Lessons I Learned from Maya Angelou
by Kari Pederson
1. Life Is Meant To Be an Adventure
Maya tried her hand at numerous career opportunities during her lifetime and is considered by many to be an accomplished poet, playwright, author, actress, dancer, singer, civil rights advocate, producer and professor. Whew!
Maya lived in Africa, Egypt, New York City and San Francisco as well as multiple other places. Thinking about Maya’s life makes me wonder where I would go or what I would try if I were willing to be even a little bit more adventurous.
2. Keep at Something Until You Make It Your Own
Maya’s awards alone could take up this entire column, but I will highlight just two accomplishments that show her willingness to blaze a trail of her own.
In an interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Maya recounted how she landed a job as San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor. When Maya sought an interview, she was turned away repeatedly. However, Maya returned every day for two weeks to see the hiring manager. He finally relented and eventually gave her the job.
Maya’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list despite being different from other autobiographies. I think she deliberately altered the typical memoir style to shake up perceptions of how an autobiography should be written. I have marveled at Maya’s ability to write so well and make this book so unique.
3. There Is Power in Walking Your Talk
Maya did not seem afraid to live her personal convictions in her public and private lives. In a two-part interview for the television series “Super Soul Sunday,” Maya spoke about her core values, including her belief that all people are worthwhile and deserve respect.
Maya did not allow ANY off-color joke or demeaning comment to be uttered within her earshot. She admitted to throwing people out of her home or immediately ending a meeting if she heard such talk. Maya made no apologies for this behavior and encouraged others to adopt a zero tolerance policy for disrespect.
Perhaps her sentiment is best articulated in Maya’s own words, “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.”
4. Never Give Up on Your Ability to Make a Difference
Maya was no stranger to personal trials and talked openly about being sexual assaulted at a young age. This tragic event caused her to be mute for years yet she rediscovered her voice and became a champion for human rights as well as a talented writer and performer.
Maya also became the first poet since Robert Frost to write and deliver a poem (“On the Pulse of Morning”) for a presidential inauguration. Each time I see the television clip of her recitation at President Clinton’s inauguration, I am struck by her strength, confidence and elegant delivery. I was so captivated by Maya’s performance in 1993 that I followed her career for the next 21 years.
Maya also reported close associations with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She continued her advocacy work despite the personal impact of their assassinations and the potential danger to herself.
My favorite stanza of her poem “Still I Rise” encapsulates this powerful ability to keep going.
Just like the moons and like suns
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Everyone can make a difference to others with our art. All of us have a unique voice with important ideas to share.
When I lose my confidence or think no one is interested in what I have to say, I imagine what Maya might say to encourage me. My call to action this month is to find your own role model to support you on the journey. Perhaps it will be someone from VoiceCatcher, a loved one, or like me, someone you never personally met.
Kari Pederson, MSW, LCSW, is a writer, clinical social worker and wellness coach who has worked with children and adults for over 25 years. An avid student of positive psychology, she loves helping people live their best lives. Kari is a new writer to VoiceCatcher’s community website and thrilled to be part of its mission. This is the fourth installment in her series, Healthy Spirit – Limitless Possibilities.