How do you get yourself admitted to a prestigious graduate school of science and technology? It’s not what you think.
1) Graduate from college and get great recommendations from notable professors.
2) Be patient when the Admissions Committee stalls and argues about accepting you because you are a woman.
3) When they finally admit you as an “experiment,” and then isolate you in the basement, don’t get mad. Say, “Thank you,” and take them up on it.
4) When they tell you to keep the door of your work area shut so that the males won’t see you, and when they communicate with you by passing papers under the door, don’t get mad. Work harder, pass the work back under the door, and show them what you can do.
5) Astonish them with your skills, even if it means being the go-to person for first aid and broken suspenders.
6) Never, ever—even to yourself—blame your persecutors; be grateful you’ve been given a chance to further your education. Don’t get mad; be useful.
Ellen Swallow shattered so many glass ceilings that we are still sweeping up the shards. Actually, when Ellen was making her contributions to the world, the ceilings that kept women down weren’t made of glass. There was nothing invisible about them. They were made of cast iron. In Massachusetts, where Ellen grew up, girls were not even required to go to school. You can almost hear the chattering about Ellen in the parlors and the faculty lounges, everyone wondering in various emotional overtones, “Who does she think she is?”
Indeed, who Ellen Swallow thought she was is what makes her so fascinating. The life of Ellen Swallow is worth study and emulation, not just because she was the foremost industrial and environmental chemist of the 19th Century—and a woman, but also because of how she went about being herself in the world. Soon it will be easier to understand. Her new biography is due out this summer.
You say you wouldn’t respond to injustice as Ellen did? Why not? You would if your name was Oskar Schindler and you lived in Nazi Germany. What if you were a “colored” in South Africa like Mohandas Gandhi before Nelson Mandela led South Africa out of apartheid? Or what if you are black in racist America?
But the reason for behaving like one of these greats is not so that you can be “great” someday. The reason for behaving like that is not even so you can be great like your genius wants you to be (although you will be). The reason for behaving like that is to pursue your dreams, lead a happier life, open doors for others, and actually (and not incidentally) get what you want.
To actualize your self, keep your eye on your mission and don’t squander your psychic energy on anger or depression. Focus on being useful. This entails five clear, but often challenging disciplines:
First, decide that other people are not the problem. Don’t categorize, diagnose, label or stereotype them. They may be behaving like jerks, but put the word out of your head. Give them an automatic pass.
Second, play your position, while letting others play theirs. Focus your decision-making on getting what you want. Take full responsibility for making things work out. Thinking that “it takes two to tango” can make you a victim.
Third, listen for the interests of others with a willingness to adapt, adjust and change. Make decisions that are inclusive of the interests of all those other humans—even the very people who could so easily be your enemies, if you chose to let them.
Fourth, let your actions speak louder than words. If words will get you in trouble, let directly observable data do the talking, so it plays like a movie in their heads.
Fifth, see all challenges (conflicts, struggles, mistakes, failures, surprises) as opportunities. Remember Churchill’s “Success is failing again and again without losing enthusiasm,” and that whoever takes responsibility gets the ability.
Here’s your mantra: Don’t Get Mad; Be Useful. Ellen Swallow Richards—she married Professor Robert Richards in 1875—showed us how. Soon, it will be easier to learn from her. Watch for her biography by her cousin, Pamela Curtis Swallow.