How Michelle Obama Found Her Light (And You Can, Too)

The former First Lady shares the small daily practices that make her shine so damn bright — even “in times of great strife and uncertainty.”

Michelle Obama

Miller Mobley

There are two words that have been overwhelmingly used to describe the time since Covid-19 arrived, while newly invigorated white supremacist ideologies fanned the flames of long simmering systemic racism in the United States. One: unprecedented. And two: dark. And as winter descends again, bringing with it a virus season our hospitals seem ill equipped to handle; tech companies snap back to slimness with mass layoffs, and daylight savings leaves each day shorter than the one before, that darkness feels more literal than ever. It’s right on time, then, that Michelle Obama brings out her characteristic light.

In her new book, The Light We Carry, the former First Lady opens up about the trauma — both personal and shared — of experiencing those locked-in and isolating early days of the pandemic (she took up knitting!); the 2020 election, which felt like a rebuke of what she and her family stood for; and the manifold disasters unfurling right outside her window all the while. But rather than wallow in those down moments, she finds the small spark within herself and starts there to bring out more brightness. She asks, “What is it to have a light if you are not using it to shine on others?”

Below, Obama breaks down her strategies for being the human embodiment of shine. Give it a try. What’s that saying again? If you reach for Michelle Obama, you’ll land among the stars.

First, see who’s at your kitchen table. 

“‘Kitchen Table’ is a term I use for a group of close friends who are always there for me. They sit with me, figuratively and literally, as I go through life,” Obama says. “They are the people I turn to at times of happiness and joy, stress, and sadness — the folks I lean on to help me navigate moments of trial, keeping me steady and grounded through it all. At any given time, you can find us discussing everything from nail art, TikTok, and Tinder to race relations and global events.”

Who’s at hers? “Some of them I have known for decades, even longer than I’ve known Barack. My friend Valerie Jarrett is a good example. I’ve looked to her for mentorship and guidance for more than three decades, and she’s meant a great deal to me and my family throughout the years.”

Setting your table doesn’t have to mean securing decades of intimacy (or a presidential advisor). Obama adds that former playdate parents are also at hers, and that its makeup changes over time. “People have come and gone from the table throughout my life. What’s most important for me is that these are folks with whom I can just be unconditionally myself. And I hope they feel I give them the space to be themselves as well.” 

Plan for positivity.

No one would second-guess Michelle Obama’s ability to execute on a plan, and so it’s no surprise that her infectious positivity is something she’s put proactive measures against, as well. I like a plan — a yearlong plan, a five-year plan — and in my plan is using my light for others,” she says. “I just do the work; that's my job. That's a yearly strategic process. Then, the day-to-day just happens. Because if you have a big plan, every day there's something that you need to do to get it done. As a planner, that's my tool.”

“We don't do this thing called life alone.”

“First of all, you have to see yourself. You have to take the time to know who you are, your likes, your dislikes, to confront your fears,” Obama says. “It's internal work first. And then it's building a community of support. We don't do this thing called life alone. And that community should be big and broad. It should be family, friends, coworkers. I think the more people we have around our table, the less lonely, the more able we are to see ourselves in context with others.” 

This next tip is probably the most important one.

“Share your light. I mean, what is it to have a light if you are not using it to shine on others? And it creates a sense of purpose and fulfillment that we all need, that keeps us going,” she says. That may mean holding a door, making those end-of-year donations, asking how someone’s doing and truly hearing what they need to say, or simply flashing a smile when you enter a room (be the Michelle Obama you want to see in the world!).

“It's not enough for us to hoard our light, to just keep acquiring more and more for ourselves, when so many people, so many folks around us, need something,” she says. “So, build your light, build the community that supports your light, and share your light.”

Michelle Obama The Light We Carry


Focus on your own small power.

A firm believer in cleaning up your own house first, Obama’s advice for cultivating more light in the world begins at home. “If you're a parent, are you tending? Are you seeing the light in the child that you brought into the world? [Being] accountable to those little people, making sure that they were seen and felt?” she asks. And it’s not just about little people, but tending to small actions in the everyday, no matter how big the problems we’re facing may feel.

“A lot of times when we're faced with big problems, we think the answers have to be big. I've said in the book, and it's not a saying I coined, but oftentimes great is the enemy of the good. If we can't do everything, then why do anything? And that's a self-defeating notion, when the truth is that most of the power that each of us has is really small power. It's the things that we solely can control. It's the knitting on our laps. For young people, it's like, don't try to change the world or fix climate change. Go to school. That's your knitting. Right now, do that. That's within your control. Do your homework. Finish the steps right in front of you.”

According to Michelle Obama, starting small works even when it feels like nothing will. “In times of great strife and uncertainty, I think, don't think big all the time because big gets overwhelming. There are limits to big power. The President of the United States has limited power. The President of the United States cannot fix your school, does not have the authority. That's state power. It gets smaller and smaller. So I encourage people, control what you can and don't look too far ahead, because that gets daunting and then you give up. And what we can’t afford is for anyone to give up in these times.”

The Light We Carry is available now where books are sold.

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