Ever read a biography and felt as though you were reading your own words? Or maybe, talking to your best friend? I definitely felt like I had that experience when reading Michelle Obama’s latest book, Becoming. There’s so many moments in her recollections that strike a nerve. So many comments that aptly tap into the way I, and, I’m sure, many others among you, view the world. Perhaps one of my favourite recurring themes throughout the book, is her continual desire to grow herself, to push her limits, to keep getting better.
Making revelations about he growth mind-set from her youth to date, in ‘Becoming Me’, Michelle poignantly questions her own past perceptions that she would, quite finitely, become a lawyer after her Ivy League education.
“As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you becoming something and then that’s the end.”
It’s common knowledge that Michelle had practised as a lawyer in her early adult life. Only that now she has disclosed her true perceptions towards the esteemed profession. Her determination to move forward in the world, to be held, socially, in high regard, maintained her loyalty to a career that she was beginning to resent for it’s indirect approach to instigating mass change.
This, most certainly, comes as a breath of fresh air, to individuals tired of hearing idealisations of institutional, by-the-book success.
Her message rings clear. The established path, the traditional routes to success, will not necessarily lead to personal fulfilment. An important reminder for us all.
Of course, leaving behind her piled desk at the law firm, Michelle went on to pursue a career in community work and politics.
It’s helped me, and it should help you, take away the sense that, whilst a certain path might appear attractively clear-cut, there’s no guarantee that it will lead you to the ideal destination. Life, so to speak, is a journey wherein, sometimes, you have to venture down a path just to know that it’s the wrong way.
Friendships and early influences.
I found myself inwardly smiling at the description of Michelle’s best friend in College, Suzanne. A track runner and avid dance class attendee, Suzanne, according to Michelle, was the kind of girl that based the majority of her decisions on how fun they were likely to be, and swiftly changed direction when they “messed with her joy“. This is something that I have tended, and still tend to do.
Barack’s apparent contradictory nature, “serious without being self-serious” and “breezy in his manner but powerful in his mind“, brought to mind certain fond friends of mine that have this lethal trait combination. A laid-back manner and steely focus. Demonstrative of her genuine character, is Michelle’s exposure of her cravings for authenticity in her friendships. It’s a terrible feeling, suspecting that someone in your inner circle is only there to gain something, rather than out of genuine affection for you.
Michelle touches on this issue of fake friends that were beginning to plague her life as first lady. Down-to-earth, “thirsty” is the word she and Barack uses to describe the people blatantly attempting to claw their way into her inner circle as an effort to boost their own status.
Growing real friendships, it would seem, and by Michelle’s standards, resides in identifying those that truly care about you and holding them close.
In ‘Becoming Us’, the picture Michelle paints of Barack unearths the deep-seated respect underpinning their relationship. Barack is illustrated as having always been aspirational, envisioning the world as what it could become, what it should be. One story she reminisces of Barack near-preaching to a group of elderly women, raising spirits and instilling hope, in the basement of a church is intimate and heart-warming. A recollection that disintegrates the stereo-typically distant, impersonal image of a politician on a far off platform, to an accessible, close-to-home, community spirit.
A man that never aspired to fame, or to fortune, but, rather, just wanted to make a difference. Sounds almost like a fantasy, right?
Depth of character and honesty, qualities that Michelle admires in Barack, are juxtaposed with the shallow qualities that some of her friends looked for in a partner. Assets like financial prospects and looks being placed higher on the scale than intangible wholesomeness.
Money never drove us, yet look where we are, Michelle seems to be whispering.
Before reading her biography, I never really knew too much about the initiatives Michelle introduced whilst in the White house. I was surprised to learn that Arts & Culture is something that she wanted to give more ground in education.
In the UK at least, for as long as I can remember, creative subjects including music, art, dance and drama have always been overshadowed by the academic subjects.
Of course, the incredible value of academia cannot be denied. The intellectual skills that academia cultivates will always be essential for the functioning of society. Nevertheless, it’s an unhealthy approach to place it entirely in the spotlight and leave the arts to cower in the shadows. The cultural enrichment that the arts has to offer should not be overlooked.
Remarking on how she’d been raised on Jazz, piano recitals, Operatta Workshops and museum trips, she expresses the importance of arts and culture in developing children:
“it’s not a luxury but a necessity to their overall educational experience.“
“I relished the sight of high schoolers mingling with contemporary artists like John Legend, Justin Timberlake, and Alison Krauss as well as legends like Smokey Robinson and Patti LaBelle.“
Finally, other than Michelle’s perpetual praise of optimism, ambition and growth throughout the entirety of this book, what really hooked me from the very first page was Michelle’s commitment to integrity. How can anyone not admire someone with an innate purpose of telling “the truth“, using their voice to “lift up the voiceless” when they can and not disappear “on people in need“?
For a long time, I’m sure, these closing words in her story will resonate with me,
“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.”
They’ve given me a sense of empowerment. To be unafraid in taking ownership of even the grittier, imperfect fragments of my life. Indeed, every life can be used to inspire and raise up others.