Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, Becoming, sold more copies than any other book published in the U.S. that year, breaking the record after 15 days. Now, two years later, the beloved former first lady turned that memoir into a beautiful Netflix documentary of the same name that combines footage from her book tour, old family photos, personal interviews and real interactions with people. The production, editing and music are all fantastic and showcase Michelle’s graceful persona and hunger for personalized connection. Here are eight important lessons from Becoming through Michelle’s quotes, in order of when they occurred in the documentary:
“You have the world watching every move you make. Your life isn’t yours anymore.”
As the first lady, Michelle was arguably the most watched woman in the U.S. Every gesture, every comment and every decision was subject to mass scrutiny, and after eight years plus the campaign trail, that was exhausting for her. Now, during her book tour, she is completely unplugged. She feels a sense of relief sharing her story with people and being away from the pressures that the White House bring. Though it’s not to the same scale, we are also subject to scrutiny through social media, employers and even just friends.
It’s important to not only present yourself in a manner that’s appropriate and good-hearted, but to have that sense of understanding when coming to quickly judge someone you don’t know. Michelle was slammed in the press for giving Barack a fist-bump at a rally, but it wasn’t anything like the press made it seem. We can’t always judge the book by its cover and should practice great understanding and patience when it comes to the decision to judge someone.
“Sharing somebody’s story gives me perspective that I need that I don’t get because all of my interactions are kind of sanitized. So this is how I relate to people, and it helps me stay connected.”
Michelle feels really passionately about her interactions with young people. She holds them to a higher standard and expects the best from them because they are the future of the country and the world. But her interactions and outreach with young people aren’t the only ones she focuses on; every time she has a book signing, she tries to create meaningful connections with everyone she meets by asking them questions or listening to their stories and giving them her full attention. Like Michelle, we should all work to elevate young people and create meaningful interactions with people we meet because it helps to create connections and can impact others in ways we might not even realize.
“It’s not getting back on track, but it’s creating my next track.”
After leaving the White House, Michelle felt a great sense of confusion as to what life would be next. She knew she wanted to do something great but needed to take time to figure out what that would be. A lot of people asked her what it was like to get her life back to normal after having such a crazy eight years, and she responded by explaining that there’s no way to go back to the old track she was on. Instead, she and her family must create a new track with new goals and dreams to discover. Like Michelle, we should also work to find new tracks when big life events derail old ones. There’s no such thing as “normal” because for everyone, it’s different. It’s about finding what is right for you, and that requires changing up the tracks every now and again.
“We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it … So you’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible and to be heard and to use your voice.”
Michelle encourages young people to chase after any dream they want. No matter what race, class, gender or sexuality people come from, she and her husband are walking proof that dreams are achievable. She phrases it as “coming down from the mountaintop” to tell all people that they should chase after their dreams and desires because a lot of the people at the top don’t even know how they got there in the first place.
However, she knows that there is a lot of bigoted behavior and oppression for certain races or sexualities, so she encourages people to stop waiting for the world to be equal to make yourself known, but rather to use the tools you were born with or have been given throughout your life to prevent yourself from being invisible. Especially for young people, she wants them to raise their voices and make themselves known.
“I knew he was a tsunami coming after me, and if I didn’t get my act together, I would be swept up. I didn’t want to just be an appendage to his dreams.”
When Michelle first met Barack, she was his mentor. They quickly fell in love, and Michelle immediately knew he was a different kind of man. He would always spend his time thinking about serious issues, like income inequality or the fate of the black community, and Michelle knew he was going to do great things. This inspired her to really take stock of her life and figured out what she cared about, and she realized she was just going through the motions with practicing law. She didn’t want to just be Barack’s wife or just be the first lady.
She wanted to take her life into her own hands and make something great of herself. She talks about how Barack prioritized himself in a way, and Michelle found that instead of resenting him for that, she could take her happiness into her own hands and do things for herself rather than relying on Barack to make her happy. Like Michelle, we should all stop and think about the things that are important to us and figure out what it is we care about and want to pursue and not let our happiness reside in the hands of another person, but rather create that sense of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves.
“When Barack was first elected, various commentators had naively declared that our country was entering a ‘post-racial era’ in which skin color would no longer matter. Many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that were tearing our nation apart.”
When Barack became the president of the U.S., there was a large part of the country that believed that equality for African-American people had been reached. But there was ongoing violence against black people and even threats to Barack himself. She knew that one election wouldn’t change the course of black people’s lives forever, but rather, it was a step in the right direction.
Overlooking systemic racism does nothing but pose destruction for the country, so it’s important to be realistic about racial equality and understand that it’s a concerted effort that will not happen overnight. It requires work from all parties every day. As Michelle says, if we’re going to get anywhere with each other, we have to be willing to say who we are. She says “I am the former first lady of the United States and also a descendant of slaves. It’s important to keep that truth right there.”
“Barack and I, throughout this presidency, through the lies and the stuff they said about us, all we could do was wake up every day and do our jobs, and let our jobs and our lives speak for itself.”
Michelle and Barack were always subject to scrutiny. Though it’s important for the scrutinizers to take a look at what they’re saying and step back to think about whether or not it’s the right thing to do, it’s also important for the people being scrutinized to refuse to let words keep them down. People can say what they want about you, and you have no control over that. What you do have control over is how you conduct yourself, the reputation you build for yourself and how you choose to let others see you. If you are a good person who works hard and is confident in yourself and who you are, then no amount of scrutiny can stop you from being your best.
“We’re only human … We had to be bigger, and we had to go high. The higher up you go, the higher up you have to be.”
In response to Gayle King’s question about whether or not Michelle still lives by her iconic saying “When they go low, we go high,” Michelle said, “I try. We’re only human.” She talks about how when they were in the position of power, they had to maintain this saying because there was too much power to be any form of careless. But now that they’re out of office, it’s been slightly harder to maintain this because they’re only human. This is true for every situation. You can receive all of the lessons and advice you want, and that’s great in theory, but in practice, it can be challenging. Everyone is going to make mistakes. It’s just a fact because we’re all only human. The real testament to someone’s character is how they handle those mistakes and how they build up their own reputation.
Michelle believes that people are good, the country is good and there is a lot of hope for us. She encourages us to remain hopeful and rally around others to create the best nation we can possibly be, but it all starts with creating your own good character and radiating that to others.