#Heyworld, this brilliant engineer knows the secret to space travel.
“A Letter to My Younger Self” is a series of letters from awesome women to their younger selves—telling them, just when they need to hear it most—what it takes to become the doers and dreamers and builders they’re meant to be.
Dear 10-year-old Danielle (a.k.a. Dani-Doodles),
I find myself thinking about you from time to time, wondering how you would feel about my life now. That confident and introspective little girl on top of the monkey bars, listening to Des’ree on a new portable CD player during recess. Right now, you’re listening carefully to the lyrics of your favorite song, catching glimpses of other kids laughing and playing in the sand below.
You repeat Des’ree’s words in your head until they’re committed to memory: “Time’s much too short to be livin’ somebody else’s life.” Pay attention. These lyrics are going to take on a deeper meaning for you later.
Every time you look up into the stars, you feel a sense of awe. The explorer within you wonders what’s really out there and when you can go see it for yourself. Even now, before you learn about astronomy and astrophysics, you know that when you grow up, you want to be an astronaut. And you know that someday, you want to help a lot of people. That adventurous curiosity and drive to make the world a better place never goes away, even though at times the urge to “fit in” and be “successful”—whatever that means—will distract you temporarily.
In 6th grade, when you take your first physics class, you’ll be surprised by how fun it is—like playing a game or solving a puzzle. It comes so naturally to you, just like math always did. It’s going to be confusing when the 8th graders in your class bug you for help.
As it turns out, this stuff isn’t easy for everybody. You’re going to be a nerd, Doodles—embrace it now! In high school, you’ll have a lot of fun at the parties, but you’ll want to sneak out to finish your homework. Trust that instinct. It’s a good one! Somewhere along the way, I promise that calling yourself a nerd will start to feel like a badge of honor.
In college, you’ll get used to sticking out as one of three women in a class of 150 students. The classes in college will be a lot tougher than 6th grade physics, but hang in there! Let your excitement about learning new things help you overcome the fear of not being able to figure it out. In your first internship, you’ll learn that in the “real world,” people treat you differently as a female engineer; they are skeptical of what you can do since they haven’t seen many women in that kind of job before. This is your best training ground. You figure out a simple and effective solution: just show them what you are capable of and you will earn their respect naturally.
In your first job after college you’ll be one of only four women on a team of 40. This helps you discover a new strength. You know how you get in trouble for talking in class sometimes? Well, it turns out that your ability to communicate is a gift! In this job you’ll realize that you have a unique ability to explain intricate math and science details to people who aren’t engineers.
Where we work now, there are still more male engineers than female, but it doesn’t make a difference in the attention you receive or the respect you get. This path may be more challenging as a girl at times, but you will figure out along the way that everyone has to earn the respect of others. In the end, we are all on the same team.
Right now, for you, future success means being happy, laughing, and—one day—reaching your goal of becoming an astronaut. If only you could have written me a letter to remind me of that…
The lines that define “success” get a little blurry as we grow up. One of the biggest struggles you’ll face is feeling like you have to focus on the path most likely to lead to prestige and stability, even if it means putting your personal purpose on hold.
You will start to gravitate towards facing bigger challenges throughout life; including picking the hardest classes in school and taking the most technical jobs. That drive to always challenge yourself will get tricky—it gets hard to tell if you are doing something because you want to prove that you can or because it makes your heart happy.
I know it’s hard to believe right now. But one day you’ll wake up and ask yourself, “When did I become a missile analyst?” In your mid twenties, Des’ree’s words will come back to you and you’ll ask yourself, “Whose life am I living?”
To get some perspective, you’ll take a much-needed vacation from a job that feels like it belongs to someone else. Out there on a surfboard, you’ll feel better than you ever have—like the adventurer you always dreamed you would be. Just past the wave breaks, you’ll find your true self. It’s there that the real question becomes clear: you are “successful” by everyone else’s standards, but what about your own?
One night, you’ll look up at the sky, remembering what it felt like to be—well—you, a kid, glimpsing those same stars and wondering when you’ll be able to get up there and see them up close. You’ll realize life is so, so precious, and you’ll want to experience everything it has to offer.
Trust me: The stars will lead you to your true path.
You’ll see that honoring only your nerdy side is short-sighted. You’ll ask yourself, “What about the adventures I said I would have? What happened to my sense of purpose?”
Many of those answers, Dani, are at SpaceX. I’ve been working here for three and a half years, and for me it’s a perfect balance between nerdiness, adventure, and purpose in my work. I fly a spaceship called Dragon these days—no kidding! I’m part of a small team that operates Dragon from the control room, bringing cargo to and from the International Space Station, and so far, I’ve helped get Dragon into space and back down safely seven times and counting.
I work with astronauts on a daily basis. They’re intelligent, dedicated, courageous individuals—they remind me a lot of you! I get to dream up new ways for them to communicate with Dragon and with the people in the control room. I lead a small team that designs the information that goes on the touchscreens inside Dragon. (Believe it or not, your super-fancy portable CD player isn’t all that technologically advanced anymore. A lot is going to change in the next 20 years.)
Just like the world around you, your passions will always be evolving—and will expand even beyond your love for space. In time, you’ll also commit yourself to healing the earth by growing your own food and to teaching others how to find physical and mental balance through yoga and meditation. The truth is, there is room for all of this within you: a love of math, a love for adventure, and a passion to help make the world a better place.
So, Dani-Doodles, promise me this: Always ask yourself, “What makes my heart happy?” and let the answer lead you to whatever inspires you then. Deal? For now, I am making it possible for others to reach the stars and to explore the unexplored. And, who knows, I might even get up there myself one day.
Thank you for showing me the way,
P.S. I go by Danielle now, but some people at work like to call me Doodles. It’s a great reminder of you.