“Go High”
The Light We Carry

“Go High”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama provides warm, heartfelt advice for coping with life’s difficulties, honoring your strengths and vesting in self-kindness.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, served as an associate dean at the University of Chicago and VP of its Medical Center and practiced law in a big Chicago firm. In her second book, following her bestselling autobiography, she offers useful life tools and recounts how she relied on her parents’ wisdom, her friends, hard work and her strong sense of self. Obama writes of befriending her inner critic and confronting her fear of change. She shares her famous motto: “When they go low, we go high.”


Going high is work – often hard, often tedious, often inconvenient and often bruising.Michelle Obama

Obama admits she lacks a system for dealing with inequality and unpredictability. Instead, she turns to a “toolbox” of resources to get through hard times and regroup when she feels insecure. Obama shows compassion for those living with fear and uncertainty; she shuns negativity and cynicism and shares ideas about how to forge ahead.

To understand your fear, she says, identify it. Don’t shrink from challenges.For example, when you’re scared to apply for a promotion or meet new people, you are keeping your world small, so you can stay comfortable.Ask yourself, Obama urges, if daring to take a new step would enlarge your world.

Michelle Obama’s eight years in the White House didn’t eliminate her fretful doubts; instead, she came to regard her fearful worrying as an uncomfortable “life partner.” That insight enabled her to acknowledge her fears and to understand that her discomfort stemmed from her insecurities.


Start your day with self-kindness, Obama advises. Share a positive smile with your friends and family members and give one to yourself. Replacing self-criticism with appreciation can keep you centered even when others don’t acknowledge you.

When Obama arrived as a freshman at Princeton University, for the first time she was living somewhere where most of the other people were young, white guys. She realized the United States’ overall population more closely resembled the ethnic mix on Princeton’s campus than it did the variety of people in her multicultural Chicago neighborhood.

Obama found a community of friends at college, people with whom she could swap stories about similar experiences. Together, they could acknowledge the loneliness of being an “only” – for instance, the only Black woman in the room.


When you start to rewrite the story of not-mattering, you start to find a new center.Michelle Obama

Obama’s self-confidence coalesced as she embraced her height, race and background. She let her activities and her behavior reveal her personality. She validated herself instead of waiting for others’ approval. Harking back to her own experiences, Obama says she was spurred to greater resolve to pursue her dreams when her high school guidance counselor told her she wasn’t “Princeton material” and when a security guard tried to bar her way to her graduation celebration.


When Michelle Obama met Barack Obama, he was a summer associate at her law firm and renowned for his intelligence. As his public profile grew, Michelle found he remained the same solid person he’d been when they first met. The Obamas choose to commit to each other, work through their issues, and live in the ordinary spans of time between wonderful and awful.

Our marriage is what we launch from and land in, a place where we can each be thoroughly, comfortably, often annoyingly ourselves.Michelle Obama

Obama advises seeking a partner who is capable, prepared to persevere through difficult times and able to accept you, even when you are not your best. Find someone who will share the goal of being able to face the world as a united team.

Mrs. Robinson

The family closeness Michelle Obama knew in Chicago continued in the White House when her mother, Marian Robinson – “Mrs. R” – came to live with the family. Mrs. R. came to the White House to help care for Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia; anything else that happened in Washington, DC was irrelevant to her. When Michelle had doubts about motherhood, Mrs. R taught her to trust her own judgment.

If there was something new we needed to learn, she’d show us a way to do it and then quickly step aside.Michelle Obama

Mrs. R. made sure her grandchildren felt loved and could stand on their own. She believed parents should allow children to be themselves and that a parents’ goal is to become obsolete as their children grow and become independent.

Mrs. R. told her children they could always come home to a warm welcome. Shortly before the Obamas left the White House, she went home to Chicago without fanfare or a farewell party. She’d accomplished what she’d come to Washington to do, and that was that.

Your Stories

Become comfortable with your stories, Obama advises, and accept them. Keeping parts of yourself in a vault depletes your energy and harms your confidence and sense of self. Your stories are the “source code” of what makes you strong. Sharing your struggles can help other people feel less alone.

If you want to break barriers… you’ll need to find and protect your own boundaries.Michelle Obama

Feeling separated from other people is especially difficult when you have to “code-switch”: that is, change the signals that people read to assess your identity so that you can direct their assumptions. Obama’s parents taught her to speak with correct diction. This helped her at Princeton, but kids in her childhood neighborhood teased her for acting beyond her status. Obama learned to adjust her behavior and language depending on her environment. Code-switching is a “survival skill” for many people of color, but she finds it drains the code-switcher and undermines the uniqueness of different people and cultures.

High Wire

As the first Black First Lady, Obama’s agility, which had served her well as a young female attorney in a predominantly male environment, proved invaluable. Faced with negativity and insults, she decided “to go high,” an attitudinal tool that can help you define your boundaries, select sides, make hard decisions, and frame how you choose to fight or resolve problems.

I don’t believe there are tidy solutions or pithy answers to life’s big problems.Michelle Obama

Going high is a motto for a lifetime, not a single day or issue. For example, reacting to negative voices on social media is the antithesis of doing the real work needed to create change. Living the concept of going high means choosing when to fight based on your future goals. She urges readers to acknowledge their anger and frustration while working toward a better future.

A Revealing Portrait

Michelle Obama offers a revealing portrait of insecurities and social uneasiness that may surprise those familiar with her serene public presence. She directly addresses issues of being Black in America as a child, college student and well-known public figure. She writes with tender practicality about what it takes to make a relationship thrive over the years while honoring your partner’s idiosyncrasies and life rhythms. Readers will find Obama’s kind, clearheaded advice and her strategies for coping with inner fears useful and effective.

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