[YS Learn] Michelle Obama's book Becoming has life lessons for startup founders

A symbol of grace and dignity, former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, offers valuable advice for entrepreneurs in times of adversity.
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Empowering is one word that can define Michelle Obama, former US First Lady, and an attorney and author. Her book, Becoming, is now a Netflix documentary in which she talks about her life and journey to the White House. What stands out is the sincerity and honesty of her words. 

Her book promotes the idea of “evolution” over “arrival”. 

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim,” she writes. “I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” 

Here are key lessons from the book for startup founders. 

Grace takes time and practice

Obama’s remark, “When they go low, we go high”, during the 2016 US presidential election, showed the world she was a person who tackled bullying with dignity and class. But this didn’t come easily. 

In the book, she admits it wasn’t easy keeping her cool in the face of the racism and extreme behaviour she experienced. But what kept her going was a firm sense of who she was. She believed that becoming angry and bitter would mean that her bullies had won. Grace, therefore, needs time and practice. 

This is an important lesson for entrepreneurs as well. Even as your company grows, you may face criticism and trolling on social media and many will question your beliefs. But as long as you are right, focus on what you want to achieve. 

Perfection is a work in progress

Ask any founder and they would attest that their initial plan went through multiple changes to align with ground realities. This holds true even if you are a stickler for detail. 

As Obama says, “I was a box-checker — marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result — a devoted follower of the established path.” But she learnt it was important to let go of being perfect.

It is about managing your time and energy with what you can and can’t do. There will always be external factors that can upend the best-laid plans. It is, therefore, necessary not to hold on to perfection too strongly. 

Ideas, innovation spring from the unlikeliest of places

When Obama started babysitting for a mentor at Princeton, she didn’t realise it would lead to running a day care centre that catered to professors’ wards. But it did. As the saying goes, chance favours only the prepared mind. Ideas and business plans can emerge when you least expect them to; all you need to do is keep your eyes and ears open. 

As she says, “We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.” 

Set an audacious goal 

Founders are known to set audacious goals. Yet, walking on the small paths can be difficult. But nothing should stop you from trying. Reach out for what you want and you might just get it. 

One of the examples Obama cites in her book is that of a school-sponsored trip to Paris. While she had gotten into one of the most prestigious high schools in Chicago, she lacked the background of her fellow classmates. She didn’t even tell her parents about the trip, as it would cost too much money. But then her parents told her it wasn’t for her to decide. Soon, she was on a plane to France. 

Seek help, everyone needs it 

“There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States,” Michelle writes in the book. Overwhelmed by the way her life was changing, she took all the help she could. Her focus was on trying to get things under control rather than appearing to be in control. 

While there are several books, memoirs, stories, and handbooks that entrepreneurs can turn to for self-help and advice, ground realities can trip even the most seasoned ones among them. Market scenarios, product shifts, and consumer needs will always change, and none of these might be found in handbooks. So, seek help and advice as much as you can. 

Edited by Lena Saha

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