9 Remarkable Life Lessons I Learnt From Barack Obama
Barack Obama may have left the White House, but his legacy lingers on. The former President of the United States left his mark wherever he went. Here are the nine lessons we’ve learnt from him.
1. Learn From Your Father, Even If He Wasn’t A Good One.
Barack Obama’s life story, starting with his father’s departure when he was two years old, is the equivalent of a doctoral programme in abandonment, dislocation and healing. And the last of these can come about only when you truly come to terms with the first two. As Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, makes it abundantly clear, he was one twenty-something who took the time to understand exactly what it meant that his father left the family.
During our interview, I cite the complex relationship between Bush I and Bush II, and ask if his absent father have an impacted on his presidency. “I would like to think that most of the issues related to my father have been resolved,” he says, pointedly. “That’s part of what writing Dreams from My Father was about: understanding him, his own personal tragedy. He wasn’t a presence in my life, he was an idea that I had to wrestle with for a long time. “Somebody once said that every man is either trying to live up to his dad’s expectations or make up for his dad’s mistakes. And I’m sure I was doing a little bit of both. But I feel that somewhere in my late twenties or early thirties I sort of figured out what his absence had meant. It is part of what I think has made me a pretty good dad. There’s no doubt that it has contributed to my drive. I might not be here had it not been for that absent father prodding me early in life.”
2. Be There For Your Family, Even If You’re Not Around
I wondered if his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Malia and Sasha, might join him on the day’s trip, to participate in his blow-out-the-candles moment. But Obama had boarded the plane with staffers, not family members. So he himself is something of an absentee father on his big day. I ask him about it. “Yesterday was the birthday celebration,” he tells me. “We get everything in, just not always on schedule when it’s supposed to happen. Yesterday I sat on a lounge chair in a friend’s back garden, watching my girls and Michelle dance. It was as nice a moment as I’ve had in a long time. “I don’t miss the important things. I haven’t missed a dance performance. I haven’t missed a parent-teacher conference. But there are some things I do miss and those are some of the trade-offs you make. But, look, there’s no question there are sacrifices involved here. I’d like to say that quality time replaces quantity, but sometimes it doesn’t. You know, a lot ofthe best moments of family life happen spontaneously. If you have less time to devote to them, there are fewer of those moments. What I’ve been able to do is create a zone of normalcy for my kids. Michelle’s been wonderful. I’ve been able to transmit to them my absolute interest in them and my absolute love for them.”
4. Make The Future Your Focus
Another loss in the Obama family: the way a child’s life changes in the glare of campaign lights. He notes that his daughters were young – five and eight – when he had to explain the upheaval that was about to shake their family. He may as well have been talking about his plans to file income taxes. The kids cut to the really important stuff: “Their main concern was, ‘When are we going to get a dog?’ They did ask about what they called ‘secret people’, which were the Secret Service folks. ‘Are we going to have to have these people with sunglasses and earpieces following us around all the time?’ And I told them, well, not right away. They adjusted wonderfully. And I tried to make sure that they didn’t have to participate too much in the political process.“The pledge was” – he couldn’t help making campaign promises, even to his kids – “they’d get their dog, win or lose.”
Related: Barack Obama’s Speech Lessons
4. Turn Early Lessons Into Big Successes
Sarah Palin might not be too impressed with Obama’s days as a community organiser, but he built that modest beginning – putting together coalitions of voters across Chicago – into an organisation that was unlike anything the US electoral process had ever seen. It was a classic example of applying a lesson learnt on a small scale to the biggest challenge of a lifetime. Clearly, he knows how to manage groups. By the time your outfit has its own plane, it’d better have a solid pilot. “I’m part of an organisation,” he says, “and one of the things I really try to push is to make sure that everybody is focused on the two or three things that are really going to be game changers. I ask them to design my schedule in a way that focuses not just on what’s coming at us, but on being active instead of reactive. We’ve been successful. I don’t spend a lot of time returning phone calls or emails. If somebody needs something, most of the time there’s somebody else who can handle it. Eliminating TV has been helpful.” Wait, a confession: “I’m still a sucker for SportsCentre,” he notes. No distractions until Sports Centre comes on? No wonder he seems so calm all the time. The goal of his organisation, he says, is to clear time for job number one: “The most difficult thing is to carve out time to think, which is probably the most important time for somebody trying to shift an organisation, or in this case, the country, as opposed to doing the same things that have been done before. And I find that time slips away.”
5. The Government Isn’t Your Nanny
The organisation theme comes up again when I raise a pet peeve: that the US government maintains at least seven offices devoted to women’s health, but no office of men’s health. This despite the fact that men die earlier than women do of heart disease, stroke and cancer. I’m hoping to enlist him in the battle. Nothing doing. “I’m not sure we need an office,” he says. “We need to have an awareness built in throughout various agencies charged with improving health. I’ll give you a specific example. My grandfather died of prostate cancer. As men age, regular check-ups are critical. But it’s hard to get them to go in for that mildly unpleasant check-up. Increasing awareness of the difference it could make shouldn’t just be the activity of the Department of Health.”
And then he launches into a story involving a friend of his. It’s a theme he returns to again and again as we talk: a world peopled with friends who taught him lessons, reminded him of what was really important, reproached him in a useful way.“A good friend of mine who was the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health designed this wonderful programme targeting black men, where health information was provided through barbershops. The idea was that a lot of black men under-utilize doctors and don’t talk about health much. But they go to the barbershop, and that’s where they kind of let loose. The department designed programmes where clinics at different barbershops would provide various health screenings and talk about prevention. Those kinds of strategies have to be developed and targeted, perhaps, because a lot of the time we’re more resistant to going to doctors. That kind of thinking should be embedded in a lot of the work we’re doing.”
6. Quit Smoking (As Often As You Need To)
For all of Obama’s physical credentials, he’s carried around the ultimate health taboo – smoking – for most of his adult life. And he inhaled, all right. Then word came that he’d quit smoking. “There wasn’t some dramatic moment,” he says. “Michelle had been putting pressure on me for a while. I was never really a heavy smoker. Probably at my peak I was smoking seven or eight a day. More typical was three. So it wasn’t a huge challenge with huge withdrawal symptoms. There were a couple of times during the campaign when I fell off the wagon and bummed one, and I had to kick it again. But I figure, seeing as I was running for president, I need to cut myself a little slack.” He does have advice for people, like him, who are wrestling with the dependency. “Eliminate certain key connections – that first cigarette in the morning, or after a meal, or with a drink. If you can eliminate those triggers, that should help.”
7. Don’t Let Them See You Sweat
One of the sillier controversies during his first campaign broke in the middle of a heat wave: did Barack Obama sweat? Ever? A story went out, accompanied by head scratching from members of the press, about people being unable to recall a single instance of campaign-trail perspiration. Yet nobody seemed to consider that he sweats less because he’s in such good shape. It’s obvious he’s an athlete from his physical grace alone. The way a guy carries himself can tell you a lot about him.
Obama moves like a silky small back, which is part of his appeal. I witnessed a showcase of his physical skills upon our arrival in Lansing, as he executed the perfect plane dismount while waving at the Secret Service guys. And I’ve reviewed his action on the basketball court: a fluid, high-pressure basket while visiting troops in Kuwait; a YouTube clip of him during a three on-three game, demonstrating equal facility with the drive, the step-back jumper and the dish. When he’s in the thick of the action, everybody on the court is involved.
8. Show Others The Way To Common Ground
When you’re a Kenya-Kansas hybrid, you either drive yourself nuts trying to sort out your identity or you find common ground among opposites. By all accounts, that nose for synthesis is why Obama’s classmates selected him to be president of the Harvard Law Review. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives had the votes to elect their chosen candidate. But in Obama, both groups saw a guy who would give their side a fair shake. And he did.
Years later, Robert Putnam, a social scientist and political theorist, hosted seminars at Harvard’s Kennedy School on how to rebuild the country’s broken sense of community. And he recruited an obscure state senator named Barack Obama to participate. “Barack Obama was one of the youngest in the group,” Putnam told me. “At the beginning of our sessions, he stood back a little bit, listening to the others. But often around noon, you’d hear him say, ‘Well I hear Jane saying this, and Joe saying that, but both Jane and Joe would probably agree on this more fundamental point.’ Now, these were big-ego people he was dealing with, but he made his mark. It’s a skill the country needs now: an emphasis on synthesis, rather than divisiveness.”
9. Avoid Disappointing Others; Don’t Disappoint Yourself
No surprise here. It’s something he’s thought about a lot: “I always try to make sure that my expectations are higher than those of the people around me,” he says. “A lot of people have a lot at stake. I try to explain in an honest way how difficult some of the changes I’m talking about will be. But I never want the effect to be that I’m not working as hard as I can on their behalf… that I’m not continually trying to improve. I’m glad for the high expectations. One of the interesting things about this is that it really does push you to the limit and then some. And it turns out that you have more in your reservoir than you expected.”
Originally published on menshealth.com