. And obviously, you've been tackling this also through the Human Computer Project, so I know you have two hats on here, but talk to me about when is a role model enough in your experience, um, or when is seeing others like you enough and when do you actually need that extra bit of motivation to say this is a problem and we need to do something about it?
[00:19:02] Margot Lee Shetterly:
You know what? I think that is the big question. I don't really know the answer to that. What I believe is that by the time we start asking the questions, and by the time we start doing the experiment, and by the time we start measuring the outcomes and the, the attitudes, it might be too late. I think maybe the biggest problem is that we're not setting the expectations and putting those role models, whoever they might be, right, in front of these young people when they're very, very young.
One of the tremendous benefits that I had growing up is that the first scientist I knew was a Black man, and the first Black man I knew was a scientist. That’s my dad. So it was like, “Oh, of course, I could be a scientist.” And then, you know, I'd see him with my mom and their friends, so many of them who worked at NASA, and they'd go and have their sorority dances, you know, their picnics and go to church.
No, I got to see them doing all of these very, very normal things. And then I would also see him go off to conferences with these same people where they would be extremely excited about whatever research it was that they were doing. And all of those parents, they are very eager to get you into math and science, and math and science camps, and math and science programs as soon as you can add two plus two, essentially.
I mean, doing well at, in math and science was something that was extremely important for me and my siblings to do from the very earliest. And as a result of that, I never had a science fear. I never had a conflict, a feeling that it was something that I couldn't or shouldn't do.
It might have been something I didn't want to do, which was ultimately the case, but not something that I would rule myself out of. And so I think maybe the question or the approach needs to be whatever the ultimate best intervention is, why are we doing it so late? How do we get it so when kids are four years old? Whatever fear they have of math or whatever internal conflict they have about science, whatever deficiencies they might have in those skill sets are neutralized. I think there is an importance to representation. I think there is an importance to mentorship, regardless of the background of the mentor.
I think that can be very effective and, and we should seek those connections no matter what. But I really think that there's something about the wonder of being very young and having this around you when you're very young, that allows you to take it with you for the rest of your life.
[00:21:43] Adam Grant:
One of the things that you're making me realize is that there's both a “can do” and a “want to” component of this. There's an ability and a motivation question, and I wonder if role models are more important for resolving the ability doubts later, but early on they have a bigger impact in lighting the fire.
[00:22:00] Margot Lee Shetterly:
You need the people who will push you to develop the skills that you have and develop the proficiencies. But the motivation is something that comes from a slightly different place.
There's “wanna do it” or “able to do it” and “want to do it, wanting to be able to do it.” So, um, I haven't really thought about that before, but that, I think that's a, a very good way to look at it.
[00:22:21] Adam Grant:
Neither had I. Hypothesis generated live right here yet to be tested.
[00:22:23] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah. Yet to be, but I think would be a very, very interesting experiment to do.
[00:22:29] Adam Grant:
To be continued on that front. It sounds like a great Human Computer Project social science collaboration, waiting to happen.
I think it might be time for a lightning round.
[00:22:41] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Okay, let's go.
[00:22:41] Adam Grant:
You know I do these, so no surprise here. Right?
[00:22:46] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I do. No surprise. But you know, no answers guaranteed. But let's roll.
[00:22:50] Adam Grant:
What's a piece of terrible advice you’ve gotten?
[00:22:54] Margot Lee Shetterly:
A piece of terrible advice I’ve gotten. Hmm. I'm gonna tell you the opposite of that because I can't think of it, but when I was doing the research for Hidden Figures, I had a backup plan, which was to go to grad school and to get a Ph.D. in history. That would be the path.
[00:23:12] Adam Grant:
I knew it. I knew you had an unanswered calling as a historian. Iit’s all over your writing.
[00:23:17] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I thought, “Well, I don't know if this thing is gonna work out.” This was after my husband and I, we had sort of, had closed down this, this business that we had in Mexico, and it's like, “Okay, what's next?”
Okay, I wanna do this book, shall I go back to school and get a Ph.D. Maybe that's a good plan. Good backup plan, right? Really, fortunately, I'd got an agent and the agent found a publisher and it was like, “Wow, this is great. I'm actually gonna get to write this book and maybe I can write this book and go to school at the same time.”
The bad advice came for myself, right? My, myself said to myself, you know, “You can do both of those things at the same time,” and both my dad and my husband will set me down separately. And we were like, “That is very bad advice that you're giving yourself. Um…
[00:24:04] Adam Grant:
They’re both full-time jobs.”
[00:24:05] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah. “We both suggest that in the interest of your sanity and thus ours as well, that you put both feet into this book thing and, and try to make it work.” And that's what I did. So does it count if the bad advice came from yourself?
[00:24:19] Adam Grant:
Definitely. What’s a book you think all our listeners should read?
[00:24:22] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I remember reading, I think I was in eighth grade, so like 13 years old and recently re-read. And it is both an amazing social commentary and also just a, a beautiful piece of literature, just a well-written book, which is George Orwell's 1984.
[00:24:39] Adam Grant:
Hard to argue with. Eerily timely. Is, is there a podcast that makes you think or think again?
[00:24:45] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I, I spent so much time in, sort of, trying to pull all this research together, and a lot of it is like politics and history and you know, all these kinds of things. What I try to listen to, honestly, when I'm actually trying to solve some of these problems, of these writing problems—like how do I tell this story, how do I bring this together—is either music or knitting podcasts.
[00:25:10] Adam Grant:
That’s a thing? There are knitting podcasts?
[00:25:11] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Things about—Yeah. Yeah. It's a whole thing. There’s knitting podcasts, knitting social network, you know, and I think that the impulse for knitting, which is like sort of a, almost competitive sport level interest for me.
[00:25:25] Adam Grant:
[00:25:26] Margot Lee Shetterly:
And um, and storytelling is quite similar. You take all of these threads. This raw material that looks like nothing, and then you start to bring them together and create something that has shape and form and dimension. I think the impulse is very similar for both of those things. I'm not doing too well on the lightning round here.
[00:25:47] Adam Grant:
On the contrary, that's a beautiful parallel. What is something you've recently rethought?
[00:25:50] Margot Lee Shetterly:
I grew up in the cult of college as the way to the future for everyone. College as like this in, incredibly sacred way of starting your life. That was perfect for me, for my siblings. It really did sort of launch us into this successful professional world, but maybe all of us should rethink the idea of having a college degree by the time we're 22.
We have this one ideal of what it's supposed to be, what success looks like, and it always runs through college, and there are a lot of people rethinking that, and my opinion on that as, like, a hard and fast rule has softened over the years.
[00:26:38] Adam Grant:
I like that a lot. I think a lot of people have started to rethink how heavily we rely on pedigrees and even just something as simple as the resistance to a gap year, right? Or the requirement that you have to have a college degree to do a job that does not have any connection whatsoever to anything you studied or learned in college?
[00:26:58] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah, and I think, you know, just sort of circling back to the first part of our conversation about leaving jobs and how do you know when it's time to do something different, those interstitial times are so valuable. And to a certain extent, you know, I feel like whenever I did something different, whether it was through my choice or through circumstance saying, “It's time for you to go. This job does not exist anymore.” That interstitial, that time is, it's some of the most valuable time that I've ever had.
The new projects, the new ideas, the new experiences come to you then because you're open in a way that you're not when you've got that mindset, the very linear mindset of getting up in the morning, doing this very specifically, going to bed and then repeating it the next day. So yeah, the interstitial time is, is something that we don't get if we go straight to college, and I think a lot of people could benefit from.
[00:27:56] Adam Grant:
And what's a question you have for me?
[00:27:57] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Tomorrow, if all of a sudden it said, “You know what? Adam Grant, no more, no more books, no more teaching, no more of this,” what would you do?
[00:28:09] Adam Grant:
Oh, well, I hope no one ever says that, ‘cause love all the different jobs that I get to do. I think I would go take an improv comedy class. I think it would be really fun.
[00:28:20] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Have you taken an improv comedy class?
[00:28:21] Adam Grant:
[00:28:21] Margot Lee Shetterly:
[00:28:24] Adam Grant:
I don’t know. I think because I mostly do things that I feel like I can justify as a contribution to someone other than myself. If I'm gonna prioritize something, like, it's gotta be good for my family or a group of people that I'm trying to help, or at least like my health. And I've never been able to put something like an improv class in any of those buckets, and so it just feels a little self-indulgent.
[00:28:49] Margot Lee Shetterly:
You know what, I'll tell you, when I was growing up, my dad was working at NASA. He was super involved in Toastmasters. Part of the reason why he did it was because of work. For management, you know, for giving speeches and interacting with people.
There were a lot of different reasons, but he also enjoyed it and he was good at I ‘cause he's really funny, and one of the just wonders when, you know, when I was a kid, we would go and we would see my dad give these speeches at Toastmasters. And it was so cool. Don't underestimate how cool it would be for your family and your kids to see you perform improv comedy.
[00:29:27] Adam Grant:
Okay. So what you're making me wonder is, has anyone started, like, a parent-child improv class? I would love to do this as a family. I guess we could probably even do our own. There are five of us. Let’s pick an improv game and try one
[00:29:40] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah, totally. There, there you go. You guys can all do it. That'd be really cool.
[00:29:44] Adam Grant:
I wanted to talk to you a little bit about allyship. From my read of the book, and certainly from the arc of the movie, you bent over backward to highlight some of the, the steps that white people took to support and, you know, defend the work of, of these Black women. Other writers might not have done that, might have been worried about sort of the, like the white savior critique, or might have said, you know, frankly, like, “We have enough white heroes in the world, we, we don't need these people anymore.” Talk to me about that choice.
[00:30:14] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Well, honestly, Adam, it was descriptive. What I did was I interviewed the people. I talked to them about their experiences. I looked at the org charts. I dug into the phone books to see who was sitting next to whom over the years. I looked at the research credits and all of the work that they did.
I saw the memos that established the segregated group and then abolished the segregated group. Even though there was this concentration of Black women and then they were part of this larger group of women of all backgrounds, most of the workplace was white and male. The people who were in the position to make those decisions, to say, “We are going to integrate this group. We are going to promote women and make sure that they are promoted,” in those early days, those were white men making those decisions. And this, the issue of the white savior. It's really interesting. It came up more with the movie, I think for this very dramatic scene with Kevin Costner smashing the colored bathroom sign.
Sorry to spoiler alert for people out there, but that didn't actually happen in real life. The way I see it is it was their obligation. It was really their obligation as a manager. These people who were running that organization, they had two responsibilities. One was to have the mission of the organization be executed to the highest ability, and I think two, as a manager, you have an obligation to support and release the talent of the people in your charge.
So their job was to take these talented Black women who loved the work and loved the science with the same passion that they did, and to allow them to do their best work. If I'm in the workplace, regardless of who my manager is, their gender, their ethnic background, I feel they have a responsibility to me so that I am able to do my best work because I'm gonna come to the workplace feeling an obligation and a responsibility to give my best to that organization.
[00:32:20] Adam Grant:
One of my surprising and more than mildly embarrassing reactions to reading the book was, I basically grew up with male role models. Most of the women I know also grew up with male role models, and I'd made a concerted effort to start looking up to more women as an adult. Right? Having missed out on that as a kid, and they were almost all white women, almost entirely. And I thought, “Okay, how many times do I have to have the same realization before I internalize the message that I need role models who don't look like me?”
[00:32:56] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah. I think that's really one of the powers of this particular kind of writing, this work, this narrative nonfiction, which what it really does is it endeavors to take these stories that are true and these people who really lived and take that reality and bring it to the reader in a way that is hopefully as gripping as fiction.
And I think there hasn't been as much of that kind of literature about Black people, about women that, that really gripping, with all the details, the good and the bad of those people and how they fit into history that we love.
Writers to a certain extent, you’re writing to answer your own questions, and you're writing to read the book that you want to read. Certainly, that's true for me, and I think writing that kind of book with those protagonists, it does what you're looking for, which is to broaden that sphere of heroes and role models and interesting people that you model yourself after or take something away from their lives that, that enriches your life and your sense of the world.
[00:34:10] Adam Grant:
I have a, a different appreciation of your work now than I did before we talked. I think a lot of people appreciate your work for the commitment that you have to representing people's stories and to making sure that people were not written out of history. And I think that you're just as insatiably curious about their lives and their experiences as you are about the events. And so, I'm gonna make a case that there's a psychology Ph.D. in one of your alternate futures, not just a history Ph.D.
[00:34:42] Margot Lee Shetterly:
The thing about psychology and writing this kind of history is that you really do have to spend time thinking about the person and their motivation and why they did what they did. So yeah, psychology is, is definitely a part of it. Psychology Ph.D., I don't know. I'm, I'm in my, I'm in my happy job space finally. So I'm gonna—
[00:35:10] Adam Grant:
Don’t. Don’t quit this day job.
[00:35:11] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Yeah, I'm, I'm not quitting this day job. They're gonna have to like pry my hands off of this one for sure. This is a good gig, but psychology is definitely a little bit of it.
[00:35:20] Adam Grant:
Well, I can't wait to see what story you tell next.
I actually had a meta-vujá de moment in this conversation. I love the concept of vujá de. I've been thinking about it, and I've touched on it in my writing and speaking for almost a decade now, but I saw a different part of it when talking to Margot. I've always thought about it as something that happens in our heads, but Margot made it clear that vujá de moments come from our interactions.
In her case, it was an interaction with somebody who was already familiar to her, her husband. They were talking about the story of these Black women as NASA computers. It seemed like a completely ordinary experience for Margot, but he pointed out what was extraordinary about it.
I think we all need those vujá de people in our lives. I think we should seek out people who help us reframe what we think is obvious in a way that makes it non-obvious. So who are those vujá de people for you?
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Dale Sue and Alison Leyton-Brown.
[00:36:44] Margot Lee Shetterly:
Add that to the, to the list. Improv comedy. Send me the link. I'll watch it.
[00:36:49] Adam Grant:
You, you’re like, “I'm gonna record it.” Please. Margot, uh, you, you've definitely given me the nudge I needed though.