Last Tuesday, I talked with Michelle Obama.
There happened to be 12,000 other people there—at Bankers Life Fieldhouse—but it felt as though the former first lady talked directly to me. Her words ignited my spirit, which has, admittedly, wilted by feelings of hopelessness amid the expanse of senseless acts and impotent discourse.
A former student and her parents treated me to tickets to “A Moderated Conversation with Former First Lady Michelle Obama,” hosted by Women’s Fund, which invested the $1 million in ticket sales to advance the lives of women and girls in Central Indiana.
It wasn’t so much what Mrs. Obama said, but the way she said it—mirroring the grace and honesty of her public service. As she spoke (one day after the National Portrait Gallery unveiled her portrait), I pictured that triangular dress portraying her as a mountain—reaching up and inspiring others with an easy, no-nonsense beauty and strength.
Here are a few lessons I scribbled in my notebook, which I converted into a PowerPoint, which I made my students sit through and discuss.
Role models are sitting across from you, stirring your mac and cheese
“Find a mentor,” she urged us. “But the greatest role models and mentors aren’t only ‘out there, speaking at podiums,’ they are often in your daily life. Michelle said she always has and continues to rely on family for guidance and support. Don’t dismiss the people closest to you.
Observe and appreciate your family and teachers, who work hard to support you, she added. You can take the greatest life lessons from the single moms and the quiet grandmas of the world.
It’s not about stuff
To those potential mentors and role models, she reminded them, “Kids don’t need a lot of stuff. I didn’t have a lot of stuff. I just want parents to know it’s the time in. It’s not the stuff.”
Life in the White House taught her how to establish and maintain boundaries. She fiercely guarded time with family. Her girls, she said, “traveled all over the world, but what they cared about most was whether or not Barak and I were there for them, whether we made time to listen and be present in their lives.”
She grew up in a community of moms who didn’t interrogate their daughters, but when Michelle and her friends were playing, “they were in the next room, listening like hawks.” The mamas knew when to jump in and when to let life play out.
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity
“There are very mediocre people who run things, because no one is telling them they can’t,” she said. “You are just as capable, but you can’t be at the table if you’re not prepared.”
Make yourself the most interesting you, saying “yes” to new experiences and challenging yourself to explore other worlds, ideas, etc.
She encouraged the young to “do the work now to figure out who you are, what you stand for,” so that when life gets busier and people or experiences try to shake you, you will stand firm. “Nobody can take that knowledge and confidence of self away from you,” she added.
Be the one and only ever you. Most everything has been done before, so don’t let that little detail stop you. Nobody has ever said, written or done that thing in the distinct way you would say or do it.
Be OK with the fact you don’t know everything, but use that understanding to drive you to learn and grow every day.
Inform yourself and take action
We need good people in office, and everyone—on all sides of the aisle—should vote. An engaged, informed electorate leads to a progressive, productive society.
“If you don’t vote,” she said, “you are allowing your grandma—who you wouldn’t let pick your outfit—choose the direction of our nation.”
On how she confront’s poverty: “There’s only so much you can say to folks when you know their opportunities are at zero. You can’t tell someone to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have any boots.” The better use of our time, she said, is to apply ourselves to fixing the problems that those in need are facing.
Be persistent and assertive
Push through your inner drumbeat of doubt. Michelle talked about growing up knowing that “because she was brown” people were scared of her. “That kid you’re afraid of,” she said. “That’s me, I’m that kid, and look at what I’m about, what I dedicated my life to.” Think of how much potential we are squashing by making kids feel this way, casting aside opportunities and hope before even trying.
Similarly, push through people’s low expectations of you. Michelle knew there were haters out there, but she didn’t think on them. She kept putting herself out there, making herself relevant, using her voice, and learning from failures.
Know that people who love you most might be holding you back. Her elders grew up in a time when the world was scary for black people, particularly black women. They sometimes cautioned Michelle against experiences or campaigns because they “were afraid for me, wanted to keep me safe.” Be aware of those tendencies and follow your gut, but the answer is often—push on, do it.
Don’t wait for others to GIVE you ideas or ASK you to do. Come up with solutions to problems others cast aside as insurmountable or haven’t seen coming. Ask for a new opportunity (then rock it), and speak up when something doesn’t make sense. Those who raise their hands and do the work, get noticed.
Don’t waste a seat at the table
Once you’re asked to join a table, use your voice. If you use your voice, and you’re kicked off the table, it wasn’t a table you should need to be on anyway.
If you don’t use your voice at the table (because you’re fearful of being kicked off the table, for instance), you are wasting a seat. Jump in and make yourself relevant. The people who asked you to the table likely asked you because they don’t want to hear more of the same, they want to hear YOU.
Michelle gave an example during her time as a lawyer: “I was the only black woman at the firm, so I joined the recruitment team, with the goal of ensuring we diversify our pool of candidates.” She asked to be at that table, and they gladly added her to the team (and she made a lasting impact on the firm’s culture).
Fashion should work for you, not the other way around
Look professional, and dress for the job you want, but be appropriate for the situation. If you’re going to a farm to interview a farmer, dress like you’re going to a farm to interview a farmer. If not, you’ll get those heels muddy and will likely create a barrier between you and the source, resulting in a less productive, meaningful conversation.
Dress to succeed at the task at hand. Michelle said, “I’d tell my staff, ‘if you want to make me happy, get me on the grand with some babies.'” On those days, she didn’t wear an A-line skirt and gaping blouse, she wore slacks and a collared shirt, for instance—still professional, but she wasn’t fussing with her clothes (looking awkward, less confident). She was giving her heart to those babies, and the photographers (who were ever present) captured that authenticity and confidence.
You’re only as comfortable with others as you are with yourself. Observe trends and try to work them in, but don’t be a slave to fashion. Stick to what looks good on your body.
Show up. Be on time. Focus on relationships.
She emphasized the basics of social skills and politeness, summing it up with: “Act with decency and with some compassion and with an open heart and nobody can take that away from you.” Listen like you want to be heard.
I added a few here:
- Don’t pass in front of others (like between art at a museum and someone viewing it).
- Hold the door open for others (and if someone does it for you, say ‘thank you.’
- Remove sunglasses, hats and earbuds.
- Let people exit an elevator first before walking in.
- Don’t get too personal with questions (yep, I don’t follow this. I struggle with small talk).
- Say please, thank you and you’re welcome.
- Firm handshake.
- Be on time, or even a bit early (working on this one).
- Look people in the eye when talking to them.
- Keep your fingernails clean (so many more to add re: personal hygiene and meal etiquette).
I felt closer to Michelle Obama than any other first lady, but our nation still emphasized her domesticity and failed to play up her impressive personal and professional background long before she met Barak. Read more about the Princeton and Harvard graduate at Biography.com.
I wasn’t fully aware of the scope of her reach while in the White House, either. She guided these initiatives: Let’s Move!, to address childhood obesity; Joining Forces, to support veterans, service members and their families; Reach Higher, to inspire young people to seek higher education; and Let Girls Learn, to help adolescent girls around the world go to school.
For more information about the Women’s Fund and to donate, go to WomensFund.org.