Friday, January 23, 2009

Life Lessons from the Obama Presidency

On January 20, 2009 Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Reflecting on the significance of this event and the long years that preceded it, ten inescapable truths emerge, truths that have the power to transform our lives.

1. Nothing is Impossible

There is never a shortage of well-intentioned (and not so well-intentioned) people eager to tell you your dream is impossible. Characterizing themselves as sober realists, (and by implication everyone else as drunken dreamers) naysayers take pleasure in their own cleverness and in holding you back. Give them a hug, thank them, and go about the business of accomplishing the impossible. Just a few months ago, let alone two years ago, you couldn’t spit without hitting someone saying “Obama’s great, but he’ll never make it to the White House”.

2. Assume the Best in People and That’s What You’ll Get

Barack Obama won the presidency largely because he reached out to people traditional political operatives counseled him not to bother with. Entire states the Gore and Kerry campaigns skipped over became ripe recruiting grounds for Obama’s operation. Obama and his team believed it was stupid and self-defeating to write off entire regions, as if human consciousness is bound by state lines. Obama lives by this truth: you teach people how to treat you by the way you treat them. His deep respect for the common man and woman is genuine. People feel it, and they respond. It is an unshakable spiritual law that you attract not what you want, but what you are. Obama teaches us that our most pressing and effective task is self-cultivation. His not-so-secret weapon: the only real way to inspire people to their own greatness is to cultivate your own.

3. Hope and Faith Trump Despair and Fear Every Time

Despair and fear seem to be our default setting, the way digital clocks flash 12:00 when you unplug them. Obama’s presidency invites us to plug back in and set our own attitudinal clocks. Despair and fear may be cheap and easy but they create nothing. Nothing was ever built with the consciousness of scarcity and lack. Hope and faith, on the other hand, are the twin engines of transformation both on the personal level and the global level.

4. Our Assumptions are Usually Wrong

In light of these first three truths, it seems clear that we have a problem. Perhaps the problem is not with the world. Perhaps the problem lies within the way we see the world. Our attitudes, biases and assumptions are the biggest barriers to our own success and happiness. Many people assumed Obama had too many obstacles to overcome, namely, that not enough white people would vote for him. In fact, the opposite occurred. White people put him in office. The ascendancy of Barack Obama reminds us that we are more often wrong than right. And this begs the obvious question: what are we wrong about today?

5. There is Deep Wisdom in Common People

Our arrogance and cynicism prevent us from seeing a simple truth: either everyone has the light or no one has it. One of Obama’s strengths is his willingness to look past appearances – the circumstances of his own life taught him that. One of the most challenging and beautiful principles of democracy is the conviction that every single human being is a being of infinite value, a rational agent who if left to their own volition will seek the good. Especially if inspired by the aspirations of those around them. We move forward, lashed together like the logs of a raft, bound by the strength of our convictions and our common fate. Even the least among us adds to our strength.

6. If the Game Seems Rigged, Start a New Game

Early in Obama’s presidential aspiration it became clear that he could not compete with Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine. As a young unknown he lacked the connections to adequately tap into the traditional streams of political cash flow, streams the Clintons had nurtured for decades. He could not win that game. So he started a new game. He went directly to the American people and bypassed the usual deep pocket sources. By raising five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars each from millions of individual Americans who had never contributed a dime to a political campaign, he changed forever the way politicians raise money. The new game put a black man in the White House. If the old game isn’t working in your life, go around it.

7. Hard Work Works

Obama got into Columbia and then Harvard Law School on sheer merit. No one handed him anything. As a boy his mother used to wake him up at 4:00 in the morning to do his homework before school. He would often complain bitterly. “Do you think I want to do this?” his mother asked him. “I don’t like it any more than you do.” Obama learned early on that what you feel like doing and what you should be doing is not often the same thing. Disciplined effort teaches us that despite our appetites to the contrary, we can always choose excellence and craft lives of power, beauty and joy. Hard work works.

8. You Don’t Need a Perfect Past

Nothing before this moment matters. We all come from somewhere. We’ve all been hurt. We all lack things others have. Estranged from his African father, raised by his single, white mother and then his white grandparents – being made painfully aware of his outsider status was just another day for Barack. But he found love and support where others saw enemies. Why do we cling to our story and allow the past to shape this next fluid, formless moment? Why not create something new from the wreckage? What some people call shit, others call fertilizer.

9. Stay Humble, Respect Your Opponents

Power need not be arrogance, mastery need not be condescension, assertion need not be divisive. True greatness is always humble. Great people recognize the light in all people, even their ideological opponents. Because each of us has only partial access to truth, we rely on others, perhaps especially our most vigorous and vocal opponents, to shed light on the corners of truth we had not yet considered. Real wisdom always manifests itself as flexibility and fluidity, traits often misunderstood as weakness by lesser minds who confuse strength with rigid, defensive inflexibility. Like his hero Lincoln, Obama intentionally seeks the counsel of those who disagree with him. Lincoln even appointed his political foes to his cabinet. How, in my own life, can I manifest this untapped inlet of insight?

10. Cultivate a Life of the Mind, but Trust Your Instincts

The presidency of Obama represents the triumph of intellect and reason over fear and irrationality. I’m not making a policy argument – I’m talking about the man himself. Obama’s success proves that cultivating our reasoning skills and learning how to read and write at a high level are perhaps the most liberating forces we can muster. “Emancipate your selves from mental slavery”, Bob Marley sang, “none but ourselves can free our minds.” Reading good books, learning how to use language persuasively and truthfully – these skills are the tools that will liberate us from the private and public prisons to which our better natures have been sentenced. Shedding the light of the mind on these dark times gives the Divine Mind a chance to do its work. We may not have to fix the world ourselves alone, but it sure helps if we show up with clean tools ready to work. As we assess both the hindrances and generative powers of our own lives, we find great cause for celebration. Vow today to not slip back into the lazy chair of despair and hopelessness. Allow the dream to live itself out through the choices and beauties of your own life.