Five Empowering Life Lessons From Michelle Obama (That You May Have Missed)

I’ve had Michelle Obama in my ears for the last month. In the morning as I walk to work, doing my groceries on the way home, heading off to meet friends for dinner, on the park bench while watching my kids play soccer.

She’s become a trusted advisor. A wisdom whisperer. A funny pal. Her impeccably articulated stories now etched into my day-to-day memories.

In the fifteen hours that I’ve listened to her a few key moments stand out. Not the rousing moments woven into her sold-out live book tour performances (that I loved, BTW!), but softer moments.

Subtle and quiet, they show shifts in perspective as Michelle takes more and more responsibility for her own happiness and fulfilment.

Learning how to take charge of your own happiness and fulfilment is a theme that means a lot to me. Why? Because it’s the bedrock of the coaching journey—the springboard that creates big leaps forward.

So in a celebration of subtle springboards, I present you with:

Michelle Obama’s Five Discreet Life Lessons On Taking Charge Of Your Own Happiness and Fulfilment (That Didn’t Make It To The Book Tour)

Lesson 1: If You Want To Find Your True Self You First Have To Stop Worrying About What Other People Think Of You

Michelle Obama lived the first 28 years of her life as a happy control freak, following a strict recipe of hard work and determination. Even her stuffed animals were stiff. When the question “Am I good enough?,” regularly popped up in her head, she pushed herself even harder to prove her worth to others. Following a success-driven path on a straight-and-narrow road landed her in the corner office of a swanky law firm with the prospect of climbing even higher up the lawerly ladder. But then she met Barack, a late to meetings, unpredictable, out-of-the-box thinker with a wild drive and no clear path. Falling for Barack was a challenge ideologically and emotionally. It meant rebelling against predictability. Against the establishment. Against the perfection impression she hoped to project. Allowing herself to fall in love with him was the start of her swerve off the predictable path into a windy, challenging, imperfect, but deeply more satisfying one.

In Michelle’s Words:

"This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly."

Lesson 2: The Silver Lining To Loss (Of Any Kind) Is That It Can Reframe What’s Really Important

When I lost my father-in-law unexpectedly to a sudden heart attack it knocked me out of a self-pity funk. A few months before he passed away I lost my job of 7 years in a huge corporate restructuring and Trump had just won the American election. The world was going down the drain and I clearly had no say in the matter. My father-in-law’s death shook me out of my “woe is me” mindset. In an instant I realized how much of the crap we worry about doesn’t matter. If life can be over just like that, what am I doing with mine? Am I doing something really meaningful? If I died tomorrow, what would I be remembered for? Michelle lost two treasured people, her dad and her beloved college friend in the same year. That deep loss jolted her right out of her corporate job not knowing what lay ahead. Her experience resonated with mine and many of the clients I see who come looking for more clarity about their purpose after a loss of some kind (a burnout, a divorce, a death in the family, etc). While not the ideal wake-up call, loss definitely helps take stock of what matters and gets you moving!

In Michelle’s Words:

“Losing my dad exacerbated my sense that there was no time to sit around and ponder how life should go. My father was just 55 when he died, Suzanne had been 26. The lesson there was simple: life is short and not to be wasted. If I died, I didn’t want people remembering me for the stacks of legal briefs I’d written or the corporate trademarks I’d help defend. I felt certain that I had something more to offer the world, it was time to make a move. “

Lesson 3: When Looking For Your Next Career — Get Out Of Your Head, Reach Out, Meet People, Ask Questions And Connect Dots

Change is scary, especially when you want it badly but don’t know what it consists of. That’s what typically keeps people stuck. They wait for the perfect road to unfold in their mind before they dare to step foot on it. But the truth is that clarity comes from action. Period. If you don’t get out of your head, you’re never going anywhere. That’s why I LOVE what Michelle did when she decided to leave her job. All she knew was that she had spent her entire life working to become a lawyer, and that now that she was one, she no longer wanted to practice law. That realization could have frozen her in fear. “Who am I going to be in 20 years? What’s the perfect profession? What if I’m all wrong? What if no one ever wants to hire me? What if I need to go back to school? What will people call me? What will I call myself?” Instead of worrying about all of that, she just got moving. She typed up dozens of letters of introduction to interesting people at foundations, universities and non-profits all over Chicago asking them if they’d meet for lunch or an informational meeting. It was the beginning of an informational treasure hunt. By meeting people, sharing her story, and quizzing people on what they did, she opened up many unexpected doors that she was then able to decide whether to go through, or not.

In Michelle’s Words:

“I put myself in front of anyone I thought might be able to give me 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 going to 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 alumna directory, it required deeper thought and effort. I would need to hustle and learn. And so again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the people I met, quizzing them on what they did and whom 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.”

Lesson 4: To Change The Big Picture, Start By Focusing On The Things In Your Control

Post-marital, post-partum life for the young Obama couple wasn’t easy. In fact it was heading for disaster. Barack was out of town several days each week in another state as a senator, leaving Michelle to raise two small girls essentially solo while also holding down a full-time job. Each Thursday she and the girls would wait up for Barack to drive three hours home for dinner, only to fall asleep at the table because he always arrived late. The Obamas found themselves in couple’s counselling, Michelle certain their therapist would see that Barack was 100% responsible for their problems. But that’s not what happened. No validating happened, no sides were taken. During counselling Michelle realized that she had be so preoccupied with Barack’s shortcomings that she had lost sight of what changes to her happiness were in her own reach. How she could set new boundaries and limits that worked for her and the girls. So she took hold of the reigns and created her own frame for happiness, and invited Barack to assume his share of responsibility if he wanted to be in it.

In Michelle’s Words:

“It was possible I was more in charge of my happiness that I was allowing myself to be.”

“This was my pivot point. My moment of self-arrest. Like a climber about to slip off an icy peak. I drove my axe into the ground. That isn’t to say that Barack didn’t make his own adjustments, counselling helped him to see the gaps in how we communicated and he worked to be better at it. But I made mine and they helped me, which then helped us”

“I installed new boundaries, ones that worked better for me and the girls. We made our schedule and stuck to it. ...It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

Lesson 5: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See (Aka: Use Visualization To Reach Higher)

Michelle uses visualization time and time again to help others reach higher, to imagine a future that stretches their imagination. As First Lady she visited schools in underprivileged communities regularly, targeting girls in particular. She’d share her story of growing up in a modest neighborhood with limited means in order to connect with those goals. To create a real life anchor, a reference, in order to then show them where they could go from there. She did so not only figuratively, but literally. She invited the girls to Oxford, then brought them to the White House for an up-close-in-your-face look inside the walls of privilege. To unpack the reality of it. Break it down into something more familiar, so that the young girls could project themselves onto that screen. This process is all about creating fuel through familiarity and proximity, and it’s a cornerstone of drive and motivation, whatever the goal may be.

In Michelle’s Words

“I made a point of writing letters to the girls from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in London who had so profoundly moved me, urging them to stay hopeful and keep working despite their lack of privilege. In 2011 I had taken a group of 37 girls from the school to visit the University of Oxford, bringing not the high achievers but students whose teachers thought they weren’t yet reaching their potential. The idea was to give them a glimpse of what was possible. To show them what a reach could yield. In 2012, I hosted students from the school at the White House during the British Prime Minister’s state visit. I felt it was important to reach out to kids multiple times and in multiple ways in order for them to feel that it was all real.”

Action Items:

  • Which one of these lessons resonates the most with you?

  • How could you use it to create more happiness and fulfilment in your life?

  • What three small changes could you make in your life today to take more control of your happiness and fulfilment?