Power Players

Michelle Obama: Why going 'high' when faced with a challenge is so important to her

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25, 2016.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama first uttered her now-famous catchphrase, "When they go low, we go high" while discussing how to "handle bullies" in support of Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House.

Her motto quickly caught on. Even Clinton herself used it to defend herself against then-Republican candidate Donald Trump a few months later during their final presidential debate.

On Saturday, Obama told Oprah Winfrey what "going high" really means to her at Oprah's 2020 Vision: Your Life In Focus tour in Brooklyn, New York.

"Going low is easy, which is why people go to it," Obama said. "It's easy to go low. It's easy to lead by fear. It's easy to be divisive. It's easy to make people feel afraid.

"That's the easy thing and it's also the short-term thing," Obama said.

"For me, what I learned from my husband, what I learned from eight years in the White House, this life, this world, our responsibility in it is so much bigger than us. When I want to go low, it's all about my own ego. It's not about solving anything.... It's about seeking revenge on the thing that happened to you."

Obama adds that her purpose in life isn't revolved around taking care of her "own little ego," but instead to ensure that she is a positive role model for the next generation and is creating positive change.

"There is a bigger purpose for me out there. So when I respond to something, I have to think about that," she said.

If her words are fixing a problem or at least moving the needle in the right direction, she knows that she's not going high enough.

"You're just being selfish," she said. "I believe that when you are a public figure, when you have any level of fame or if you have a platform, I believe and I always believe that I have a responsibility with that platform."

And "going high" doesn't mean you won't feel the hurt or have emotions when faced with a challenge, she told The New York Times in 2018. "It means that your response has to reflect the solution. It shouldn't come from a place of anger or vengefulness. Barack and I had to figure that out. Anger may feel good in the moment, but it's not going to move the ball forward," Obama said.

Obama, 56, told Winfrey that now she is very focused on her next chapter, which is to help the next generation of leaders.

"I take the words that I say to children very seriously. When I'm with a young person, I want them to know that I hear them. I see them," she said. "It's important for them to know that this person who's so famous and has this platform thinks that they are beautiful and smart and kind and good in every sense."

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