Mrs. Obama spoke for 22 minutes to the graduates of Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School on Saturday in her only high school commencement address this year. The ceremony took place in the gymnasium of nearby Tennessee State University.
The first lady told the 170 graduates that she spent too much of her own time in college focusing on academic achievements. While her success in college and law school led to a high-profile job, she said, she ended up leaving to focus on public service.
"My message to all of you today is this: Do not waste a minute living someone else's dream," she said. "It takes a lot of real work to discover what brings you joy ... and you won't find what you love simply by checking boxes or padding your GPA."
She said MLK reminded her of her own high school experience in Chicago.
"My No. 1 goal was to go to a high school that would push me and challenge me," she said. "I wanted to go somewhere that would celebrate achievement. A place where academic success wouldn't make me a target of teasing or bullying, but instead would be a badge of honor."
The first lady told graduates that failure may be a part of their college lives and careers, and that how they respond to any pitfalls will define them.
Overcoming adversity has been the hallmark of many great people, she said.
"Oprah was demoted from her first job as a news anchor, and now she doesn't even need a last name," she said of media giant Oprah Winfrey. "And then there's this guy Barack Obama ... he lost his first race for Congress, and now he gets to call himself my husband."