Michelle Obama’s Becoming as a forum exercise: Becoming me. Becoming more. Becoming us.

Michelle Obama writes powerfully in her autobiography, Becoming, about her own life, but her words speak directly to me:

“It’s not about being perfect,” Michelle says, “it’s not about where you get yourself in the end. At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.”

Michelle continues, “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim.  I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach towards a continually better self.”

“The journey doesn’t end,” she goes on.  “I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children.  I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person.  I have become by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.”

“It’s all a process,” Michelle concludes, “steps along a path.  Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor.  Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”

And Michelle goes further in the three major sections of the book which are called:

  • Becoming me,
  • Becoming us, and
  • Becoming more

Throughout the arc of her life story, Michelle recognizes, over and over again, that the becoming is never done.  And though she didn’t intend it this way, I read her autobiography as a lesson directed at me.

I am not finished becoming the best version of me when I connect to my wife in marriage, and I’m not done evolving my marriage and other relationships, even as I also devote myself to larger community and professional goals.

  • Becoming me is about my practices of mindfulness, gratitude and purpose, turning inward, so I can then turn outward.
  • Becoming us is about my connection with my wife, and also about all of the other relationships I want to cultivate and nurture. How can I relate authentically and humanely on a one-on-one basis, including making amends when I have wronged others?
  • And becoming more is about my communal and professional commitments. I relate this to giving back, paying it forward, leaving my small part of the world at least a little better than where I first found it.

Every day represents a new opportunity to become a better “me”, a better partner, and a better contributor to the larger world.

Reflecting on Michelle Obama’s words in forum, we might explore:

  • Michelle observes that the continual act of becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. In the coming year, what do each of us need more of, patience or rigor, or something else?
  • What does “becoming me”, “becoming us”, or “becoming more” mean for each of us?
  • How can we, in our forum, support each other in becoming more of who we want to be?

With the support of our forum, may each of us be able to say a year from now: I’m not done becoming, but I’ve made some progress.

Exploring strengths and weaknesses

The following questions can be used separately or together to frame a great conversation on how forum members see their strengths and weaknesses, and how that might affect their professional trajectories and career paths.

  • Which of your strengths might others say you overuse or rely on too much?
  • Describe how one of your strengths is also a weakness.
  • What might change in your job or business that might make your current strengths less useful?
  • What is the next professional transition you face?  If there a strength you need to give up to successfully make that transition?  What new strength do you need to develop? What weakness might emerge or become more important?
  • Describe a weakness or flaw of yours that hasn’t hurt you yet, but might in the future.

Acknowledgement: These questions are suggested by USC Professor Morgan McCall in his leadership exercise “Hedge Your Bets.”

Where would you “seat” yourself today?

The New Yorker recently published a cartoon that shows a host at a restaurant about to seat a couple.  He asks them: “Do you want me to seat you in the ‘Had sex this morning’ section or the ‘Had a fight this morning’ section?”

All-in-one, the cartoon is funny, sensitive, and revealing.  And as a icebreaker question, it may have nothing to do with sex.  Share the cartoon at the beginning of your forum meeting and ask everyone to respond:

Where would you “seat” yourself today?  Are you in a good frame of mind, or are you cranky, sad or angry?  Or are you somewhere in between, some mix of thoughts and emotions?

Forum sparks: Watch a TED talk!

Watching an inspiring, provocative TED talk can be the beginning of a great forum conversation. Choose a talk in advance, watch together, and then use these prompts to start your conversation:

  • I feel…, and I’m reminded of a time when I…
  • I’m wondering if…
  • I might apply the speaker’s ideas in this way…
  • I would like to watch this talk again with… [spouse/boss/team/others] because…

Choose your own favorite talk, or consider using one of the following:

Holding each other accountable in forum

In forum we withhold judgment, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.  In fact, one of the most powerful uses of forum is for me to hold myself accountable to a certain goal, commitment or deadline; with the other members of the forum serving as my witnesses.

If your forum wants to focus more on personal accountability, consider these possibilities:

  • Any member can voluntarily ask to be held accountable to report back to the forum at a specific future date on their progress/action related to a specific goal.
  • The forum can designate one member to serve as the accountability/commitment “secretary” who will ask about any pending items, either at the beginning of the meeting or during updates.
  • This SMART goals template can be used by any member to ensure that any goals they set are S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-framed.

Possible conflicts: Can I be in forum with this person?

Your forum is considering adding a new member, and one current member is concerned about a potential candidate, saying some variation of:

  • We have close mutual friends.
  • Our spouses are close friends.
  • The CFO of my company is a good friend of this person.
  • This potential forum mate had a close, longstanding relationship with one of my co-founders and their spouse.
  • We were in the same MBA class, executive education program, or section at business school.

In situations like this, it’s important to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.  The key question: Can I be open and honest about all aspects of my life with this possible new member?

Additional clarifying questions:  What is the exact nature of the relationship?  How close is it in practice?  Is there regular contact/communication? (Sometimes people say they are “close” but rarely see each other.)

Keep in mind that in YPO, members and their spouses are usually each in a forum, are friendly with many other members and spouses, and see each other regularly at monthly chapter meetings.  There are many close relations, but forum confidentiality is still fully respected.  Everyone keeps in mind the clear boundaries between what is said in forum and what is shared in other settings to avoid violating forum confidentiality.

In summary, there is no simple answer – neither an automatic rejection, nor a blind acceptance of the new member.  The nuances of each case must be carefully considered.

It’s the hard days who determine who you are

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of FaceBook, and author of the bestselling book Lean In, was invited to speak at the University of California commencement in 2016.  She chose to talk not of what she has learned in life, but of what she has learned in death.

She related the tragic story of how, a year before her husband Dave, age 47, had died suddenly of a previously unknown cardiac issue. She shared the challenge of deep adversity, and “of what you can do to overcome adversity, no matter what form it takes or when it hits you.”  Sheryl went on to say:

A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”

Sheryl concluded: “We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do then?”

I reflect to myself: How have I responded when Option A was no longer available to me:

  • When a professional colleague of mine died too young of cancer and the opportunity to collaborate with him was lost?
  • When I expected to receive a job offer that never came?
  • When a treasured business partnership came to an end?

I am inspired by Sheryl who said:

Dave’s death changed me in profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.

As a forum, consider reading Sheryl’s book on this topic, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, or this shorter version published in the Boston Globe.

Then discuss as a forum:

  • What have been some of life’s toughest challenges for me?
  • How did I deal with them?  What role, if any, did gratitude play?
  • Almost all of us will face deep adversity at some point in our lives.  How can forum be a sounding board and resource now and in the future?