Cover Julia Roberts and Michelle Obama

The former US First Lady was characteristically candid at a closed-door event for Obama Foundation Fellows in Kuala Lumpur. Here are six lessons on life, love and leadership that she shared

She's a renowned lawyer, academic, author and the first African American First Lady of the United States. Last week, she even won a Grammy. And still, Michelle Obama speaks of suffering from "imposter syndrome"—the feeling that you don't belong at the highest tables. 

The admission was one of several moments of candour from the former First Lady, as she addressed a roomful of young leaders assembled for the Obama Foundation's inaugural Leaders: Asia-Pacific summit in Kuala Lumpur. Also on the agenda: learning to "drown out the haters" and resisting the occasional urge to push her husband out of a window—"not a high one, just a low one."

Here are highlights of the session, which was in conversation with actress Julia Roberts, who toured Asia with the Obamas in support of their foundation's initiatives, and moderated by former Miss Universe and activist Deborah Henry.

(Related: 5 Incredible Life Reminders, From Michelle Obama’s Best-Selling Book)

1 / 6

The future of the world is only as bright as our girls

“Truth isn’t just going to come from the mind of a male, it’s going to come from all of us. If we’re under-investing in half the people on the planet, I guarantee we’re missing some answers. There are millions of girls born with a hunger to do something. I know because I was one of them. To have that not be invested in, that’s what sinks hopes, that’s what stagnates minds, that’s what wastes resources. It’s unspeakable, it’s wasteful and it’s not a smart move for the planet, that’s why we started the Girls Opportunity Alliance."

(Related: Championing Better Lives For Underprivileged Women And Children At The Education Benefit Gala 2019)

2 / 6

Talent often begins with parents who believe in your voice

“My parents were not wealthy or well connected, and neither of them went to college. We were from a poor family, but they gave me the belief that the words that came out of my mouth were clever and interesting. Tell a kid they are valuable: it costs nothing and means just as much as anything money can buy. Some families believe that if they can’t buy their children stuff, they can’t do anything. It isn’t true: teach a girl that her voice matters, and she will believe you. And we have to be the light in the lives of people who don’t get that from home. If I see a kid, I’m going to take a moment and look them in the eye and show them that this person sees them. That matters more than school fees and bikes ever will."

(Related: 5 Women Entrepreneurs You Need To Know In Singapore)

3 / 6

Don’t drown out the positive and drink up the negative

“We all struggle with that. You can get a hundred ‘Atta boys’, but the one person says, ‘That’s stupid’, and you repeat it over and over again. Be mindful of the positive energy you get every day and drown out the haters. We as humans tend to practise the opposite, and constantly focus on what we don’t like about ourselves: ‘What do I have to fix?' ‘What’s wrong with me?’. Train yourself to look at your strengths and assets rather than dwell on the negatives, and if you have kids, teach them those values."

(Related: 5 Women On What Living Fearlessly Means To Them)

4 / 6

Work out what you need to do to find balance

“When I was First Lady, it seemed like I was doing a lot of public appearances, but I was also raising two kids. So I decided to be 'on' three days a week, and on those three days I would have hair and make-up in and be on from 6am to midnight. But once I take these lashes off, don’t even ask me to come downstairs. The days when I wasn’t working I was on the soccer field, at the school and working out, but for those three days I was working, we hustled. That was the balance I found—I was more organised and more focused that way, and I learned that well before I got to the White House."

"Before I found my balance, I was driving myself crazy and there was no joy. If you take care of your health, life is long and there are chapters in it, and that balance changes as your life does. When I was First Lady, I could never take a two-week trip like this because of my kids. I felt that they were living in the White House already, which is crazy enough as is. We would do this trip in four days and see nothing of the places we were in, but that was the choice I made at the time."

(Related: 6 Lessons In Leadership and Life From Barack Obama You Need To Read Right Now)

5 / 6

Marriage is hard. It’s worth it, but it’s hard

"We have a lot of young people on our staff, and I always tell them marriage is hard, and if they’re struggling, they’re not the only ones. You’ve got two individuals who were raised differently, coming together to build a life, which means you have to agree and compromise every day of your life. And then kids come along and they’re hard. It’s a hassle. But we don’t talk about that. We think about the wedding and the dress and the ceremony, so when young people get in a marriage and experience the truth of it, they think it’s them, but it’s not. It’s marriage."

"When Barack and I got married, we understood there could be periods of time that could be hard. We both learned to work through the challenging times, we worked on getting marriage counselling. Sometimes you can’t do this on your own, you need someone else to help you mediate, and that’s okay too. Sometimes you want to push your spouse out a window—not a high one, just a low one. You don’t want him hurt, just injured. Sometimes Barack and I connected, sometimes, not. Relationships have ebbs and flows."

(Related: A Look Back At Queen Elizabeth II And Prince Philip's Royal Marriage)

6 / 6

Learn to tackle 'imposter syndrome'

“I’ve sat on a lot of boards, I’ve been around some of the most important tables in the land, and let me tell you, there are a lot of people who don’t belong there. At first, I thought it was me who didn’t belong, but then I realised, 'Nope, it’s not me, it’s that guy'. But there’s a presumption that he does, he’s always been told that he does. The person sitting next to you was told he belongs there and you were told you don’t. But that doesn’t mean anything."

"All I can say is that age helps you with imposter syndrome. I have been waiting to be as bad people told me I’d be. I was told people like me didn’t belong at Princeton. I got in. I was waiting for everyone else to be so much smarter—they weren’t, they were just told they belonged there. Same with Harvard Law. And after a while, you get used to it. With all the practice of going into the room you weren’t supposed to be in, you start knowing your thoughts and experience and insights are just as valuable as that guy's. He isn’t giving up his seat, believe me. They’re not going to do that for you, those guys don’t want you there a lot of time. Nobody else can give you the self-confidence—only you can do that."

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.