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Former first lady Michelle Obama had a successful career as a lawyer before marrying her husband and future 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Even in the years while Barack served in state politics and later moved to the U.S. Senate, Michelle continued working full-time, though she switched careers and led nonprofit organizations.
In speeches she gave during her time as the first lady and in her memoir "Becoming," she pulls lessons from her extraordinary life experiences and doles out career advice useful to recent grads, industry veterans or those seeking a mid-career switch.
Don't be Afraid to Fail
This is the refrain she mentions again and again. Whether during talks at one of the many International Women's Day conferences she attended over the years or speeches to schoolchildren and college grads, she implores people of all ages to embrace failure.
In an interview with Refinery29, Obama asks us to stop fearing failure.
“So often, our own fear of failure is the thing that keeps us back. We think we have to be perfect, that if we make even the tiniest mistake, it’s a catastrophe. That’s simply not true! In fact, the only way you succeed in life is by failing and failing well,” she said.
Instead, she wants us to learn from mistakes and use past failures as building blocks to create a stronger foundation. She also reiterates that without allowing ourselves to fail, we can’t take risks or step outside of our comfort zone.
Abandon Your Desire to be a People Pleaser
In a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Obama talked about overcoming fears and self-esteem issues: "... our first job in life as women, I think, is to get to know ourselves. And I think a lot of times we don’t do that. We spend our time pleasing, satisfying, looking out into the world to define who we are."
She explains that it's hard to create a meaningful path or define what goals are important to you if you spend the majority of time worrying about how to succeed in a way that pleases other people. Instead, Obama encourages focusing on doing the best work you think is possible and finding work that makes you feel successful and happy.
She stresses that the definition is different for everyone, and that's OK.
It's OK to Change Your Mind
Similar to adopting the mindset that failure is good for growth, accepting that sometimes you need to pivot – a term she relies on heavily in the book – enables you to learn from failure and success, then adapt.
There are several chapters in "Becoming" about the laser focus that got her through undergrad and law school and landed her a job at a prestigious firm. But once she got there, she learned she didn't actually like her job or career trajectory. In order to find a work/life balance and inner happiness, she needed to redefine success and explore paths that led her a more balanced and rewarding life.
Seek Out a Mentor
Those who read "Becoming" know that the former first lady is a huge advocate of mentorship. That's how she met Barack: He was assigned to be her mentee at the law firm where she was on the partner track.
While at the White House, she founded a program mentoring high school girls in the area and remains committed to programs that match up those in similar career paths.
"I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for 10 minutes in a busy day, it matters," she explained. "It matters especially for women, for minorities, for anyone society is quick to overlook."
Kristin Amico is a career and business writer who spent more than a decade managing creative teams at digital agencies. She has written for The Muse, The Independent and USA Today.
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