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12 Inspiring Life Lessons From Maya Angelou

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Troy via flickr.com

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Chris Haigh

Writer, baker, co-host of "Good Evening Podcast" and "North By Nerdwest".

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Last Updated on March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

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Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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