As a Nigerian millennial, my earliest recollection of a First Lady was Stella Obasanjo.
I’ve always been interested in politics and government, so I also read up on other First Ladies like Maryam Babangida who was the wife of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Nigeria’s Head of State from 1985 to 1993 and Maryam Abacha who is the wife of the late General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s military ruler from 1993 to 1998.
From as far back as I can remember, these Nigerian First Ladies were always very fashionable, opinionated and outspoken on a number of good causes. So when the world stood still on November 4, 2008, as Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States of America, I couldn’t help but stare at his wife, Michelle.
Yes, this man had just achieved the impossible but all I could think about was: what was on Michelle’s mind as she took the stage at Grant Park, before an estimated crowd of 240,000, with Barack and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
And in the eight years that followed, I was in awe of this strong black woman, as she transformed before our very eyes. The lawyer, and now accomplished author, literally became an icon. She wasn’t blinded by her position and her husband’s power but instead, she showed us all what was possible and used even her style to make political statements and show off her personality.
So when she released her book, “Becoming” in 2018, I was so excited to read it. The utterly compelling book further proved why she is EVERYTHING. In her words, “so little of who I am happened in those eight years, so much more happened before” and with “Becoming”, I got a front-row seat to it all.
According to publisher Penguin Random House, “Becoming” sold more than 10 million copies less than five months after its release. 700,000 copies were sold on the first day, 1.4 million in the first week, making “Becoming” the fastest-selling book of 2018. Experts say it will be a tough record to beat, even for her husband, Barack Obama, who has yet to release a memoir of his presidential years.
And then Netflix announced the icing on the already juicy cake. They were going to release Becoming, a documentary tied around the former First Lady’s book tour.
As a young woman with big hopes and dreams, I couldn’t watch Becoming without breaking out in tears and huge sobs!
I mean, I read the book but seeing the crowds? Michelle Obama pooled rockstar-level crowds! One of the events in Seattle had over 18,000 people!
And the lessons? Wow!
Here are fourteen (14) lessons everyone has to take away from the documentary:
- In Michelle’s words, “Be: optimistic without being naïve; undaunted by conflict, and intrigued by how complicated the world is”.
- One key thing for me is how she and Barack treat everybody. You can tell how much she values every encounter, and that is an important lesson for me. In Michelle’s words, “If we can open up a little bit more to each other and share our stories, that’s what breaks down barriers.” Everyone you encounter is important.
When you meet or speak with people, never underestimate them or belittle their stories. “When somebody walks up to me, don’t look around, don’t look beyond them. Look them in the eye, take in the story,” Michelle said in Becoming.
- In one of the scenes, Michelle’s sitting with young high-school students and one of them, Elizabeth Cervantes, talks about how she isn’t anything special and how she wondered why she was chosen to be a part of the session. Michelle asked her what her story was and eventually gave me one of my biggest takeaways from the documentary, be unashamed of who you are.
You have a beautiful story, do not be afraid to tell it. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own,” Michelle wrote in Becoming. In her words, “we can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.”
- Resilience. I mean the sheer determination she has put into everything she has achieved. In Becoming, Michelle recollects a college counsellor who outrightly told her she wasn’t good enough for Princeton. But not only did the former First Lady bag a degree from Princeton, her resolve saw her through to Harvard Law School, to a career in marketing and intellectual property law where she met Barack, to a stint in public service, to be the First Lady and now to Becoming? It pays to stay determined and focused.
On perseverance, Michelle wrote, “You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once. But, don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own”.
- Use your voice. “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others,” Michelle wrote in Becoming.
When she got all the backlash on Barack’s campaign, she didn’t run, she didn’t hide, she stood her ground and made the world eventually love her. Use your voice. Don’t sink. Don’t disappear. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s the power of using your voice,” Michelle wrote in Becoming.
- Which brings me to my next point; Never stoop. We all remember Michelle’s popular line, “When they go low, we go high.” My mum always says, “Love always wins. No matter who they are or what they’ve done. You can’t lose when you’re on the side of love.”
- Never Judge A Book By Its Cover. If Michelle did, she wouldn’t be married to Barack today. Michelle was working at the Sidley Austin law firm when she met Barack, who she was asked to mentor.
According to Michelle, Barack was scrawny and drove a beat-up yellow Datsun, but he had that voice she just couldn’t resist. In her words, “I had to talk to him on the phone. And he’s got that Barack Obama voice that did not match the nerdy image I had in my head. I really was like, ‘Whoa!’ The heat was coming out of the phone from that voice.”
Barack was late to their first meeting, which didn’t sit well with the future First Lady. She even declined his initial advances but 16 years later, they became the first African American family to become the first family of America.
- Healthy relationships are important. Never forget those who stand with you through it all. Michelle in Becoming spoke about the bonds she has fostered with her Chief of Staff, Melissa Winter, who has been working with the Obamas since 2007 and her personal security detail, Allen Taylor who has been protecting her for more than a decade.
“Allen is more like a brother than he is an agent,” Michelle said in Becoming, “He was my first experience of having a detail — so that’s 12 years of a relationship, if not more.”
- Change Is Inevitable. And if it’s one you’re fighting for, it is possible! Do I need to say more? Barack, with Michelle’s help, did the impossible. He became the first African American president of the United States of America and he was for eight years.
- Here’s another key lesson that wasn’t as pronounced in the documentary but highlighted in the book. “Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.”
- Prepare for the future you want and have the audacity to seize opportunities as they appear. Don’t be shy, take them on.
In Michelle’s words, “I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working-class and has been told regardless of the colour of your skin that you don’t belong, don’t listen to them. They don’t even know how they got at those seats”.
- And what did Michelle say about helping others? “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you,” Michelle wrote in Becoming. “You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
- Understanding and appreciating success is a big thing for me, so taking another look at Becoming, the book, I noticed Michelle’s words, “Success isn’t about how your life looks to others. It’s about how it feels to you. We realized that being successful isn’t about being impressive, it’s about being inspiring,” Michelle wrote. “That’s what it means to be true to yourself.”
- And the simplest and easiest lesson of all? Have fun! Enjoy life. It really is short.
P.S. Can we talk about the storytelling?
As a Marketing Communications professional, I live for a well-told story!
Produced by the Obamas’ entertainment company, Higher Ground Productions, the documentary not only teaches us, storytellers, a thing or two about engaging younger audiences, but also includes invaluable life lessons.
While this might not be a biopic, “Becoming” is relentlessly on brand and the ideal prototype for a great story well told.
Written by: Enitan Kehinde