26-year-old Michelle Obama’s unforgettable job interview | Daily News

26-year-old Michelle Obama’s unforgettable job interview

The idea that black people need to work twice as hard and be twice as good has been repeated to us time and again. We’ve absorbed it into our bloodstream. It’s become second nature. But for a phrase that’s become so commonplace, we often leave out an important part: yes, work twice as hard, so that you can be twice as good, but you need to be lucky, too.

Luck plays an enormous role in all our lives. Working twice as hard earned my father his medical degree, but it was luck that he happened to know a man who happened to know about a job offer in Iran, which was the opportunity that began to allow him to flourish. If you’re not working hard, you won’t be in a position to take advantage of luck when it comes your way, but you still need the luck. And in the summer of 1991, during the brief four-month window while I was busy working twice as hard as Mayor Daley’s deputy chief of staff, luck landed on my desk.

Plowing through my ever-growing pile of incoming mail, I saw a handwritten note from Susan Sher, by then the city of Chicago’s top lawyer and one of my best friends, attached to a résumé. It read, “Very impressive! Bright, mature, interested in public service. Does NOT want to practice law. Please meet with her.” Quickly scanning the résumé, it was obvious why Susan had sent it my way: a 26-year-old Chicago native, cum laude grad of Princeton, Harvard Law alum, and now second-year associate at the law firm of Sidley Austin.

The name at the top was Michelle Robinson.

I called Michelle in for an interview, and when she walked into my office, I was immediately struck not just by her appearance—tall, strikingly beautiful, simply dressed, with her hair pulled back and barely a hint of makeup—but also by her composed demeanor. She had a firm handshake, made direct eye contact, and exuded a confidence that I had rarely seen in anyone so young.

All the other candidates I’d interviewed had tried to impress me by hard-selling their strengths. Michelle let her résumé speak to her credentials and instead told me about her background growing up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, a blue-collar worker with the city’s water department, prided himself on working hard even as he endured multiple sclerosis. As she described his involvement as a precinct captain in ward politics and his love for this city, it was clear the loss of her father a few months earlier was still fresh and painful.

We compared stories about shared experiences, such as the drudgery of law firm life, the gift of being raised by happily married parents, and being instilled with a sense of responsibility to give back. Michelle talked less to impress than to simply inform. We also talked about loss of young people we loved. Her best friend from college had died too young from cancer. My younger cousin, Jackie Cook, had been killed in 1981 by a drunk driver during the summer after her freshman year in college.

About 30 minutes into what was supposed to be a 20-minute interview, she got down to business. Innocuous questions that any job candidate might ask, such as the responsibilities of the position, turned into a rigorous and thoughtful grilling. “How many staff are you going to have?” “What will the organizational chart be?” “What kinds of projects will be assigned to me, and who will make those assignments?” “What will happen if I disagree with a decision of Mayor Daley?”

Her questions made me uncomfortable. Not because they weren’t perfectly legitimate, but because no one had ever asked them before. I was so used to people selling themselves to me that I was both startled and impressed by the ease with which Michelle turned the tables. What an unusual young person, I thought. To be able to realize that it was as important for her to want to work with me as it was for me to want her showed a maturity I certainly didn’t possess at her age.

After well over an hour had passed, with meetings stacking up, I was running way late, and I am never late. I straight up offered her the job. Which I had no authority to do! I hadn’t talked to David Mosena, the chief of staff, or the mayor. But I was so impressed with Michelle Robinson that I blurted out an offer on the spot. I could tell she was perfect for the job. She exuded competence, as well as character and integrity. It was also clear that her moral compass pointed only in one direction: true north. And, I really liked her. Wisely, Michelle said she needed to think about it.

- Lit Hub


 

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