Michelle Obama: ‘Life is About Making Mistakes’ — and Learning

Photograph by Feng Li/Getty Images

First Lady Michelle Obama visits the Museum of Terracotta Warriors during a visit to the historic excavation site on March 24, 2014 in Xi’an, China.

It was unlikely that China would get a stern lecture about human rights or freedom of speech from a traveling first lady of the United States whose weeklong tour with her daughters and mother was billed mainly as a journey of cultural appreciation.

Instead, the Chinese got a soft-pedaled prodding to lighten up on dissent.

The message, for both a government and a nation’s young people, was unmistakeable.

Michelle Obama, addressing an audience at Peking University, spoke of “the power of technology” as she encouraged a free exchange of students studying abroad. “It can open up the entire world and expose us to ideas and innovations we never could have imagined,” she said at the campus’s Stanford Center.

“And that’s why it’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media, because that’s how we discover the truth,” she said. “That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities and our country and our world.”

“And that’s how we decide which values and ideas we think are best –- by questioning and debating them vigorously, by listening to all sides of an argument, and by judging for ourselves,” she continued.

“And believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process,” she said. “My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens.  And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  Because time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard. ”

“As my husband has said, we respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies, but when it comes to expressing yourself freely and worshipping as you choose and having open access to information, we believe those universal rights — they are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet.,” she said. “We believe that all people deserve the opportunity to fulfill their highest potential.”

There is nothing to fear but fear itself, the first lady suggested in a separate video conference with students both at Peking University and at Stanford University.

What’s “important to consider is not letting fear be your guide,” she said. “And that’s oftentimes what holds many young people back from doing fabulous things.

“Let’s take my husband, for example.  He has dragged me kicking and screaming into things that I wanted no parts of,” she said to laughter. “And a lot of it was because of fear — the fear of making mistakes, the fear of not knowing, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of leaving your comfort zone.

“And we’re living in a world where we can no longer afford to let fear keep us apart, because the truth — what I have learned, coming from the background I come from — I grew up in a little apartment on the South Side of Chicago.  My parents didn’t get a chance to go to college, but they poured everything they had into me.  And no one could have envisioned that a kid like me would be sitting here, having given a speech at Peking University as the First Lady of the United States. ”

“But easily, fear could have blocked me at every turn.  So I want all of the young people around the world to operate with the freedom that we have all fought for — the freedom to explore the world, to learn about new cultures, to try hard things, to make mistakes,” she said. “… Life is about making mistakes, and maybe saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and learning that you recover from even some of your worst mistakes, so that that fear doesn’t keep you from being as excellent as you can be.”


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