Chances are you would not have heard of Wally Funk a couple of weeks back. Chances are you are reading this name for the first time here. I learnt about her while curating articles for the weekly edition of The Read Aloud Club last week. Who is Wally Funk? I want to tell you the story of this 82 year old lady who featured on Jeff Bezos’ instagram post last week as his guest to be a part of the inaugural space shuttle, Blue Origin’s crewed flight, along with Bezos. At 82.
Wally Funk is 82 years old. At 22, 60 years ago, she had spent 10 hours 35 minutes floating in a water tank in a sensory deprivation room, dark enough to not see anything and soundproof to not hear anything, as a part of the Women Astronaut test. She was pulled out of the dark room water tank not because she didn’t cope with it, but because she had broken the record for staying the longest. In another test at the same time, icy cold water was injected in her ear to test tolerance of vertigo pain induced by it. While she passed all the tests, gates were kept closed for women in space. The program for women in space was called off.
This week, Jeff Bezos opened the gates to space for Wally Funk as he chose her to be the guest on the Blue Origin space trip. Here is his announcement on his instagram post:
Gender stereotypes are real. Across most cultures and most countries. But this article is not about women and equal rights, this is about you and me and every adult with the ability to make decisions. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am focussing on our role as the gatekeeper, a role that each one of us plays in personal and professional life. I am bringing your attention to the gatekeeper’s mind.
The Gatekeeper Mind:
We make several small and big decisions in our daily life. Some decisions have an impact on others’ life and that impact is like a gatekeeping job. For instance, as a team leader, you may deny a trainee to negotiate a deal. This decision is based on two notions: firstly, trainees are not experienced enough to negotiate a deal and secondly, your judgement of the person as you assess his capability to handle it. The fact that he is a trainee influences your judgement. The two notions are not independent of each other. Typically a trainee would not be assigned the role. But, your judgment surpasses the first notion and you find him smart to take up the job. As you allow the trainee to negotiate, you open the gate for him.
But most gatekeeping doesn’t earn much thought- these happen because our society has made them as norms that have been accepted across cultures and generations, at workplaces and at homes. That is what makes gatekeeping a not-so-obvious, passively active, process in our minds. Passive because we don’t give much thought to it, active because we are always doing the job of gatekeeping.
Wally Funk, the 82 year old shows us the two sides of the gatekeepers mind. One, that closes gates for her and the other that she keeps it open inside, her own mind.
The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk: You are not a man
In 1962, a congressional hearing considered the question of adding women to its astronaut corps, and John Glenn, the first man to go to space, had gone through capability tests along with Wally, fresh off his historic journey, dismissed the possibility: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” That fact stuck for more than two decades, until Sally Ride launched into orbit in 1983, the first woman to go to space.
The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk : You are not an engineer
For the next few years, Wally Funk sought out more tests to prove her capability.She applied to NASA’s astronaut corps four times, but the agency wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, and Funk didn’t have one. Today, NASA has different requirements for its astronauts; prospective candidates can have degrees in other science fields, not just engineering.
Wally Funk is the best Gatekeeper of her own mind. Everytime a gatekeeper stopped her, her mind continued marching forward. She may not have gone to space, but she didn’t deter either. She continued working as a flight instructor and later became the first female investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), looking into plane crashes.
How did she feel when it ended? “Well, it’s not going to stop me. It doesn’t matter.” Wasn’t she disappointed? “I don’t have that kind of a life. I’m a positive person. Things were cancelled? So what? Wally’s going on. Why are people so negative? I’m not a quitter.”An excerpt from an interview in The Guardian
Gatekeeping is a necessity. How to live and let live, how to behave are some of the norms that have been defined as the law. That is why inclusivity, gender diversity are some of the new changes in the law that will change lives. Gatekeeper is an individual mindset that functions in a non existential way. Covered by societal norms and bound by cultural threads, it works on its own framework of decision making.
Each one of us plays the role of a gatekeeper, mostly sub-consciously, both for oneself and for the circle of influence that one has. Here are some of the reference points to seed the consciousness in you:
1. Gatekeeper of your own thoughts:
So when the opportunity for space travel does arise, Funk will be ready.
And if it doesn’t, she’ll be ready anyway.
Wally Funk didn’t stop. We are often stopped by our own thoughts. It seems unachievable because no one in and around has been that far. That is gatekeeping of your own ambition. I have gone through internal resistance on a couple of occasions and everytime one has to fight one’s thoughts with logic and clarity, and keep the gate open. There is always a gatekeeper in one’s own mind.
2. Gatekeeper of people’s dreams and potentials:
Parenting taught me the lessons of gatekeeping. It made me conscious to define if I was holding the gate open or close to people at work. Parenting teaches you that your job is to create opportunities for children to find their interest and passion. You open more and more gates. As a leader at the workplace, this is what you have to remind yourself and see if you can open gates to achieve higher potential.
There will be occasions that you may not agree completely to an idea proposed by the team. It happens in creative pursuits and I like the Jeff Bezos way of working: to disagree and commit. Read more about it here.
3. Gatekeeper of the right and the wrong:
We are born in a culture built years ago. Similarly, when we walk into a new leadership role, we walk into a culture that has been nurtured by previous leaders. One need not accept every nuance. A gatekeeper of the culture has to keep moral intelligence awake where you make decisions not because all generations have been doing it but because you need to do it. Some offices have the culture where during the meeting, juniors will sit on the side while seniors on the table, even if the junior is an integral part of the discussion or the boss will be called only when all attendees have arrived in the meeting room. If you have worked in Nariman Point offices, the original high rise workplaces in Mumbai, you would have experienced elevators reserved only for Directors. When the offices shifted to Bandra Kurla Complex, this culture was plucked out.
It might be a PR stunt for him but look at what Jeff Bezos has done – a woman ✓, a woman with a space dream ✓✓, a woman with a space dream and rejected on gender issues ✓✓✓. ‘Taking Funk on this ride may be a great PR stunt, but at its core, it is a real gift, to a real person,’ writes The Atlantic. Jeff Bezos has been the best gatekeeper for Wally Funk.
We all face gatekeepers. We all are gatekeepers. Gatekeepers of our thoughts, of opportunities for others, of societal norms. Let us remember to keep gates open.