Barack Obama on how uncovering his past helped him plan his future

I was in my early 30s when I wrote Dreams from My Father. At the time, I was a few years out of law school. Michelle and I were newly married and just beginning to think about having kids. My mother was still alive. And I was not yet a politician.

I look back now and understand that I was at an important crossroads then, thinking hard about who I wanted to be in the world and what sort of contribution I could make. I was passionate about civil rights, curious about public service, full of loose ideas, and entirely uncertain about which path I should take. I had more questions than answers. Was it possible to create more trust between people and lessen our divides? How much did small steps toward progress matter – improving conditions at a school, say, or registering more people to vote – when our larger systems seemed so broken? Would I accomplish more by working inside existing institutions or outside of them?

Behind all of this floated something more personal, a deeper set of unresolved questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? How do I belong?

That’s what compelled me to start writing this book.

I’ve always believed that the best way to meet the future involves making an earnest attempt at understanding the past. It’s why I enjoy reading different accounts of history and why I value the insights of those who’ve been on this earth longer than I have. Some folks might see history as something we put behind us, a bunch of words and dates carved in stone, a set of dusty artefacts best stored in a vault. But for me, history is alive the same way an old-growth forest is alive, deep and rich, rooted and branching off in unexpected directions, full of shadows and light. What matters most is how we carry ourselves through that forest – the perspectives we bring, the assumptions we make, and our willingness to keep returning to it, to ask the harder questions about what’s been ignored, whose voices have been erased.

These pages represent my early, earnest attempt to walk through my own past, to examine the strands of my heritage as I considered my future. In writing it, I was able to dwell inside the lives of my parents and grandparents, the landscapes, cultures and histories they carried, the values and judgments that shaped them – and that in turn, shaped me. What I learned through this process helped to ground me. It became the basis for how I moved forward, giving me the confidence to know I could be a good father to my children and the courage to know I was ready to step forward as a leader.

The act of writing is exactly that powerful. It’s a chance to be inquisitive with yourself, to observe the world, confront your limits, walk in the shoes of others, and try on new ideas. Writing is difficult, but that’s kind of the point. You might spend hours pushing yourself to remember what an old classroom smelled like, or the timbre of your father’s voice, or the precise colour of some shells you saw once on a beach. This work can anchor you, and fortify you, and surprise you. In finding the right words, in putting in that time, you may not always hit upon specific answers to life’s big questions, but you will understand yourself better. That’s how it works for me, anyway.

The young man you meet in these pages is flawed and full of yearning, asking questions of himself and the world around him, learning as he goes. I know now, of course, that this was just the beginning for him. If you’re lucky, life provides you with a good long arc. I hope that my story will encourage you to think about telling your story, and to value the stories of others around you. The journey is always worth taking. Your answers will come.

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