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Friday, February 12, 2016

RISK OF SUCCESS by Janet Catherine Johnston

Strong Women. Fact? Fiction? Born? Made?

My next guest is a belly-dancing astrophysicist from MIT. Yes, you read that correctly. She is a favored speaker at writing conferences that range from Boskone's science fiction convention to the Newburyport Literary Festival. If there is anyone who has an opinion about going against type, I'd say Janet Catherine Johnston is my go-to source. 

Risk of Success by Janet Catherine Johnston

I was flattered that Connie asked me to write something on the concept of strong women because I don’t think of myself as one. I think of myself more as a Barnum and Bailey showman. One thing I know for sure from my nearly 63 years of life experience is that 10% talent and 90% nerve is a better recipe for success then the other way around. So I guess I’m going to talk about nerve, or confidence, or being willing to take a risk.  Because the only thing you risk is failure and that’s a much lesser risk, I think, then not having tried to do anything at all.

First of all, as a child I was fortunate that I was never told only boys can do this or that. In fact, being a movie and TV fan as a kid I always identified with the male characters. This was not because they were men but because the women were portrayed as having no brains. I loved Spencer Tracey in Inherit the Wind, Captain Kirk in Star Trek, and Errol Flynn in Robin Hood. Although I always wanted to wear Lady Marion’s medieval frocks, Robin Hood, the adventurer and rebel, was closer to my personality.

So, when someone asked me when I was ten what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, "An astrophysicist!" no one laughed or discouraged me.

And high school was great too. It wasn’t until college and then the workforce in the early days--I was a freshman at MIT in 1971--that as a woman in science and engineering I encountered discrimination. The majority male student body was resentful, instructors openly stated that female students were just taking a place away from a man who would use the degree.  It was pretty awful. Things are much better now. Science is more open than engineering, but both fields are improving.

I stuck it out and went on to work in science where in those years, in the eighties, women were considered a novelty and there were always remarks. You had to be better than the men to get equal treatment.  Many of my female classmates gave up and transitioned to more female-friendly professions. Great loss to science!  But I was stubborn and had a great mentor, a science pioneer now in her nineties, who taught me to pick my battles.  I can only imagine what she went through to rise to the equivalent civilian rank of General in the Air Force in her day.
I am always dismayed at people saying,  ”Oh if only I won the lottery, I would (fill in the blank with your fondest dream).” If your odds of happiness are a 50 million to one shot, that’s pretty sad. Think about how you can improve those odds…

And “Luck”  --what is that? I never thought when I applied to MIT that I would be accepted. At the Bronx High School of Science in New York I was certainly not the smartest student there.  But you never know till you try and if you don’t try you certainly have no risk of success.

People laugh when I say my writing goal is to write a best-selling novel. Really? I may not reach my goal, but how many best-selling authors do you think started their career saying their goal was to write a mediocre novel?
Certainly luck plays into it, but I define luck as a convolution of “opportunity meets preparation.”

If you don’t like the path you’re on, plan and work to change it.  Maybe in the end, that’s the definition of a strong person. Maybe the odds are against you, but somebody beats those odds.  Why can’t that person be you?

Janet Catherine Johnston is a scientist, engineer, master costume designer and choreographer, dance teacher, singer, martial artist, private pilot, fortune teller, and science fiction author and was born missing her left arm. She is a co-author on numerous scientific journal articles on space experiments as well as on geophysics and holds four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in astrophysics, planetary physics, seismology and civil engineering. She has traveled to 50 countries, including Outer Mongolia, India, South Africa, Egypt, Japan and Svalbard and has lived in New York, Virginia, London and Moscow, but always returns to her Plum Island, Massachusetts home. Her hard science fiction stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the oldest, most prestigious science fiction magazine on Earth and has had two one-act comedy science fiction plays produced in Boston. Her novellas, although tenaciously rooted in reality, have a haunting, isolated quality to them in which the setting presents as a dominant character. 

Janet will be a guest speaker at Boskone 53, Boston’s oldest Science Fiction Convention, at the Westin Waterfront Hotel, 20 Feb 2016. See her mini-interview here

Janet can be reached at:   plumeig(at)comcast(dot)net


FRIDAY FEATURES is a steady presence on Out of the Fog where I explore the concept of "strong women." Who are they? What makes them strong? How do we see them in writing and/or in business? If you're an author, what is their place in the world of thrillers of mysteries? If you're in business, how is the working environment impacted by the presence of a "strong woman" and how are they seen as leaders and team members? If you're an emerging strong woman, tell us about your journey. Have other questions you find compelling? Ask away and I'll post the answers here. 

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