What I learned from Michelle Obama about success

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Michelle Obama speak at Oregon State University’s commencement ceremony. Her message, though simple, emphasized a lesson many of us strive to learn: we must define success on our own terms.

During her speech, Michelle shared that while earlier in life she and her brother — who is the head of Oregon State’s men’s basketball team — pursued corporate careers, they weren’t happy, “We still had all the traditional markers of success with a fat paycheck, the fancy office, the impressive lines on our resumes. But the truth is, neither of us was all that fulfilled. I was living the dream, but it wasn’t my dream.”

Following our dreams?


Makenzie (far right) with her family at her brother's graduation.

I see this same sort of tension in my family. Before heading to OSU’s graduation ceremony, I attended my brother’s graduation at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. I was so proud of him as I watched him walk across the stage to receive his much deserved degree. Fortunately, he has an awesome internship for the summer as a photographer for a newspaper in Oregon. However, like many others, he is already worried about the next steps after his internship: will he be able to find work he loves and be “successful?”

His experience has shown me how challenging it can be to answer this question. On the one hand, focusing on the future can be exciting as you think of potential opportunities to explore. At the same time, this can also be scary; as much as we might like to plan, the road ahead is often very unclear, and, well, life doesn’t always go according to plans.

Recipe for success

Michelle addressed this uncertainty in her speech by encouraging us to figure out what we value, what we love, and to let those things guide us. So whether you’re like my brother in a transitional phase of life, looking for your first social change gig, or thinking of launching a social venture, I think there are lessons you can learn from her speech:

1. Focus on what you have.

“No matter what struggles or setbacks you face in your life, focus on what you have, not on what you’re missing. Graduates, more than anything else, that will be the true measure of your success. Not how well you do when you’re healthy and happy and everything is going according to plan, but what do you do when life knocks you to the ground and all your plans go right out the window. In those darkest moments, you will have a choice: do you dwell on everything you’ve lost, or do you focus on what you still have, and find a way to move forward with passion, with determination, and with joy?”

2. Define success on your own terms.

“Success isn’t about how your life looks to others, it’s about how it feels to you. We realized that being successful isn’t about being impressive, it’s about being inspired. And that’s what it means to be your true self. It means looking inside yourself and being honest about what you truly enjoy doing, because graduates, I can promise you that you will never be happy plodding through someone else’s idea of success. Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own.”

3. Don’t leave behind unfinished business with the people you love.

“What makes life truly rich are the people you share it with. If you’re in a fight with someone, make up. If you’re holding a grudge, let it go. If you hurt someone, apologize. If you love someone, let them know. And don’t just tell people that you love them–show them. And that means showing up. It means being truly present in the lives of the people you care about.”

I think we all can use a good reminder to enjoy the richness of our own lives.

Do you have a message to share with the class of 2012 about being successful? Share it below. Or join us on Facebook and Twitter to continue the conversation.

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Graduating? Five tips to manage your student loans

Our thanks to Heather Jarvis for this post. Heather is a former capital defense attorney and long-time public service advocate who provides free tools and information for student loan borrowers and the people who love them.

Congratulations to the Class of 2012! It’s time to get a grip on those student loans you’ve been pushing to the back of your mind. Update your contact information with your lender, read every piece of mail you get about your loans so that you can figure out a plan that works for you, and check out my five top suggestions.


It's a lot to think about, but you can do it! (Photo: Scot Campbell, Flickr/Creative Commons)

1. Pull together a list of your loans and see what you’ve got.

Your options will depend on what kind of loans you have so the first step is getting a clear idea of what you owe. Use the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to learn your balance, your loan “servicer”, and your “repayment status”. Private student loans won’t be listed on NSLDS, but you should be able to find them on your credit report.

2. Figure out when your first payment will be due.

Federal Stafford loans have a six month grace period before your first payment is due. The grace period for federal Perkins loans is nine months. The grace periods for federal PLUS loans and private student loans vary and will be listed on your paperwork or you can contact your lender for that information. Know when your first payment is due.

3. Decide whether to consolidate your student loans.

A consolidation loan combines multiple loans into one. You can consolidate your federal student loans through the Direct Loan program, but NEVER consolidate federal loans into a private student loan. You’ll lose the flexible repayment options and borrower benefits like loan forgiveness programs.

Consolidation typically makes sense when:

  • You want to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness but some of your federal loans are FFEL loans (only Federal Direct Loans are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness). Find out if you have FFEL loans using the National Student Loan Data System.
  • You have variable rate Stafford loans (from 2006 or earlier). Interest rates adjust on July 1, 2012.

4. Determine which repayment plan is best for you.

Federal loan payments will automatically be based on a standard 10-year repayment plan unless you choose a different option. If payments under a standard 10-year repayment term are not affordable for you, find out about your other options.

Income-Based Repayment caps your monthly payments at a reasonable percentage of your income each year, and forgives any debt remaining after 25 years of affordable payments, or after just 10 years of these payments for borrowers who work in public service. Beware of relying on forbearance to postpone your student loan payments. Interest continues to accrue on student loans during forbearance, and many borrowers should consider Income-Based Repayment instead.

Private loans are a different story. Read all the paperwork carefully and ask your lender about your repayment options. They vary between private loans.

5. Learn more about how to handle your student loans.

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