Is there someone you look up to? Someone whose Instagram you constantly stalk? Whose words hold a heavier weight than others? Who seems to be living the life you hope to have one day? We all have someone like that in our lives. You might even be that person for someone else and you just don't know it.
"We are living, breathing role models, not just in what we say, but what we do," said Former First Lady Michelle Obama on her Spotify podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast. "No matter what we say, young people are watching what we do."
Decades ago, Obama (then Robinson) was watching her boss, Valerie Jarrett, at the Chicago Mayor's office as Jarrett worked as the head of planning and economic development and stopped a meeting to take a call from her daughter. "I didn't even know she was paying attention to that, but it had a profound impact on her," Jarrett told Seventeen.
"I thought baller," Obama said. "I was like, 'She just flipped. She was like the head of economic development one second and Laura's mommy the next.'" She continued saying, "That made us all more productive and feel like not just our work had value, but our lives had value."
But it's not just once you reach the workforce that you become a role model. In fact, it begins a lot earlier than that.
"I don't care if you're twelve or ten, there's somebody younger, who is watching you, they are watching how you carry yourself, how you laugh, how you make fun of things, what you wear, there is always somebody, right behind you, looking, at how to be," Obama said on the podcast. "And in that way, we have to carry ourselves with the knowledge that we're always setting the tone for people behind us."
Eventually, Jarrett and Obama's relationship became more formalized as mentor/mentee. Jarrett showed Obama the ropes of how to be a working mother in a male-dominated industry. She advocated for her and taught her lessons. But mentorship is not a one-way street.
"It's rooted in relationships and relationships are, by definition, reciprocal," Jarrett said. "Now, one person might be senior and be wiser and have more experience, but I've learned a lot from the people I mentor."
Now, 30 years later, Obama and Jarrett are contemporaries and together they are advocating for the importance of mentorships. Though, they stress that finding a mentor is not easy.
"Sometimes I make speeches and people come up to me after the speech and they say, 'Will you be my mentor?' and I say 'No, go find somebody who knows you, who cares about you, who's invested in your success,'" Jarrett said. She stresses the importance of earning a mentorship. One way to do that, is to tell your personal story. "Often times, we're so busy trying to show we can do the work, that we're competent, organized, and disciplined," she said. "That is all essential, but you also have to enable people to care about you and they only care about you if you open up and tell them your story."
The first time Jarrett met Obama, it was in a job interview. While Jarrett had Obama's resume in front of her, she didn't look at it once. "What I remember is she told me her story about her dad and best friend dying in the past year and that is what motivated her to question whether she was leading a purposeful life and so she decided to pursue a career in public service. That's what I remember nearly 30 years later."
"That's the ground floor of mentorship," Jarrett continued. "Earning mentorship is being vulnerable and opening up and telling your story to the people who get to know you, not just what you do, but who you are."
So, whether it's the captain of your soccer team or your boss at work, there are mentorship opportunities everywhere you go. "People think mentors are famous people, people with titles, and, you know, achievements, people that they see out in the world," Obama said. "But, we are all role models." Yes, that means even you. Chances are, there's someone out there looking up to you, seeing you lead a group project, or run for class president, wanting to emulate that behavior and learn from your experiences.
"The one thing I don't like is the people who have a platform who say, I'm not a role model," Obama continued. "And it's like, well, you, you have a choice, then don't be out there, because if you are being seen in any way shape or form, there is somebody looking up to you, and I want young people to realize that mentorship starts early. And it starts right in your own backyard."
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