What I Learned from Michelle Obama’s, “Becoming”

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I have to admit. I didn’t think this was going to be on my reading list – ever. But I took a shot and grabbed it off my favourite book store’s shelf. Determined to see what the buzz was all about and… I have never read an autobiography. Granted, I’m late to the game, but I was absolutely struck by some awesome lessons from Michelle Obama that I just had to write my thoughts down.

What a fantastic, inspirational woman.

Lessons #1: Nothing goes according to plan

“I’m not sure that I ever believed that life was fair, but I had always thought you could work your way out of just about any problem. Suzanne’s cancer was the first real challenge to that notion, a sabotage of my ideals. Because even if I didn’t have the specifics nailed down yet, I did have ideas about the future. I had that agenda I’d been assiduously maintaining since freshman year of college, stemming from the neat line of boxes I was meant to check.” p.127

Her friend Suzanne, at the age of 26, had terminal cancer. Michelle described the life plan they were supposed to have. They’d be at each other’s weddings, they’d have babies at the same time and take family vacations in Jamaica. They’d laugh together until they realized they were two old ladies who’d been best friends forever. All of Michelle’s plans fell apart. Life is unpredictable this way.

Hi, my name is Rebecca, and I’m a recovering over-planner. I plan things in my day to day life schedule meticulously down to the hour on most days. My motto was: If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist. Then when the traffic takes a little too long or a meeting runs a little too long, I find myself (carelessly) speeding to the next activity. When someone’s late to a coffee catch up or a meeting, I’d sit there and stew in irritation that my entire schedule had gone to shit. So, why give myself these grievances? Life throws unpredictable surprises at us that our plans can go from one thing to a whole other thing. Whether it’s changing locations for dinner or changing career plans, life really has a way of throwing us off guard and going off the beaten path.

Entering university at 17 thinking I’d become a doctor, I came out with a degree but also with a whole new career at 23 — in the creative field. Or I had gone to an intensive personal/professional development workshop with zero expectation and three days later, came out with the most compassionate, loving, and committed man who is right by my side to this day. Or I had originally made the plans to stay in El Salvador but spontaneously took a bus to Guatemala, finding myself trekking to the top of an active volcano. These were all unexpected moments of my life — unplanned and wonderful.

Of course, there were the unplanned and not-so-wonderful moments I can’t forget. Point is, maybe planning everything isn’t the best plan at all.

Lesson #2: People don’t live the same way as you, so don’t expect them to.

“I see now that she provoked me in a good way, introducing me to the idea that not everyone needs to have their file folders labeled and alphabetized, or even to have files at all… There are simply other ways of being”. p.81

Michelle lines out what it was like to live with her best friend, Suzanne, in their university dorm. Suzanne would throw a dirty sweater on the ground, where it would be left for days after. On the other hand, Michelle liked to maintain her quarters organized. Michelle also brings up the fact that she would eventually be dating a man (Barack) who would never be bothered by his belongings in heaps, yet still coexisting with him to this day.

When I read this passage, I threw my head back and laughed out loud. I thought of how Michelle was so particular, organized, and on top of things – just like me. But she is a lot smarter than I am for realizing that other people don’t live like her in university.

I tend to assume that other people think, live, and exist like me. I’d assume other people’s intentions and motivations were altruistic when in fact, they sometimes are not. I’d assume that other people would be irritated or angry about the same things when in fact, it doesn’t affect their life in any way.

The biggest hurdle for me to overcome right now is the feeling that I’m not important when friends cancel plans on me last minute. My idea is that keeping your word and showing up when you said you would, means you care for your friends. And when you don’t, you don’t care. I’d feel my shoulders slump, my heart dropping. Sometimes, if it happened all too often within a short period of time, I’d feel tears welling up in my eyes. Why do I take it so personally? Again, why must I give myself these grievances?

To some others, when they cancel plans at the last minute, it doesn’t mean at all that they don’t care for the other person. Their assumption probably doesn’t jump to I’m not important to them like I do. This assumption doesn’t carry from one person to the next.

This idea of “don’t assume other people live or think like you” really hit me when my partner began to stay at my apartment more often during quarantine. I like the cap on the toothpaste after I’m done using it. That is just how I live. He isn’t used to that habit because that isn’t how he lives. I’m used to living with closed cupboards. He doesn’t live like that. I’d think, “doesn’t he want this cupboard closed??”. The answer is no, the opened cupboard does not affect his life in any way. So the next time I see an open cupboard, I chuckle and close the cupboard myself, knowing full well that my way of living really isn’t somebody else’s way. I could mention it but I can’t force him to live like I do.

Lesson #3: Happiness depends upon ourselves.

“I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn’t necessarily need to come from Barack’s quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job. (If anything, our counselling sessions had shown me that this was an unrealistic expectation.) I began to see how I’d been stoking the most negative parts of myself, caught up in the notion that everything was unfair and then assiduously, like a Harvard-trained lawyer, collecting evidence to feed that hypothesis. 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.” p.206

A lot of times, we think our happiness depends on how the people around us make us feel. In fact, happiness can be found within us all along — it’s there. Somewhere. When you’re with a partner, they mirror the best and the worst part of you. Having a partner is the most intimate relationship that continually challenges you.

Michelle’s revelation of focusing on oneself rather than thinking your partner should change to make everything better, is something I’m experiencing. It is a lesson I’m still learning and a challenge I’m still working through. I get caught up thinking that things are unfair and that I can’t change anything. That the outcome just cannot be changed! When in fact, I can change myself, my attitude, my intentions. Those are the things I can control, not others.

Lesson #4: Evolving is an ongoing process.

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.” p.419

When I read this, I felt an emotional connection to Michelle Obama. She laid out her life story with transparency in the form of a book. Reading about her childhood, her determination during Princeton, her career change and her children, the stories made me realize how much more life I have to live. This is not the end of my journey even if it feels like I’m stagnant in my personal development journey, even if it feels like I could be 23 forever. Even when I hit these so-called milestones, I have more to learn, more to absorb, more to love.

I think about my life and how much I’ve overcome and adapted to be the human being I am. Even during my highest of highs, I still have those moments, like Michelle Obama, when I feel insecure or unheard. And that’s okay. This is us being vulnerable and living life as we grow.

Bonus!

Some more thoughts:

“How to be both a Mary and a Marian remained unsolved” p.174

Mary, the independent, snappy-wardrobe, career-driven woman Michelle describes from a TV show called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Marian, her mother, a traditional homemaker who also taught Michelle confidence, stable relationships, and the normalcy of being a wife and a mother. Michelle describes these two women because she wanted to have an essence of both. I struggle between the two as well. I desperately think about how I can be a woman who follows her passion and dreams yet also be a woman who is a loving, hands-on, mother and wife. Was it possible? Could I have both? It’s relieving yet uncomfortable to read Michelle have the same thoughts as me. I just wish I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other at all.

The Cozy Club is a book club designed to keep me engaged with thinking deeper about the books I read. The Instagram @cozyclub.jpg is new but I will be posting monthly reads, book reviews, and fantastic quotes that excites me. Feel free to give it a follow if you enjoyed this read! I think up next would be a Fiction book… we’ll see!

into ux design, reading books and telling stories

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