Becoming Michelle Obama: Lessons for Life

This artwork is by Yen, my most favorite human illustrator on Instagram. I thank her for letting me feature her work on my blog. The above artwork of a ‘Girl Reading Becoming’ stayed as my source of strength as I struggled to put together this post. Do check out her work @yenmakesart

Prologue

My relationship with Michelle Obama’s Becoming began much before I actually read her book. On a January night, a decade ago in 2009, when I was in high school, I watched the swearing in of Barack Obama on television along with my parents in the drawing hall of my home, about 8500 miles away from Washington. My knowledge of racial history was limited to blacks being discriminated against and a speech of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet I sensed something special, I felt good about what was happening. What happened in Capitol Hill that night (day in the US) meant something to me. I went to bed that night, inspired but not knowing what about exactly. I did not know then that that night will mean more to me later.

A decade later, my understanding of the US had evolved through books, films, news, and my interest. I had read Barack Obama’s both books and watched numerous interviews and speeches of his. He had become a role model of sorts for me, though at a personal level.

I already had a notion of Michelle from what I had read in Barack’s books. Wrote Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope:

Most people who meet my wife quickly conclude that she is remarkable. They are right about this—she is smart, funny, and thoroughly charming..Often, after hearing her speak at some function or working with her on a project, people will approach me and say something to the effect of “You know I think the world of you, Barack, but your wife…wow!” I nod, knowing that if I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without much difficulty.

This is the context in which I picked up Michelle’s book. With a curiosity to know more about Michelle, the Obamas, their values, Barack’s mind, among others.

Getting to Know Michelle Robinson

The book is thoughtfully partitioned into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. In the first part, Michelle dissects her growing up years in the second-floor apartment in the South Shore Neighborhood of Chicago, striving at her school, arranging her first kiss, teenage loneliness, her family, listening to jazz, a child’s observation of the world around her, getting into Princeton, conversations with her girlfriends, and questioning herself over a hundred times, ‘Am I good enough?

Within the first few pages, I was in Michelle’s Southside apartment and could hear the tones of her Aunt’s piano. More importantly, in both her story and her writing it is easy to sense the authenticity, her attitude, and her ‘straight-forward no-nonsense’ manner of being. She herself admits to being an in-your-face sort of person.

We understand Michelle’s drive to succeed and prove herself she asks for a do-over on a reading exercise in kindergarten. It is no surprise that she got into Princeton and then into Harvard Law School. While we are treated to her days at Princeton, her days at Harvard Law School is condensed to hundred words.

Her narrative about her father, a man with an immense positive outlook who is also affected by multiple sclerosis, is warm and poignant. Her father’s story is a leitmotif that keeps returning throughout the book. It reaches a peak one night when Michelle is with her father at his hospital bed:

“He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently…What was left was only one truth. We were reaching the end.”

Knowing Barack Better

“Barack was serious without being self-serious.”

Michelle’s book furthered my understanding of Obama. While one gets to know about Barack from his books, we may not get a holistic objective picture. When a person is writing about oneself he tends to take certain aspects of himself for granted and does not throw enough light on it. Another’s perspective helps to complete the picture of a person. When that other perspective comes from someone who has been the closest to Barack, that makes it even more insightful.

Michelle characterizes Barack as someone who is too cerebral for most people to put up with, was more at home with the unruliness of the world, was dialed into the day-to-day demands of his life bet at the same time his thoughts roamed a much wider plane like income inequality, feels comfortable when he over-commits himself, and wanted to be effective far more than he wanted to be rich. I’ve often wondered how one could be bookish, thoughtful, phenomenal idealism, write better than most bestselling writers, and yet wanted to be in politics and even succeeded at it. Well, that can only be a person who had the characteristics that Michelle describes.

And to the pride of all the book lovers, looks like Barack is a book guy himself. Writes Michelle, “He’d also sold his idea for a non-fiction book about race and identity to a New York publisher, which for someone who worshiped books as he did felt like an enormous and humbling boon.”

Michelle vs Barack

As we read, it is evident that Barack and Michelle are people with different personalities and formational experiences. Their career trajectory is an easy giveaway. Michelle liked the approval of people, her choice of going to Princeton and then to law school was driven by it. Barack meanwhile was more rooted in his idealism, he works at a financial research firm for a bit to save some money and then takes a gamble as he plunges himself into community organizing before he applied for law school. Barack was the ever-optimistic risk taker.

Barack loved solitude and could lock himself in a cabin for weeks, while Michelle was more social and needed people around her. She traces the divergent personalities to the years growing up. She writes, “Barack could pour his heart out through a pen. He’d been raised on letters..from his mom in Indonesia. I was brought up on Sunday dinners at Southside’s, where you sometimes had to shout to be heard.”

The difference in their psychological make-up is reflected in their attitudes towards marriage and relationships. Michelle writes, “He saw marriage as the loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or ambitions. For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of the family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.”

Despite their differences, what kept them united and made them adapt to each other was probably the shared values and the aspirations of being good humans, doing meaningful work, raising good kids, and living a worthwhile life.

Having read the books of both Barack and Michelle, I’d confess that for an ordinary soul Michelle is more relatable. While Barack is a great role model, he just seems a tad sorted out for many of us to identify with. He makes unconventional career choices, works grassroots, has an unwavering vision, sustains deep optimism, and knows where he is going – not a common man. Michelle is the one who has the doubts about herself, seeks approval and social validation, she takes safe career options and then remorses her career that didn’t suit who she was. Many of us could identify with her.

On Finding a Meaningful Career

Just as I said in the previous lines, many us would navigate towards safe career options early in our lives, and quite reasonably so. But down the line, after securing some amount of financial stability and confidence in our aspirations, we might want to look for work that is more meaningful to us. This is what Michelle does and describes how she went about it. This is such a demonstrated practical advice that I’m going to quote in full:

“I felt certain that I had something more to offer to the world. It was time to make a move. Still unsure of where I hope to land, I typed up letters of introduction and sent them to people all over the city of Chicago…Over the course of the spring and summer of 1991, I put myself in front of anyone I thought might be able to give me some advice. The point was less to find a new job than to widen my understanding of what was possible and how others had gone about it. I was realizing that the next phase of my journey would not simply unfold on its own, that my fancy academic degrees weren’t automatically lead me to fulfilling work. Finding a career as opposed to a job wouldn’t just come from perusing the contact pages of an alumni directory; it required deeper thought and effort… And so, again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the people I met, quizzing them on what they did and who they knew. I asked earnest questions about what kind of work might be available to a lawyer who didn’t, in fact, want to practice law.”

On Relationship Lessons

Michelle honestly reflects on the challenges of her relationship with Barack. There are so many lessons that could be drawn. First, one has to be open about ones needs to the other. Barack, by his own admission, was not much of a phone guy and he preferred letter writing. But it wouldn’t work for Michelle. Writes Michelle, “I wasn’t going to relegate our love to the creeping pace of the postal service. I informed Barack that if our relationship was going to work, he’d better get comfortable with the phone.”

I found her take on fights among couples particularly insightful:

“Like any newish couple, we were learning how to fight…And for better or worse, I tend to yell when I’m angry..Barack, meanwhile, tends to remain cool and rational, his words coming in an eloquent (and therefore irritating) cascade…Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.”

And do not shy to opt for couples counseling if need be to save the relationship. Even the Obamas have done it. Michelle says that couples counseling actually worked.

“I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.”

The best kind of relationship is one which enables each other towards the path of flourishing. It is when one learns from the other and becomes aware of what is missing in oneself. Writes Michelle, “He steered himself with a certainty I found astounding…For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose – sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it – was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive.”

But becoming aware of what one wants to be is not enough. One needs immense courage to make that leap. Left to one own self, this never happens, and I can personally vouch for it. You need someone who understands you and can reassure you and nudge you.

“Don’t worry, Barack was saying. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.

She writes, “Barack was a constant and lonely support and probably the push she needed to change careers and do what she really cared about. “His was the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy.”

“I was too busy resenting Barack for managing to fit workouts into his schedule, for example, to even begin figuring out how to exercise regularly myself.”

Michelle lays herself open and vulnerable as she confesses on her resentment towards Barack, and how eventually she manages to work herself out of it. She writes, “I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn’t necessarily need to come from Brack’s quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job. It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness that I was allowing myself to be.”

What stands out is that she shifts perspective, grows out of the frustrations, and puts in new systems to overcome them. She is not grudging it, she is not ignoring it, she takes qualitative steps. It might seem very simple and domestic, but the importance cannot be more emphasized. It could break marriages and families. It happens all the time all around us.

“Barack and I got married on a sunny October Saturday in 1992..”

It was a pleasant discovery for me that the Obamas married eight days before I was to come into this world – in a city in Southern India thousands of miles away from the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, where they got married.

On Parenting Well

Parenting is one of the most complex tasks in the world. The tales in the book Michelle’s philosophy on raising her girls is a treasure trove of wisdom. Barack had talked about in his book on the importance of fatherhood and him being there for his girls. But Michelle talks more practical stuff that we could all gain from. She writes:

“We had kids, and kids need room to speak and grow…Barack and I would sit at dinner, hearing tales from the Sidwell playground or listening to the details of Malia’s research project on endangered animals, feeling as if these were the most important things in the world. Because they were. They deserved to be.”

I thought it was parenting gold when she talks about the mentoring programs she ran for girls at the White House:

“My wish for them was the same one I had for Sasha and Malia – that in learning to feel comfortable at the White House, they’d go on to feel comfortable and confident in any room, sitting at any table, raising their voices inside any group.”

There are even more lessons to be drawn from Michelle’s parents, especially her mother. She writes, “My parents talked to us like adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.” A few pages later she eulogizes her mother’s parental mindset, “My mother maintained the sort of parental mindset that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate – a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality.”

On Learning from Women

I hadn’t read many biographies on women. Reading ‘Becoming’ helped me relate to the much more complex of life in the modern world – professional aspirations, motherhood, spouse’s career, household, and sustaining a marriage. We see Michelle trial through the time when she didn’t have Barack to support her at home, being busy as he was in Illinois Legislature or later, in the US Senate. She is candid about her frustrations on Barrack on occasions.

Yet she managed it all. She charted a career that she found meaningful even as she fights guilt being away from her girls, held the household and raised the girls even as Barack was away, gave all the support she could to Barack’s campaign, and managed to sustain their relationship even if she had to pull Barack to couple’s counseling.

I realized that women were doing much more. Their days were packed, multi-tasking was a given, and hardly found any ‘me’ time. I figured probably there was more one could learn from women – on how they managed to hold their lives together despite several pressures and stakeholders.

In all this, she acknowledges the role sisterhood has played in her life:

A habit that has sustained me for life, keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends – safe harbor of female wisdom.

“I knew we’d help one another out and we’d all be okay,” she writes.

Reflecting on Life

Michelle’s outlook and worldview are life-affirming. She describes her growing up years when she sees families with better cars and friends with fancy toys or who bought their clothes at the mall than sewing them – quite a few of us would recognize this from our own experience, and it does influence us as kids. She writes:

“As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’re been measuring all wrong.”

A page later, she becomes a philosopher and delivers the divine commandment:

“Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.”

Epilogue

There are a hundred interesting details in the book – her faux pas with the British Queen, the daily night briefing books at the White House, the rush of campaigning, and the visits to military hospitals. But the best thing about a book of this kind – one where the author traces the journey of her life and connects her dots – is that it helps the reader in tracing their own journey, and sometimes throws up an insight or two about our own selves.

The book plays the role of a mentor. I can’t think of a book (that I’ve read) that fits this mentor role than Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Among the many reasons to read books, I particularly appreciate those books that become mentors to ourselves, the people in the book become voices in my head and companions that’ll be there and provide wisdom as I go through life. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is one such book. Reading the book felt like having a long conversation deep into the night with a close friend.

If you’re in your teens read it to have a good model to follow, if you’re lost in your twenties read it to find your own ‘becoming’, if you’re in your thirties, read it to tackle your mid-life crisis and relationship strains, if you’re over forty-five with a satisfied life, gift this book to your children or the young people around you.

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