Maya Angelou's Most Empowering Lessons
It was never part of the plan.
I was a freshman in college and spending every day on my dorm room bed, staring up at the ceiling. I was going through the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life? crisis and it was hitting me hard.
To understand why, you have to know that I'm the son of Persian Jewish immigrants. I pretty much came out of the womb with "MD" stamped on my behind.
By the time I got to college, I was the pre-med of pre-meds. But it wasn't long before I found myself hitting snooze four or five times each morning— not because I was tired, but because I was bored.
My question of "What do I want to do with my life?" eventually turned into "How did the people who did know what they wanted to do break through?"
I went to the library and ripped through business books and biographies, searching for answers. But I was left empty-handed.
That's when my naive 18-year-old thinking kicked in: Well, if no one has written the book I'm dreaming of reading, why not write it myself?
From there, I set off on the journey.
From Bill Gates to Lady Gaga, Larry King to Warren Buffett—each interview was a wild adventure and each was packed with surprising lessons. But the most profound lessons came from none other than Dr. Maya Angelou.
And the heartbreaking timing of her death, exactly one year after we spoke, added even more weight to her words.
Here are three of the most empowering lessons she passed along. They touched me more deeply than I can say—and I hope her words do the same for you.
1. Make a Sign that Says "Every Storm Runs Out of Rain"
"When someone is young and just starting out on their journey," I said to her, "and she or he needs help finding that rainbow in their clouds, in mustering the courage to keep going, what advice do you have?"
"I look back," Dr. Angelou said, her voice soothing and wise. "I like to look back at people in my family, or people I've known, or people I've simply read about. I might look back at a fictional character, someone in A Tale of Two Cities. I might look at a poet long dead. There may be a politician, could have been an athlete. I look around and realize that those were human beings—maybe they were African, maybe they were French, maybe they were Chinese, maybe they were Jewish or Muslim—I look at them and think, 'I'm a human being. She was a human being. She overcame all of these things. And she's still working at it. Amazing.'
"Take as much as you can from those who went before you," she added. "Those are the rainbows in your clouds. Whether they knew your name, or would never see your face, whatever they've done, it's been for you."
I asked what someone should do when they're searching for rainbows, but all they see are clouds.
"What I know is that it's going to be better," she said. "If it's bad, it might get worse, but I know that it's going to be better. And you have to know that. There's a country song out now, which I wish I'd written, that says, 'Every storm runs out of rain.' I'd make a sign of that if I were you. Put that on your writing pad. No matter how dull and seemingly unpromising life is right now, it's going to change. It's going to be better. But you have to keep working."
2. Admire Yourself for Trying
Dr. Angelou once wrote, "Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me." I brought up that quote and asked how she dealt with that fear.
"With a lot of prayer and much trembling," she said, laughing. "I have to remind myself that what I do is not an easy thing. And I think that's true when any person begins doing what he or she wants to do and feels called to do—not just as a career, but really as a calling.
"A chef, when she ... prepares to go into the kitchen, has to remind herself that everyone in the world who can, eats. And so preparing food is not a matter of some exoticism; everybody eats. However, to prepare it really well—when everybody eats some salt, some sugar, some meat if they can, or want to, some vegetables—the chef has to do it in a way that nobody has done it before. And so this is true when you are writing.
"You realize everyone in the world who speaks, uses words. And so, you have to take a few verbs, and some adverbs, some adjectives, nouns, and pronouns, and put them all together and make them bounce. It's not a small matter. So you commend yourself for having the courage to try it. You see?"
3. Trust Yourself
"I read when you were hired as the associate editor of the Arab Observer," I said, "you bluffed your way into the job by inflating your skills and prior experience. And when you were hired, you had to really learn how to swim. What was that like?"
"It was hard," Angelou said, "but I knew I could do it. That's what you have to do. You have to know that you have certain natural skills, and that you can learn others, so you can try some things. You can try for better jobs. You can try for a higher position. And if you seem assured, somehow your assurance makes those around you feel assured. 'Oh, here she comes, she knows what she's doing!' Well, the thing is that you're going to the library late at night and cramming and planning while everybody does their thing.
"I don't think we are born with the art," she added. "You know, if you have a certain eye you can see depth and precision and color and all of that. If you have a certain ear, you can hear certain notes and harmonies. But almost everything is learned. So if you have a normal brain, and maybe a little abnormal, you can learn things. Trust yourself."
To read more and learn how this conversation with Maya Angelou leads Alex to a heart-breaking interview with Jessica Alba, check out The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World's Most Successful People Launched Their Careers