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Sunday, February 17, 2019
Michelle Obama’s Becoming has useful lessons for career development professionals
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Michelle Obama’s Becoming has useful lessons for career development professionals

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I have admired Michelle Obama for a long time – the epitome of grace under pressure in my view – and I was looking forward to reading her memoir Becoming to learn more about her back story. About a third of the way through the book (the point at which she decides she hates her corporate law job and wants to ditch a career in law altogether – in spite of having a Harvard JD, plenty of self-imposed expectations and a significant student loan to pay off), I realized that this book had something to teach me professionally.

When I was a student in Mohawk College’s Career Consultant Certificate program, instructor Lidia Siino provided a very succinct checklist for jobseekers from the perspective of a hiring manager:

  1. Can you do the job?
  2. Will you love the job?
  3. Will you make me look good?

I have used this checklist with clients many times in my own practice, refining and expanding it to:

  1. Do you have (most of) the qualifications for the job?
  2. Will you love the job (location, salary, co-workers, work space, hours, etc.) long enough to make our investment in you worthwhile?
  3. Will you make my life easier?

Becoming crystallized for me that the second question is by far the most important one for prospective employees and employers alike. Based on what I learned from the book, I will now further refine it as “What do I require to thrive?” and make helping my clients answer that question the focus of my work with them.

Am I good enough?

Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s south side, Michelle (Robinson) Obama writes that she spent much of her childhood “listening to the sound of striving.” Her aunt Robbie, who lived in the apartment below, demonstrated exacting standards as a piano teacher. Her parents made very clear that they were entirely invested in their two children achieving more than they had, and that education would be their ticket out and up.

Throughout the book, Obama frequently comes back to a question she first asked herself as an elementary school student: “Am I good enough?”– “Good enough to be in the highest reading group?”; “Good enough to be in a magnet high school?”; “Good enough to apply to Ivy league colleges?”; “Good enough to apply to the top law schools?”

“Obama frequently comes back to a question she first asked herself as an elementary school student: ‘Am I good enough?'”

At one point, in a moment that should make all career consultants cringe, a high school guidance counsellor tells her, “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” In other words, “You’re not good enough.” Obama proves her wrong, getting into Princeton and then getting into Harvard Law School; it isn’t until she is actually practising law at a prestigious firm that she starts to question her path.

What do I require to thrive?

Obama starts her quest for a more fulfilling career by confiding in her mother that she isn’t happy in her job, that she’s desperate for a change but worries about not making enough money if she does. Her mother tells her, “If you’re asking me, I say make the money first and worry about your happiness later.” But now she has another major influencer in her life, Barack Obama, who seems oblivious to all the material things a thirty-something lawyer is supposed to be pursuing. He puts his faith in the idea that if you stick to your principles, things will work out.

Although never articulated as such, Michelle Obama begins to reflect on what she requires to thrive both professionally and personally (and the two are often entangled). Her requirements change as her life begins to change, most significantly when she and Barack have children and when his career has him spending most of the work week in another city.

In her memoir, Obama is generous about sharing what worked for her and in acknowledging all the people who helped her along the way, from career mentors who demonstrated an alternate path, to parents who allowed her to live in their home rent-free, to a boss who agreed to her request for flex time and the option of working from home.

Obama’s honesty and her genuineness (sharing, for example, the times when her weekly lunch hour was spent at a strip mall scarfing down fast food from Chipotle while she scrambled to run family errands) makes her so relatable that I am not surprised that Becoming continues to top bestseller lists. I have recommended the book to many people as a really good read. But my recommendation to any career development practitioner is to read this book for what it has to teach you. In my opinion, it will be time well spent.

Caroline Burgess
Caroline Burgess, CCDP, has spent her entire career in STEM. Trained as an engineer, educator and career consultant, she has experience and contacts in industry, research and government. She has been a mentor or coach to emerging adults pursuing careers in STEM since 2004.
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Caroline Burgess
Caroline Burgess, CCDP, has spent her entire career in STEM. Trained as an engineer, educator and career consultant, she has experience and contacts in industry, research and government. She has been a mentor or coach to emerging adults pursuing careers in STEM since 2004.
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