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What I Learned From Michelle Obama About Success

A group of people smiling. One of them is in a graduation robe and cap.

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Michelle Obama speak at Oregon State University’s commencement ceremony. Her message, though simple, emphasized a lesson many of us strive to learn: we must define success on our own terms.

During her speech, Michelle shared that while earlier in life she and her brother — who is the head of Oregon State’s men’s basketball team — pursued corporate careers, they weren’t happy, “We still had all the traditional markers of success with a fat paycheck, the fancy office, the impressive lines on our resumes. But the truth is, neither of us was all that fulfilled. I was living the dream, but it wasn’t my dream.”

Following our dreams?

I see this same sort of tension in my family. Before heading to OSU’s graduation ceremony, I attended my brother’s graduation at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. I was so proud of him as I watched him walk across the stage to receive his much deserved degree. Fortunately, he has an awesome internship for the summer as a photographer for a newspaper in Oregon. However, like many others, he is already worried about the next steps after his internship: will he be able to find work he loves and be “successful?”

His experience has shown me how challenging it can be to answer this question. On the one hand, focusing on the future can be exciting as you think of potential opportunities to explore. At the same time, this can also be scary; as much as we might like to plan, the road ahead is often very unclear, and, well, life doesn’t always go according to plans.

Recipe for success

Michelle addressed this uncertainty in her speech by encouraging us to figure out what we value, what we love, and to let those things guide us. So whether you’re like my brother in a transitional phase of life, looking for your first social change gig, or thinking of launching a social venture, I think there are lessons you can learn from her speech:

1. Focus on what you have.

“No matter what struggles or setbacks you face in your life, focus on what you have, not on what you’re missing. Graduates, more than anything else, that will be the true measure of your success. Not how well you do when you’re healthy and happy and everything is going according to plan, but what do you do when life knocks you to the ground and all your plans go right out the window. In those darkest moments, you will have a choice: do you dwell on everything you’ve lost, or do you focus on what you still have, and find a way to move forward with passion, with determination, and with joy?”

2. Define success on your own terms.

“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 inspired. And that’s what it means to be your true self. It means looking inside yourself and being honest about what you truly enjoy doing, because graduates, I can promise you that you will never be happy plodding through someone else’s idea of success. Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own.”

3. Don’t leave behind unfinished business with the people you love.

“What makes life truly rich are the people you share it with. If you’re in a fight with someone, make up. If you’re holding a grudge, let it go. If you hurt someone, apologize. If you love someone, let them know. And don’t just tell people that you love them–show them. And that means showing up. It means being truly present in the lives of the people you care about.”

I think we all can use a good reminder to enjoy the richness of our own lives.

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