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 spirituality and religion in forum

Our religious and spiritual beliefs and practices can be a powerful theme to explore in forum.  One way to do so is as follows:

  • Invite each member to take about 5 minutes each to answer these questions:
    • The religious/spiritual background of my family of origin was…
    • As an adult, I still believe/practice the following…. I no longer….
    • (Optional, if relevant) My spouse’s religious/spiritual background was…. He/she still believes/practices the following….  He/she no longer….
    • My (or my family’s) current approach to religion and spirituality is working/is not working for me in the following ways…. And here’s how a feel about that….
  • After all have shared this background, members are invited to respond and resonate with each other, sharing what moved them, the emotion they felt, and what new memories or experiences came up for them.
  • At the end, go around the circle and each member shares a new insight, perspective, or question they are taking away from the conversation.

No problem is being solved, but important experiences and feelings are shared, helping all members get to a deeper level of self-awareness on this important topic.

Note: Members may appreciate knowing about this exercise and having the opportunity to prepare in advance.

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?

When two forum members begin dating …

I was recently asked by a forum how they should respond when informed that two members have begun dating.  I was told the forum had good dynamics; everyone liked each other; and the group was functioning well. The remaining (non-dating) forum members were reluctant to make a quick decision with some members trying to understand what options might be workable for allowing them to remain. Others were wary of the conflict.

I shared the following thoughts:

  • The fundamental question: Does the new relationship between two members (in this case, dating), prevent any member from being fully open, honest, engaged and committed to the forum? It is essential that everyone speak their truth and clear the air if the forum is to maintain a healthy dynamic.
  • Normally this would be a situation where one member would leave, but there is no reason both need to leave.
  • Another forum I observed had two members who were business partners. They were happy and the rest of the group accepted it. My personal view is that this undermines the ability to share and trust, but everyone in the forum is a consenting adult, and that could be the case with this dating couple as well.
  • The forum should discuss future scenarios: What if the couple gets married? What if they break up? Even if the group accepts that both can remain for now, does everyone (not only the couple) reserve the right to raise concerns in the future? The last thing you want is an elephant in the room that no one can discuss.
  • Finally, in light of this new relationship in the forum, see this other blog post of mine on “Known and Safe, Safe and Known.” Invite all members to read this poem, and then to respond to the questions at the end of the post.

Safe and known, known and safe

The following beautiful poem by Merle Feld, called “Dreaming of Home,” was recently brought to my attention.

We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged,
nurtured, encouraged, heard. 

And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.

And safe,
safe in all our trembling vulnerability. 

Where we are known and safe,
safe and known. 

Is it possible?

We might ask ourselves and our forum mates if our forum is such a place?  If yes, we are truly blessed.  If not, what further questions might we ask?

Five Essential Questions in Life… and in Forum

James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in his commencement address this year, suggests that there are five key questions we must regularly ask ourselves.  His questions also strike me as great ones to ask of each other during a forum meeting.

Dean Ryan argues that, if we get in the habit of asking these questions, we’ll have a great chance of being both successful and happy. In this six minute excerpt from his talk, he explains why he highly recommends these particular questions:

  1. Wait, what? (a question at the root of all understanding)
  2. I wonder, why/if? (a question at the heart of all curiosity)
  3. Couldn’t we at least…? (a question at the beginning of all progress)
  4. How can I help? (a question at the base of all good relations)
  5. What really matters to me/us? (a question that gets you to the heart of life)

Dean Ryan ends with a final bonus question: “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” Life even at its best is filled with pain, sorrow and disappointments.  Still, even so, he asks, are you living a fulfilling life?

If you ask the first five questions regularly, you just might be able to answer the bonus question, “Yes, I did.”

What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team …

A recent New York Times Magazine article profiled Google’s efforts to enhance the efficiency and productivity of its teams.  What Google found to be effective at work parallels what we have known for a long time about healthy forums.

Perhaps the most important point: Great teams (and great forums) ensure “psychological safety,” a sense of confidence that the group will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.  Psychological safety leads to a team or forum climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

As your forum begins its next meeting, ask yourself and each other:

  • Do I/we feel safe in this group?
  • Can I share my toughest challenges and highest aspirations without feeling that I will be judged?
  • Do our forum norms (the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function) reinforce our sense of psychological safety?

Should a member take a sabbatical from their forum?

Forums sometimes ask about members taking a “sabbatical” for a period of time or participating on a remote or limited basis.  Several considerations if your forum finds itself in this situation:

  • If a member cannot commit to participate regularly, a sabbatical may be the best choice.  If everyone else is very committed, and a member is sort of in and sort of not, it is not great for forum health.  Everyone (including the partly committed member) could get frustrated pretty quickly.
  • If everyone agrees that a member will take a sabbatical, it should be for a clearly defined period, typically no more than one year.
  • As the end of the designated time period approaches, the forum should revisit the member’s status.  Is the member rejoining with everyone’s agreement and commitment, or would it be better for the member to permanently resign?  No one’s status should not be left indeterminate or open ended.
  • Before a sabbatical or resignation, invite the departing member to give an “exit” presentation.  The theme can be around goals for the sabbatical or long term life goals.  The presentation can end with everyone expressing appreciation for the member’s contribution to the forum.
  • If, instead of a sabbatical, a member is going to stay in and participate remotely, see these best practices for virtual participation: https://alumniforumblog.com/2013/09/09/attending-your-forum-meeting-virtually-the-right-way-to-do-it/