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Life (and Career) Lessons from Becoming

There are so many reasons to love Michelle Obama and Becoming aptly embodies all of them.  She says it like it is. She is self-aware. She is serious but doesn’t take herself too seriously.  She embraces the juggling act of motherhood without sugar coating it. She declares marriages is work.  She is painfully pragmatic. She would rather watch HGTV than Meet the Press. The list goes on and on.

Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, single or married, it is hard not be touched by her authenticity or inspired by her story.   A woman who married a man whose optimism and idealism won her heart and mind, but who’s perpetual lateness wore thin. A working mother who viewed eating fast food in her car on an efficient lunch break running errand as “me time.” A woman who cares deeply about her family, integrity, and making a difference, but is honest in her quest to “become” and evolve (and yes,  we love that!)

Not surprisingly from a self-proclaimed “box checking” lawyer, her story is nuanced, sharing the facts, while giving you a peek into her emotions, insecurities, and values.  From her dislike of politics to her openness about her challenges to start a family, to the ups and downs of her relationship with Barack, she is transparent. She shares her insecurity growing up, recounting the question of “Am I Enough” throughout her life.

Moreover, perhaps most importantly, she lets the world see the weight of the contrast of her worlds over time.  She knows she “is an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” In the end, she aptly summarizes “I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where education can take you far. I had nothing, or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

There are so many life lessons woven through the chapters.  It was hard to narrow in, but we narrowed in on a few. If you haven’t read it yet, hopefully, this inspires you.

Life (and career) Lessons from Becoming

Hold yourself to high expectations and find a way around ‘the doubters.’  When her college counselor told her she was not ‘Princeton material,’ she sought the guidance of someone who knew her better.  Her high school experience had taught her she could do more and she “wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself.”  Throughout the book, she challenges the notion of giving into the ‘naysayers.’ She summarizes “I’ve been lucky enough now in my life to meet all sorts of extraordinary and accomplished people… What I’ve learned is this:  All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Get over needing approval and trust yourself enough to “swerve.”   Michelle followed the traditional path “marching to the resolute beat of effort/ result, effort/result” from her early years, through Princeton, Harvard Law, and Sidley & Austin.  She wonders why someone would put off medical school to become a sports mascot. Yet, shortly into her tenure at Sidley, inklings of discontent emerge. She isn’t “fulfilled.” (To which her mother responds, “I’d make the money first and worry about fulfillment later”).   She admits “I was driven not just by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval, too… It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.”  It isn’t until she “swerves” away from high end corporate law (albeit thoughtfully, with a lot of research and Barack’s encouragement) and moves into the public service that she acknowledged “It was the first time in my life, really, I felt I was doing something meaningful, directly impacting the lives of others while also staying connected to both my city and my culture.”

Learn to adapt early and often.  All decisions and relationships have trade-offs.  We heard it on her book tour, and it is woven throughout the book; she doesn’t hold back on the challenges in her marriage, being a working mother or politics. Yet, she is never embittered.  In each situation, she acknowledges mixed feelings or inner turmoil but adjusts to “anchor” herself. She questions herself at the beginning of her relationship with Barack in light of his direction and confidence, yet finds a path forward for herself (finding a new profession). “All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly try living with it.  For me coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose..was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it exactly, but because it was so alive. In the presence of his certainty, his notion that he could make some sort of difference in the world, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwittingly challenge to my own.” She acknowledges that she “was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing my own.”  She talks about motherhood as an “a state of constant calibration, tweaking one area of life in hopes of bringing more steadiness to another.” She doesn’t want him to run for President but, as she said later in an interview with Oprah that “she put on her citizen hat.” “He wanted it, and I didn’t..but I believed Barack could be a great President.” She agrees to campaign on the condition that she can be in Chicago to put the girls to bed at night. Ultimately, we see her set an agenda as first lady that aligns with her passions and beliefs.  While she did not want the spotlight of politics, she made a decision and adapted.

Build a community around you.  From her babies group to “boot camp,” Michelle finds a way to surround herself with people she respects, trusts and relies on.  As a working mother, she finds her tribe of other professional women in Chicago. “I felt it every time we gathered, the collective force of all these women trying to do right by their kids: In the end, no matter what, I knew we’d help one another out, and we’d all be okay.”  On the campaign trail, she forms a “campaign family” to get her through the ups and downs. In the White House, she hosts girls getaway weekend boot camps for friends. She summarizes by saying “Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses like these, swapped back and forth and over again.”        

Pay it forward.  Her mother teaches her to read before kindergarten and advocates for her education early and often. Her parents forego owning a home, to have reserves for the future of their children.  A Princeton mentor takes an interest and encourages her to start an after-school program for kids. As an adult, she relies on guidance from women who have followed her path from law to public service.  From an early age, Michelle benefitted from her parents, teachers, and mentors that believed in her.

Moreover, throughout her career and as an adult, she ‘pays it forward’ through her mentoring programs and initiatives.  “The more important parts of my story, I was realizing, lay less in the surface value of my accomplishments and more in what undergirded them – the many small ways I’d been buttressed over the years, and the people who’d helped build my confidence over time….I’d tried…to pay it forward….I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters.  It matters especially for women, for minorities, for any one society is quick to overlook.”

Find and use your voice.  You don’t have to love politics to choose to use your voice.  Despite being married to Barack, Michelle doesn’t hold back her distaste for politics.  However, that doesn’t stop her from getting involved, using her voice and driving change agendas on issues from ‘Let’s Move’ to ‘Joining Forces’ to mentoring young women.  As a first lady, she was committed to action and follow through. She “was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and do not disappear on people in need.”  She aptly concludes Becoming by saying “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.  This, for me, is how we become.”

Choose dignity.  While she holds out until the end, Michelle takes no prisoners in her last 15 pages describing the political environment today.  She is not often passionate campaigning for candidates besides her husband, but can’t hold back her support for Hilary after the Access Hollywood tape.  She will never forgive Trump for the birther movement. She wonders where the bottom might be. However, she refuses to be cynical and challenges the nation to “let one another in… fearless, make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us…embrace the ways we are the same.”  She puts forth the Obama philosophy “Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack, and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”