Becoming: Five Lessons From An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama
What does it take to fill the O2 arena?
A stage that has been blessed by the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, The Spice Girls and many more of the world’s most prestigious musical acts. From mega productions with the latest lighting, graphic and rigging technology, to housing hundreds of backing dancers, glittery outfits, or the world’s best orchestras and musicians, events at the O2 share a commonality in their giant productions. If you asked me twelve months ago whether I thought a book tour could sell out the O2 arena, I would probably laugh in your face. There is no way that a simple conversation or panel talk could sell out entire stadiums or arenas. History shows that you need an immense production with a million gimmicks to even start considering reaching crowds in a stadium.
Yet Michelle Obama achieved the impossible.
On Sunday 14 April 2019, I joined 15,000 others to watch the world’s most prominent lawyer, children’s rights activist, author and women’s rights activist who happened to be the 44th First Lady. The atmosphere in the room as we waited for Michelle’s entrance was indescribable. Mexican waves were making their rounds in the crowds, images of Obama’s childhood, teenage years and early years of marriage with Barack flashed on the screen. With each image, came a new wave of cheers, applauds, and screams of delight. “Auntie” Michelle was coming to impart her wisdom, share her story and inspire us. If you’re in need of some words of wisdom from a feminist rock star, Michelle is your woman. Here’s 5 lessons from Auntie Michelle to keep you slaying in life.
Lesson 1: “There is no distance between us and them”
Sitting down in the presence of such a legend, I thought I would feel intimidated. Yet, as the Late Show host Stephen Colbert pointed out, Michelle had a ‘normalness’ to her, that made you feel at ease. It really did feel like I was watching my auntie chat with a friend about her life, and share her advice for future generations. And I soon realised why.
During the conversation, Michelle kept pointing out the ridiculousness of some traditions and protocols that are in place for people in power. She talked about how she made sure that white house staff, who were mostly black men, didn’t wear tuxedos all the time to make them feel more at ease. She discussed the ‘human’ moment when, to the horror of royal traditionalists, she put her arm around the Queen in a moment of intimacy. She talked about how in all her visits to schools, military stations, women’s centres, she made sure not to create a sense of superiority or a hierarchy between herself and those she was meeting. This was evident at the event itself. Before coming on stage, a selection of people from all walks of life shared their stories of who they are becoming. From a teacher, to a 16 year old A-Level student, Michelle showed that the stage was open to everyone, not just her. She used her platform to give others the opportunity to share.
Afterall, in the wise words of Michelle, “there is no distance between us and them”. In times of great uncertainty and societal divisions, it’s important to make sure we stay in tune with the human aspect of our lives and remind ourselves that at the end of the day we’re all one and equal. There should never be a distance between individuals simply because of their positioning in life. Even if you have a whole secret service team dedicated to your protection, you should still be able to have human conversations, to relate with people and share moments with others who have backgrounds dissimilar to your own.
Lesson 2: “The presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”
One of the most striking moments that resonated with the crowd was when Michelle imparted her wisdom on how the presidency affects your personality, morals and beliefs. As she pointed out that becoming president doesn’t give you enough time to “fundamentally change who you are as a person”. Essentially, if you have negative intentions, you can keep up a façade, but ultimately, your true colours will show. Conversely, if you truly believe in something, and consider how it will impact other people’s lives, you’re on the right track.
It doesn’t have to just apply to being the president of the United States (let’s face it, most of us won’t be taking up the top position in the White House). This rings true to our day to day lives and the positions that we take up. Many of us will end up being managers, directors, even CEOs. Some will be mothers, aunties, teachers, or role models to future generations. No matter what your role is in life, the way you carry out your responsibilities will reveal who you are. So if you’re considering doing something that isn’t in the best interest of yourself or others, just don’t do it (a certain Mr Trump might be able to learn from this…)
Lesson 3: “Let’s be vulnerable with one another”
During her 90-minute conversation with Stephen Colbert, we saw Michelle Obama open up and be truly vulnerable. She talked about intimate moments with Barack, when just before their wedding she spent a whole night sobbing on his shoulder after watching a Father-daughter dance and it dawned on her that she would never see her father again. She talked about the constant abuse she would receive about her demeanor, her appearance, and how she would be constantly questioned about her patriotism. Her piece of advice for us? Let’s be vulnerable with one another, and don’t let social media dictate the way we perceive each other.
Lately, social media has increasingly been criticised for encouraging people to put up a front of perfectionism while in reality, they may be experiencing depression, isolation, or an array of issues that aren’t plastered all over their public accounts. Social media also allows us to stay in a bubble of like minded individuals, never exposing us to differing views or opinions. Michelle’s wise words were that we should step out of the social media bubbles, get out into the real world and have conversations with people. Afterall, the rise of the right wing, islamophobia, and racism has been enabled by a group of people who stick to their own circles, and never have contact with the individuals that they’re so hell-bent on hating.
Lesson 4: Show your haters that they’re wrong. But do it for yourself, not them.
From a young age, Michelle’s abilities were downplayed by those around her. Her school teachers said she wouldn’t amount to much, and her high school careers counsellor even discouraged her from applying to Princeton. Instead of letting the negativity get her down, she used these experiences to show the world that as a young black woman, she was able to excel. She didn’t want to fit into the stereotypes that were created for her, and was spurred on to exceed expectations and show the world who she truly was. In all this, she wasn’t doing it for the haters, she was doing it for herself. As she said, she couldn’t even remember the names or faces of those who had underestimated her. Yet their words had stuck.
So while we show the haters that they’re wrong, let’s remember that words can last forever, especially for children. In her own words, “negative words have a lasting impact. We have to understand, as adults, we have the power to lift up kids or crush them”.
Lesson 5: We Can All Change the World.
As clichéd as it may sound, one of the key lessons from Michelle’s discussion was that we can all change the world, starting from our own environments. We aren’t all going to be able to have a global platform to encourage positive change in the world, yet we should remember that we can all have an impact on someone’s life. Whether that’s volunteering in your local community, being a mentor for a young person in need, or simply smiling and having a conversation with someone on the tube, our actions can change the world one step at a time. Michelle’s dream? To have a million little Michelles and Baracks running the world. Take the opportunities around you to be the Michelle of your community. Or rather, the YOU of your community. In all that you do, always reflect on this one question: WHO ARE YOU BECOMING?