12 Inspiring Life Lessons From Maya Angelou
Poet, author, playwright, singer, actress, philanthropist, visionary, professor, beloved world leader. Maya Angelou was one of the world’s most prolific and beloved creative forces, emerging as a universally admired figure, especially at the time of her passing earlier this year.
Maya Angelou was famous for her teachings, through her spoken word and her written poetry which explored the experiences and viewpoints of being an African-American woman in the United States, as well as more inspirational works that helped shape modern day and mainstream poetry and prose. Her inspiring lessons remain as intrinsic a part of American culture, perhaps even more after her passing, and now seems like an opportune time to revisit these sagacious teachings.
Here are just twelve of Maya Angelou’s most famous quotations and the inspirational life lessons that come from them…
1. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
The first lesson from Maya Angelou we’ll be examining is that human beings have a lot of agency over their lives, their attitudes, and their feelings and beliefs. You can always find another way to do something or change your circumstances, if not in the way you ideally want to, then away from the way you don’t want them to be. Maya Angelou is, in short, Angelou is telling us that we alone have the right and ability to control our lives and make them what we want to be.
Fate and destiny are eons-old names for coincidence, rather than people having the agency to go out and change their lives on their back and of their own volition. Decide what you want from life and go and think about what you can do – what achievable goals you can consider – and go out there and do them. It might take a while, it might be a hard road, but if you believe in your dreams, passions, and desires, and are willing to get over the victim ‘I can’t change a thing because…’ mentality, there’s nothing you cannot do.
2. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Ultimately, our emotions are what drive us as human beings. Yes, we may use logic and reason and intuitive abilities, but our emotions, whether consciously or unconsciously, have a significant amount of sway over what dictates our behaviours, attitudes, and responses to daily events. Therefore, we must always try and take others’ into consideration; after all, we might not remember what someone said to us, but how we feel about that person.
Angelou teaches this message well, for sometimes even the most non-committal of words and conversations can bring about a strong positive or negative response. Always make sure that people remember you for the right reasons, rather than the wrong ones. Being a great positive influence around people ensures that everyone feels better and gives you the kind of reputation that people actually care about. Angelou said it best, after all.
3. “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”
Maya Angelou gave us this teaching about the virtue of persevering in the face of defeat. Don’t give up, just because you’ve hit your first stumbling block or obstacle. These things happen to every single person on their journeys in life, and while some of us have smoother paths than others, it is how we deal with the little setbacks that truly define us.
Angelou’s message of enduring is inspiring and powerful; if we gave up at the first sign of trouble or at less-than-smooth sailing, we wouldn’t achieve anything of value or really important. These tests of endurance define as human beings, not only in how we react to falling down, but also in how we pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off, and try again.
4. “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
Bravery is one of those most common of desired virtues, despite the fact that most people have the potential to be brave in their day to day life. Saying no to peer pressure, standing up for someone in a vulnerable position, being brave enough to put yourself out there in your professional and personal spheres… people are brave everyday. Maya Angelou’s quote tells us to practise courage and bravery every day.
Cultivating courage is a skill, really, because our culture and media tells us that everything is to be feared – crime statistics, political battles, stories of troubles in other countries, heartbreak and divorce and betrayal. Angelou is telling us that true courage is accepting the fear about a situation and doing the right thing anyway. Courage is not an absence of fear – instead it is overcoming it regardless.
5. “All great achievements require time.”
Things take time. Good things come to those who wait. We all know about the virtue of patience, even if few of us any actually exercise it, particularly in the modern world where everything is done quicker and faster and with a lack of patience or willingness of wait for anything. Maya Angelou’s quote reminds us that in the grand scheme of things, we’re all just shuffling up our own personal mountains and it takes a long time to climb a mountain
So often these days, we’re unwilling to put in the hours that it takes to actually accomplish our goals and work towards the dream. We’re used to seeing cute twentysomethings in dramas on TV seemingly have it all without even trying or breaking a sweat. Keep working towards those dreams and goals – the business you want to start, the book you want to write, the play you want to star in – and know that even if it all falls apart, you can rebuild it and keep going. Maya Angelou taught us this better than anyone.
6. “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.”
Something has to be said for the person who gets their head down and works at making themselves the best, most well-rounded and loving person they can be. At least in Maya Angelou’s world that is. Her quote above reflects upon the fine line between confidence and arrogance, between strength and brutishness. Working on yourself as a human being means working on confidence and strength and compassion, whilst stopping from crossing the line.
Your energy and strength should always be focused on the most compassionate and strong way of living that you can achieve. That means that focusing on your ‘enemies’ is a waste of time, energy and resources, as is letting anyone walk all over you in order to live an easy life at the cost of your self esteem. Maya Angelou teaches a message of balance – don’t channel your strength into becoming someone who invokes enemies and ‘haters’, but don’t diminish it for the sake of letting other people walk all over you.
7. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
Life can be extremely hard and painful. We all know this. However, something positive that we can all try to do is to try and be a compassionate, beneficial influence in someone’s life. Maya Angelou’s quote is about the way that our actions and attitudes have far-reaching repercussions, like a pebble in a pond causing waves. Therefore, it’s always best to make those ripples positive and helping to create a chain reaction of positivity.
Always try and choose the positive way to talk to, speak to, and be with people. Becoming a positive influence and force in someone’s life, helping to keep them motivated and positive and looking forward, can be a massively important, powerful thing, and by doing that for someone, you’ll be enhancing their life, and enhancing your own. Be the change you want to see, and a positive one at that.
8. “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
This is one of Maya Angelou’s most prevalent and important lessons and quotes. Holding onto bitterness is one of the toxic and dangerous things you can do to your psychological self. It poisons your daily life and infects everything in it – your work, your relationships, how you treat other people and expect to be treated in return.
Let go of the bitterness and use the anger you feel, channelling it into something productive – writing, reading, singing, creating. Use that anger to cleanse yourself of the bitterness and the hurt and use it as a transformative process, allowing you to move forward in your life and become the person you are meant to be. Maya Angelou never told you to let go of your anger, but rather to use it as a tool and a catalyst for your own sake. Use it wisely.
9. “If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.”
Maya Angelou was a great believer in cultivating compassion in your daily life, and this quote cements this lesson as one of her most important and life-affirming. Cynical human minds tend to gravitate humanity towards the side of cruelty rather than kindness, but Angelou saw things a little more optimistically – that humanity is full of kindness and compassion, if intrinsically flawed.
Caring for other people is something everyone should strive to do in their personal lives. Compassion awakens the heart, allowing you to experience life in a much more open, honest, and enjoyable way. Everyone out there wants to be cared for and loved, and receiving that will allow them to return it in kind without fear. Maya Angelou knew this better than anyone and it is for this that practising compassion was – and still is – one of her most vital lessons to learn.
10. “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
This important lesson from Maya Angelou is about the importance and power that the act of forgiveness can bring to someone, and also yourself. Choosing to forgive someone is an extraordinarily powerful gift, one that helps to alleviate weeks and months of toxic guilt build up from both parties, and help everyone move forward in their lives and look at the big picture. There’s something inherently strong in being able to say, ‘I forgive you’, and truly mean.
That isn’t to say every slight can be erased with those words; but for those silly grudges and spats, being the bigger person by forgiving the other person can have so many positive benefits. You can regain a friendship or relationship you once thought lost, you gain back some of your energy that was focused on hating the other person, and many more. Maya Angelou’s lesson of forgiveness is simple, yet endearingly powerful – forgiveness is good, so go spread it in your own life as much as you can.
11. “I work very hard, and I play very hard. I’m grateful for life. And I live it. I believe life loves the liver of it. I live it.”
Maya Angelou was a big advocate of having a strong and well-defined work-life balance. The best way to truly appreciate life is to make sure that you maintain focus and commitment to every aspect of it. Work hard at your job, and when you’re working, give it all; but when it hits home time, leave it behind and go and spend time with the people you love, doing the things you love. Life is too short – the blink of an eye to Mother Nature – so spending it in a daze and not comparing about what you’re doing is a sheer waste.
Life is a wonderful thing and it is meant to be loved, even through the dark, hard, and painful parts of it. Angelou is teaching us an important lesson – life rewards those who go out and do it, in whatever way they choose to do so. Let yourself become imbued with life and then go out, every day, to do it. Don’t spend your life living in anger and regret.
12. “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.”
This last lesson is less straightforward than the others, perhaps, but concerns the power of the creative mind and the belief of holding onto your dreams and desires, for they might find a receptive audience and change lives.
Maya Angelou’s words and teachings affected millions of lives, giving a mainstream voice to women of colour and the Black experience in the United States during a tumultuous period of social change. She helped create a positive change for these people, and so can you. Your work, whatever it may be, has th power to transform lives in a positive way, Your dreams and ambitions too – that novel you’ve been working on might inspire a scientist or a nurse or a schoolteacher; your ideas for renewable energy could help transform the lives of people around the world.
Maya Angelou taught a message of being the best person you can be – that means chasing your dreams and believing in your one true vision. Do it with compassion, with kindness, and with insight. Go forth and let your solitary fantasy transform as many realities for the better. That’s the best legacy that Maya could ever leave us.
Featured photo credit: Talbot Troyvia flickr.com
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