Michelle Obama is a high-flier. She is best known now for being the U.S.’s first African American first lady, the work she did in that position, and the style with which she did it. But before meeting Barack Obama, and long before his run for president, she had an extraordinary record of achievement: Princeton University, followed by Harvard Law School, followed by jobs in corporate law and public service. She sounds like the most single-minded woman in the world. And for a while, she was.
Speaking about her forthcoming book, Becoming, with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama said that for a long time she was laser-focused on achieving her goals. But one of the most valuable lessons she learned through her career and marriage was that sticking to your guns no matter what, keeping your eyes on the prize—or any of the other military-style metaphors we tend to use to denote someone seeking success—aren’t the best way to make great achievements.
In the interview, Winfrey sums up the message: “It says to every person reading the book: You have the right to change your mind.”
Obama concurs. “In the book, I take you on the journey of who that little striving star-getter became, which is what a lot of hard-driving kids become: a box checker,” she says. “Get good grades: check. Apply to the best schools, get into Princeton: check.” The list goes on: Get into law school, get through law school, get a job, get a Saab. “I wasn’t a swerver. I wasn’t somebody that was going to take risks,” she says.
She also wasn’t happy: “I narrowed myself to being this thing I thought I should be. It took loss—losses in my life that made me think, ‘Have you ever stopped to think about who you wanted to be?'” Obama said. For a time, the knowledge of her privileged position, the “luxury to even be able to decide,” kept her in place.
Two things helped her rethink her approach. First, she met Barack Obama, who took a very different course, changing tack and experimenting constantly. This chimes with much of the current thinking on careers, from framing success as a process rather than an achievement, to the writers and academics advocating flexibility in a world where career-switching is becoming more common, and longer careers with more breaks and twists. “Barack Obama taught me how to swerve,” she says.
The second was becoming a mother. The former first lady articulates a common experience for ambitious women who have children and find that it upends the best-laid plans, because it’s both all-consuming and difficult to plan for.
This discovery certainly wasn’t always easy, but Obama says she discovered that life—with all its “bumps and bruises,” could be much more than the perfectly mapped-out career—great on paper but potentially devoid of joy.