Issues,  Law School,  Legal Practice

“If You Don’t Know How, Learn.” Lessons from A Million Miles Away

Last week after an especially jolting 5k (pro tip: don’t decide to run a 5k and then fail to train when you have asthma), I decided to take it easy for the day and watch A Million Miles Away.

oh. my. god. I was a sobbing mess. It’s a must see, if you’re Latino, if you feel connected to migrant farmworkers and their story, or if you simply want to see a story about perseverance and determination.  AMMA is a biopic of the first Latino to go into space, Jose Hernandez. He grew up as a migrant child farmworker, earned a degree in engineering and went on to join NASA, eventually part of a flight crew into space. Major, major accomplishment.

I loved it but of the many parts of the story that jumped out at me, I want to talk about “ingredient no. 4–if you don’t know how, learn.” Because as you can imagine, Jose is someone who grew up with not just little resources but grew up in an environment where his parents couldn’t provide stability for the first formative years of his life (migrant farmworkers means you have to travel from place to place for each harvest season). This impacted his ability to study but eventually the family was able to stay in one place and earns his degree. But an engineering degree isn’t what gets you into the NASA space program. He applies 12 times before he’s ultimately accepted because the program is so incredibly competitive and in one scene he describes how he is lacking in a lot of the skills and experiences other successful applicants possess. So what does he do? He uses his time outside of work to develop those skills–he earns a pilot license, a masters in engineering, he runs marathons, and gets his diving certificate to make himself a more viable candidate. Oh, and he learns Russian!

This scene was important because it provided two lessons that are always timely.

The first is internal. As first-generation professionals we will often notice when we are lacking or have to do without. It can grate at your soul to know that you are not “as accomplished” as others. It feels frustrating and sad to see how uneven life can be and daunting to know you have to fight against that to be considered for an opportunity. The lesson Jose provides is that when you recognize a need for improvement–figure out a way to improve. He used nontraditional options to gain skills others were able to gain earlier in the career. Likewise, in your situation, what are tools, classes (free, online, and paid courses), certificates, skills etc you can take or practice in nontraditional ways to improve your chances of reaching your goals? If Jose hadn’t looked for the gap, hadn’t planned a way to gain the skills he needed, he wouldn’t have gone into space. Yes, it’s fine to recognize disparities but ultimately you also have to make a personal decision as to how you will respond. When you realize you don’t know something that you need to–go learn it. How do you do this?

One. Compare. Yes, comparisons sting, but compare what successful applicants or attorneys with roles you would like have in terms of experience and skill sets to see where you can grow.

Two. Plan. Extra courses or trainings may take more money and definitely more time, but if you can game plan what you need that will help you progress with your goals. Say you’re interested in IP and need additional science courses to sit for the patent bar–how can you earn those credits? Are there alternatives? What did others in the field do?

Three. No to aguitas. Seriously, the majority of this is a mind game. All the denials or doors closed will chip away at you, but if you’re diligent and keep working at it, you’ll eventually land some place where you feel fulfilled. And fun fact, it may not be where you thought you wanted to be, so don’t be so rigid that a detour breaks you down.

Finally, there is second, external lesson for those in positions of power and authority to do a better job of recognizing the vast skills and grit that comes with being a first-get that grew up in poverty. Imagine the intelligence, determination, strength it takes to get to NASA as a migrant farm worker. Migrant farm workers are often purposefully disconnected from community infrastructures and support systems, mistreated, and underpaid. Yes, Jose perhaps needed additional skills, but it should not have taken them 11 years to recognize his potential and ability to thrive in challenging environments. It’s incumbent for those with authority to recognize that an educational journey doesn’t happen on an even playing field. When you compare someone who excelled in an environment filled with resources versus someone who had to navigate systems on their own with little resources, you’re doing a disservice to the role you’re trying to fill and mission you’re trying to advance. It is also your responsibility to learn and do better.