Michelle Obama Talks Failure, Work-Life Balance and What She Tells Her Girls About Starting Out

Those those with large platforms are "setting the tone for people behind us," the former first lady said on the latest episode of her podcast

Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett
Former First Lady Michelle Obama (left) and Valerie Jarrett. Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty; Roy Rochlin/Getty

In the latest episode of her podcast, former First Lady Michelle Obama recounts her time in the workplace and why having women in leadership roles is so important.

Wednesday's episode — a conversation between Obama, 56, and former boss Valerie Jarrett, who went on to be a senior White House adviser — centers largely on work-life balance.

Obama said that working with Jarrett, 63, served as a "important education," not just because of the way the latter could command a room but because of the effort Jarrett put in to taking time out for her daughter, Laura.

Remembering her time spent working under Jarrett (then deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley), the former first lady said to Jarrett on The Michelle Obama Podcast: “If Laura called, everything stopped … And you wouldn't rush her, you know, you would answer her little 5-year-old questions. And then you would say, 'Mommy will be home,' then you'd turn back around without skippin' a beat and be right back in it, and I thought — baller! Baller.”

Seeing Jarrett and some of the other female leaders making an effort to balance work and family life, Obama said, “made us all more productive, and feel like not just our work had values but our lives had value.”

In their chat for The Michelle Obama Podcast, the two also detailed their first meeting, when Jarrett interviewed Obama for a role at the Chicago mayor's office in the early 1990s.

The two had similar backgrounds, having both come to the public sector after working for law firms. "I have to tell you Michelle, I can still remember you walking into my office and you were so, you know, composed and confident," Jarrett said. "And what did you do? You told me your story, which is unusual for people to do in an interview."

That story was about Obama finding herself at a crossroads. She had lost both her father and one of her close friends within a year and had determined that she wanted to pursue a new path. According to Jarrett, the interview left her so impressed that she offered Obama a job on the spot, even without having "any authority" to do so.

After leaving Chicago politics, Jarrett went on to work as an adviser to President Barack Obama, serving in his administration from 2009 until 2017.

On Wednesday's podcast, Mrs. Obama also shared stories about her conversations with her own daughters — specifically 22-year-old Malia, now finishing college — about the importance of paying your dues when it comes to landing a leadership role.

"I tried to make the point to Malia that the young people ... who are my mentees, I reminded her that they started out, several of them, in the campaign, doing some of the grunt-iest jobs," Mrs. Obama said.

Many of those who once volunteered for the campaign, or did entry-level work, she said, are now working alongside the Obamas. "But the people who are with me now, and who now have responsibilities over my schedule, or they've helped run a big book tour, or they are running, our higher ground productions and working with Netflix, almost all those people started out doing some grunt work," she said, laughing.

Equally important to working ones way up the ladder, Obama added, is learning that failure is all part of life.

"I never want young people to think that failure isn't a part of everybody's journey," she said, noting that she failed the bar exam the first time she sat for the test.

"What does it do for me if ... some kid thinks I've never had a failure, that that's the only way you can be first lady, is if you're perfect? No one is," she said.

Elsewhere in the episode, she and Jarrett spoke about the need to use their platforms to encourage others.

“We are living, breathing role models — not just in what we say, but what we do,” said the former first lady, who added later in the conversation that those with large platforms are "setting the tone for people behind us" and should always be aware of how their words and behaviors might be perceived.

The words echoed Mrs. Obama's past remarks about role models. In a 2016 speech while campaigning for Hilary Clinton, she offered a damning review of then-candidate Donald Trump's remarks about women, saying, "Strong men — men who are truly role models — don't need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful."

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