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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 July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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