The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than a literary event, as crowds gathered at the Southbank centre for the London date of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s book tour. Over 300 children from local London schools were joined by star guests including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and model Adwoa Adobe, to hear author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grill Michelle Obama on the backstory to her new book Becoming. As the song ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ blared out of speakers, the excitement in the room was palpable.
And Michelle didn’t disappoint. Covering everything from her early dates with Barack Obama to her view of the current administration, she spoke surprisingly candidly about tough times – and why she now sees her life mission as helped educate girls worldwide. “I hope this book will plant the seed that we can change lives,” she said. “That it will change the minds of people who feel it’s not a good move to send their daughters to school.”
Here’s what else we learnt:
1. Choose your partner carefully
“Barack doesn’t play games – and that’s a very attractive quality. Let’s emphasis that,” she said, nodding in agreement to Chimamanda’s mantra that love shouldn’t have to be painful. “Choose somebody who is full formed because love doesn’t form someone, that’s not what love does. Love doesn’t fix brokenness.”
2. But be careful not to lose your sense of identity in a relationship
“I knew the force of Barack’s mind and the vision he had for what kind of life of service he wanted to have. He had a clear sense that he had a responsibility to use his talents and gifts to help people. So he was very focused and very self-aware. And when you fall in love with that kind of passion, I knew that I needed to anchor myself,” she said. “I had to know who I was, what I cared about, how I wanted to direct my life, what kind of mother I wanted to be so I could stake my claim in this relationship. So when I knew that this was real I did a lot on work on myself.”
3. And don’t expect a relationship to be easy all the time
"When I talk to young people just starting to get married, I say: there are going to be huge chunks of time where you want to push him out the window," she said. "Many people look at my marriage as #relationshipgoals. 'We want to be like Michelle and Barack.' Ok, let me tell you about Michelle and Barack..."
4. Take a career pivot if you’re not happy
Michelle says it was meeting Barack that made her realise she had to walk away from the law. “I wasn’t in a career that brought me joy or touched any points of passion for me at all. I had to finally admit that to myself, which was a hard thing to do after investing the amount of time and resources. To get a Harvard law degree, I was in debt. And to walk away from that and to look my parents in the eye and say ‘I’m not feeling this’,” she laughed, trailing off at the memory.
5. Don’t let fear stop you achieving
“Learning how to overcome fear, or learning how to live with fear and work through it is one of the keys to success and growth. I grew up in a neighbor where because of fear – fear of going outside, being stopped by police, fear of leaving what you knew – kept people stuck in one place,” she recalled.
6. Fight against imposter syndrome
“My advice to young women is that you have to start by getting those demons out. The question I used to ask myself and still continue to ask myself is, ‘Am I good enough?’ That haunts us because the messages that are sent from the time when we’re little are, ‘Maybe we’re not.’ Don’t push too hard, don’t talk too loud…” she said. “So when you’re walking around with those demons in your head that’s the first dragon that you have to slay.”
7. Don’t assume those in power know more than you
"Here’s the secret. I've been at probably every powerful table that you can think of... I’ve served on corporate boards, I’ve been at G summits, I’ve sat in at the UN. They’re not that smart,” she said. "There’s a lot of things that folks are doing to keep their seats because they don’t want to share power. And what better way to do it than to make you think you don’t belong? I’m not saying that there aren’t talented people out there. But I’m here to tell you that their ideas are no more exciting."
- The Queen doesn’t care about protocol
Recalling a visit to Windsor Castle, where she couldn’t remember which side of the car she was supposed to get into, Michelle said of The Queen: “She says, ‘Just get in, sit wherever’, and you are trying to remember protocol and she says ‘It’s all rubbish, just get in.’”
...And in public she herself was often thinking about something you’d never expect
Discussing the nightmares of having to ask ahead about the type of terrain you’d be walking on before planning footwear, Michelle said: “I am trying not to fall, which is a major thing I think about in public. You want to think I am thinking deep thoughts? I am thinking, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall.’ One of my primary goals for the eight years was never to become a meme.”
9. Use fashion that works for you
“My primary goal with fashion is to wear something that makes you feel good,” she said of the lessons she’d learnt from being a woman in the public eye, knowing her image would be scrutinized constantly.
10. Learn how to like yourself
“It takes time; it’s a process. So for young people out there, especially in 20s and 30s you may not like you yet because you haven’t explored enough, you haven’t seen yourself pushed through the hard times. It takes time,” she said, before sharing her key trick. “You have to eliminate the people who do not add value in your life.”
11. Stay hopeful – even in the current political climate
“Change is not a straight line,” she said. “We mistakenly thought that Barack Obama was going to erase hundreds of years of history in eight years. That’s ridiculous. To think that that would happen. We’re putting down markers and we make progress. Going backwards doesn’t mean the progress wasn’t real; it just means it was hard. What we’re trying to do is shift culture, we’re trying to overcome hundreds of years of racism and segregation born out of slavery and injustice.”