Most people are familiar with the Obamas’ origin story: how Michelle was Barack’s mentor during his summer internship at a prestigious Chicago law firm. But what was new to me was how that time was also a major turning point in Michelle’s career path. In her conversation with Michele Norris (of NPR’s All Things Considered fame), Michelle described herself as a “box-checker.” As an ambitious, young, black woman, she laid out a plan for herself and stuck to it:
- Attend Princeton – check
- Graduate cum laude – check
- Attend Harvard Law School – check
- Become an associate at an impressive law firm – check
But there were a few things she hadn’t planned for. The first was meeting her decidedly not a box-checker husband (She laughed as she said, “He didn’t know what boxes and checks even were.”). The second was realizing that she didn’t want to be a lawyer. She described sitting in her office on a high floor of a skyscraper in downtown Chicago, pushing paperwork around, and asking herself what the value of it was.
She talked to her family about her feelings and asked them if they thought it was too late to change course. And she laughed as she recalled the story for us, exclaiming, “Of course not! It’s never too late. Even if you’re 70, if you want to change careers, it’s still not too late.” So she went in a new direction. She worked for the Mayor of Chicago, then directed a nonprofit called Public Allies which encourages young people to engage in social activism, then worked to develop University of Chicago’s Community Service Center.
Michelle talked about taking the time to identify where and when she had felt happiest and most satisfied in her life, and how that led her to seek out jobs in community development and activism, especially on behalf of young people. And she took full advantage of the opportunity she was given as First Lady to expand the scope of that work to include as many people as possible.
Michelle Obama is quite possibly the most successful ambassador I can imagine for the idea that finding work you love takes time, and doesn’t always happen on the first try. It may not have been the most obvious path, but all of her collective experiences better prepared her to be impactful in her next role. Studying sociology at Princeton and getting her law degree at Harvard and working as a lawyer prepared Michelle to be the most effective advocate she could be for the young people and college students and Chicagoans she served in her career and the American citizens she served as First Lady. It’s not an original concept, the idea that the path to a satisfying career may not be smooth or linear; but hearing it from Michelle Obama made it feel shiny and new again.