How to Live a Life That Matters: 5 Lessons from Maya Angelou

The desire to create lasting transformation in the world is what really drives us as leaders, right? Since the news of her death, I’ve been thinking a lot about Maya Angelou. Her legacy offers several valuable insights for living a life of true significance.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou speaking at Burns Library, Boston College. Creative Commons.

The odds were against Angelou in her early years. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she spent several years under the care of her grandparents.

Then, when she finally moved back with her mother at age eight, she was sexually abused by her mom’s boyfriend. Within hours of his conviction the abuser was murdered.

Angelou blamed herself for the man’s death. Can you imagine the trauma? It was so overwhelming she became a mute and wouldn’t speak for years. But somehow writing gave her a road out.

She wrote poems as a teen, moved to New York as a young woman and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and then traveled abroad as a journalist, working in Egypt and Ghana.

At home in the States she was active in the Civil Rights movement and also worked as a singer, actor, and screenwriter. She’s best remembered as a poet and the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of five best-selling memoirs.

Sure, people will debate the merits of her work, disagree with her politics, and criticize her literary contribution. But whatever your opinion, Maya Angelou has a lot to teach us.

I’m sure others could come up with their own lists, but here are five lessons from Angelou’s story that resonate with me as important for living a life of lasting significance:

Lesson #1: Faith Is a Source of Courage

A foundation of faith can give us the confidence we need to act boldly.

“When I found that … I was a child of God,” Angelou told an interviewer about her faith, “when I understood that, when I comprehended that … when I internalized that, I became courageous. I dared to do anything that was a good thing.”

Look at the long list of Angelou’s accomplishments, and ask what we could do if we could take courage in our faith. I bet it’s more—and better—than we dream.

Lesson #2: Excellence Pays Big Dividends

Everyone today says we should follow our passions, that we should do what we love. I agree. But that’s only a recipe for significance if people care about what we love.

I like how Angelou put it: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

Whatever our passion and drive, we have to contribute to others for our lives to matter to them. We need to offer something they really need, something they just can’t let go of.

Lesson #3: Success Takes Work

Angelou’s writing is so graceful it can seem effortless. But it’s not.

“Being a natural writer is like being a natural concert pianist who specializes in Prokofiev!” she said during a talk at Johns Hopkins. “To write well one works hard at understanding the language. I believe it’s almost impossible to say what you mean and make someone else understand.”

It takes practice, training, and cultivation for talent to become more than potential. A life that matters requires work.

Lesson #4: Optimism Puts Us in Control

Speaking about the South, Angelou said it’s easy to see it as “a repository of all bad things,” but she decided to see it differently.

“It’s beautiful!” she said. “That’s why people have fought for it. The place where I live is lovely.”

Why be so upbeat? I think the key is in a line from her book, Letter to My Daughter: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Optimism puts us in control of negative events. Sometimes the only thing we can control is our reaction. And refusing to let the tragic and unfortunate get the upper hand is the best response if we want to rise above.

Lesson #5: It’s Worth Taking a Few Dares

Sometimes others know us better than we do. A challenge from the outside can be just what we need to trigger excellence.

Initially, Angelou didn’t want to write I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, but a friend, James Baldwin, conspired with Angelou’s editor Robert Loomis.

“If you want Maya Angelou to do something,” Baldwin said, “tell her she can’t do it.”

Loomis followed Baldwin’s advice, called Angelou, and told her to forget it—writing the memoir didn’t make any sense. “It’s nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature,” he said. She took the bait.

“I’ll start tomorrow.” And the rest is history.

And thank goodness. Maya Angelou has had a global impact for these and many other reasons. Perhaps the best way to honor her accomplishments is to take what was best in her life and let it fuel our own.

Question: What do you think is the most important characteristic of a life that matters? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Carol Heilman

    Having a servant’s heart toward others and humility before the Lord.

  • http://www.seeincolors.com/ Lisa Nelson

    What you do has to come from the heart. When I look at Maya Angelou’s life and the impact she had on others, I see the main ingredient is love which shows itself in service. So many lessons to learn and apply here. Great post Michael.

  • http://www.davidsollars.com/ David Sollars

    Michael, thoughtfulness towards our influence and impact on others is a characteristic of someone who is living a significant life. We all brush up against each other through our words and actions, especially inside today’s viral high speed networks.
    The people I admire most understand that they have impact in the lives of others and choose to be mindful in their messages. While unintended consequences occur, the legacy, as you have illustrated so well with Maya Angelou, shows an unmistakable pattern of purpose. Thank you for helping me revisit the ideas and principles she chose as her ambassadors of influence.

  • http://www.deblange.com/ deb lange

    I love it when I make a difference to someone else’s life, whether it be the girls in Uganda who I have supported since their parents and grandma died, or a person in the street who I have a heartfelt connection with, or the beautiful young souls who come to me for Coaching and I guide them to find their own wisdom and make a difference to their lives. That is why I wake up in the morning.

  • Brigitte Kobi

    I like this article a lot and I believe that faith in ourselves (not always easy as I admit) is the key to find what we love and therefore are good at. If we can get there we can add something to the world to make it a better place. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://jasonhoover.me/ Jason Hoover

    Excellent post Michael. To answer your question, I would say sharing. Sharing with the world our skills, our heart, and our purpose. We are placed on this world to share hope, love, and the Gospel.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Jason. This is so foundational.

  • http://jimhamlett.com/ Jim Hamlett

    Thank you for a very inspiring post, Michael. For me, “the most important characteristic of a life that matters” is living for the glory of God. For these (and many other) reasons: it helps us work toward excellence in all we do; it helps throttle our pride; it engenders a servant’s heart and a desire to help others; it will, in the end, give us the ultimate prize: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

  • http://changeyouremotions.com/ Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    Hi Michael. I have been thinking a lot about Maya Angelou as well. One thing you wrote about her really resonated with me. When I began my relationship with God at 23-years-old, I suffered from severe panic disorder. I was afraid all the time. Once I knew God was with me, I assumed that every challenge was put there by Him, and therefore, no matter how afraid I was, I could do it. I recovered from panic disorder and accomplished so many things because of this attitude.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Linda. That’s a beautiful testimony.

  • Tony Foglio

    The most important characteristic of a life that matters is, to whom does it matter. For Maya Angelou, it matter to her God, her child, others and herself.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    The longer I live, the more I value examples of positive attitude and achievement like hers. Thanks for being a “broadcaster” of good news like this. We need it!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Lawrence. She was such an inspiration.

  • Amanda Johnson

    While I think it is wonderful to aspire to (and possibly) become an international inspiration, one thing we can ALL aspire to and achieve today is to live a life full of internal peace. Once we are at peace with ourselves, we can make a world of difference for ourselves and, therefore, others.

  • Diana

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Angelou continues to inspire and encourage all of us to be all that God has created us to be!

  • Tony Wilson

    Who it matters to.

  • Suzanne De Cornelia

    Great post. I admire her greatly for her daring and dignity. She let NOTHING stop her and said that the most important virtue was courage because all other virtues are hinged on it.

    She was an incredibly prolific writer, spellbinding speaker, deep thinker, a tremendous humanitarian, and a recipient of every award possible. I read that her PhDs were honorary, she didn’t go to college, but only high school, which makes her astonishing achievements and zeal for excellence even more remarkable.

    I was a longtime San Franciscan where she was legendary for being the first black woman cable car conductor; a physically demanding job requiring physical strength and stamina, going up and down the alpine steep hills with passengers hanging off the running boards and while also being an entertaining representative of The City.

    She. Did. It. All. and with one of the most commanding voices ever. What a life!

  • Peggy Haymes

    I live in Winston-Salem, where Dr. Angelou made her home. She was quietly, phenomenally generous, often making gifts through her church so that she’d be anonymous. She signed her books with the exclamation, “Joy!” She was a huge spirit who embraced all of her life and chose to see – and celebrate – the light.

  • http://familysportlife.net Tara Gantz Newman

    Michael – this is the best tribute to Maya Angelou. I feel one of the most important characteristics to a life that matters is service to others and learning how to support others in their goals. Like the quote by Robert Ingersoll “We rise by lifting others.”

  • http://brucercross.com/ Bruce R. Cross

    I believe TOTAL ABANDONMENT to the desires God places in one’s heart and looking for and seizing the opportunity to be a blessing to others is an important characteristic of living a life that matters…..allowing your cup to be continually filled….so it can overflow and be of benefit to those around you.

  • http://personalsuccesstoday.com/ John Richardson

    “If you want Maya Angelou to do something,” Baldwin said, “tell her she can’t do it.”

    I love that attitude. It was her courage and conviction that made her different. Her words will live on forever.

  • Padmanarayanan Aravamudhan

    Faith and perseverance. Both traits places us on top of the world.Can understand from Maya Angelou’s life. Thank you.

  • Christina

    When your life positively impacts others, even if from afar.

  • Laura Simone

    This post is so carefully thought out, constructed, and eloquently written Michael, thank you. The most significant thing I’ve realised is that money cannot be the primary objective if you’re committed to a life of passion and purpose; it’s so creatively freeing not to be handcuffed by a financial goal (that feels unattainable). With the guidance of people like you, I’m starting to believe in my potential for the first time <3

  • VM

    “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is LOVE!” 1Corinthians 13:13
    Great article of Dr. Maya Angelou! Have always loved the key line from Letters to my Daughter.

  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Significant living for leaders, eh? Here are some thoughts.

    * Be first in the attack, last in the retreat.

    * Officers eat last.

    * Give credit for subordinates’ successes, and take the blame for their failures.

    * Leaders set the emotional temperature of an organization. Be cool.

    * Never publicly embarrass a subordinate.

    * Show mercy when you can, be ruthless when you must. Don’t assume a mantle of posturing toughness, nor hide behind ‘Christian behavior’ as a way to avoid decisive action that someone won’t like.

    http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/2014/05/your-marriage-and-nasa-pt-3.html

  • http://bestwordforward.weebly.com/ Jonathan Ytreberg

    “Optimism puts us in control of negative events.” Excellent sentiment that I plan on carrying with my the rest of the day, weekend, year, lifetime.

  • Gertrude Nonterah

    “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

    I don’t have to add to that, Michael. That right there is one of the most important characteristics of life a person can possess. Great post and tribute to Dr. Angelou !

  • http://desummarize.com Kevin Scott

    The most important characteristic in my young life so far is grit. I have had to work through many dark days. And to overcome them we must have to power to keep moving forward. Tony Robbins calls it “hunger”. I think passion + hunger = grit and that is my key to living a better life.

  • Laura

    Off the cuff, to me, a life that matters is being able to reach people across the life span, across cultural & language barriers, generational gaps, and socioeconomic differences. I think Maya Angelou accomplished this, she spoke a universal language about timeless topics.

  • sc

    My faith in God goes first, then courage with perseverance!

  • http://italianliving1.wordpress.com Shauna Marie

    Michael, I’ve added a link to the above post to my Blog. If this is not in accordance with you, please let me know and I will remove it. I loved your tribute to Dr. Angelou. She was an inspiration to me personally. With gratitude ~ Shauna Marie MacDonald (italianliving1.wordpress.com)

  • jaf

    having character and integrity

  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne – NoteTakingNerd

    I love #4. Where our attention goes and flows, grows. I think that’s what Tony Robbins says. It’s so important to find an empowering angle in which to view the challenging situations we’re dealt in life.

  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt Hardin

    Maya Angelou spoke beyond race and gender rights issues, she spoke of the universal human spirit. I was touched to witness her speak locally at Austin Peay University back in 1998 when I was just a senior in high school. This week I was compelled to pay tribute to her with my artwork. You can see my portrait of the author along with some inspiring words of hers at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-memoriam-maya-angelou.html Drop by and tell me how her life’s work inspired you as well!

  • http://JasonandChelsea.com Jason and Chelsea White

    Love this quote you shared of hers in Lesson #2… “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

  • Michele

    The ability to reframe challenging situations as opportunities and to offer our relatively minor pain and suffering as a sacrifice to those who suffer more than us each day makes all the difference in the world.

  • carline

    Thank you sharing this article.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    She was amazing and inspiring and dealt with things we can’t understand. I always think of that phrase that I read on your blog a long time back: “die empty.” Not living a life of regrets, not dying with a song in our heart.

  • Barbara Starlyt

    My biggest challenge is to Love Unconditionally with a humble heart. I believe that is what Maya Angelou did in her life. She walked softly so as not to disturb but she spoke loudly with love in her heart. Her life and written word is her legacy to all of us. Bless her and all of you!

  • http://joyfullysinging.blogspot.com/ Christianna Hellwig

    Living a life of love for God and all except your self, not hating yourself but forgetting yourself. And by love, I mean, the self sacrificing kind the kind that will do what is best for others no matter the cost to himself. I think this, in the end, is what makes a life that matters!

  • Lee Ann Maxwell Cooper

    Compassion for, understanding and acceptance of our fellow man.

  • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

    A life lived for Christ is the life that matters most.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    Every life matters.

    The work (in that life) done for Christ…are the works that will last.

  • Alabi AimPurpose

    Understanding the Creator’s original and unique purpose for your life and maximising your potentials in the pursuit of that Purpose. Thanks for sharing this Michael. I wonder if there is a way I could reblog this on my WordPress blog..

  • http://www.TSG.LA/ Robert Warren Hess

    I think it’s your frame of mind. None of us are always perfect, but I begin each day thinking about how I can make just one person’s life better.

  • Kelly Mata

    Letter to My Daughter: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” One of my favorite statements cause we can all choose whether the adversity will strengthen us or weaken us

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Thank you Michael for putting together an excellent article that highlights a phenomenal woman. The most important characteristic of life is finding one’s purpose and living a life that reflects that purpose.

  • Norman Wise

    To leave a good legacy one has to live a sane stable and spiritual life.

  • http://yotrip.wordpress.com Yolanda Triplett

    More of others and less of self. When our intent is to help others be their best self then we are becoming our best self. We lead best by being of service to others.

  • Junior N Monica Martinez

    I believe, the most important characteristic of a life that matters is tenacity to purpose. Beyond the idea of making lemonade out of lemons, we should take all the bad and all of the ugly we have been dealt and use it! Allowing God to heal out innermost hurts, giving our lives over to him completely and then becoming a vessel, cracked and weathered as we may be, for His divine purpose and for His ultimate glory is the best kind of life imaginable. I don’t have characteristics of bravery, strength, endurance or perseverance on my own but when I think of all that Lord has done for me and because of me I can’t help but to love Him and desire the indwelling of His Spirit in me. Broken and beaten, lost and downtrodden…. I cannot….. With Him and because of Him, with Him guiding and directing …. I CAN.

  • http://www.liveitforward.com/ Kent Julian

    Success takes work. I love this! If you are willing to outwork your competition, it’s a huge competitive advantage.

  • susan johnson

    I pray that before Maya Angelou died she came to know that the only way to God is through His son Jesus Christ and not by good works. It’s by grace we have been saved through faith in Christ not of ourselves for those who believe in Him. Unfortunately, all that I have read about Ms. Angelou is her good works which does not earn us righteousness with God. I do hope that before she passed, she came to know the truth about faith in Christ. Please, this is not a judgement, I respect all people and where there final destination will be.

  • Mo Hajjar

    The highest purpose in life that a person can achieve is “serving people” and it applies to everything we do. Whether picking up the garbage or performing heart surgery. I have a lot of admiration and respect for people who take pride and have passion about what they do, regardless of the kind of job.

    As the old saying goes: “Don’t give up what you love. Find love in what you do.”

  • elena

    I am a servant I have always given and always told people that they matter and how important and loved they are. Sharing the gospel with others and telling them how much God loves them that he sent His only Son Jesus who died for us so that we may have eternal life and that all we have to do is just trust him. Sometimes their face lights up and sometimes there’s no response either way it’s worth it.

  • Nadia

    This was a truly moving and heartful testimony. This lady survived incredible odds to achieve greatness and influence. What I admire most about her story is the fact that she was an example, an agent of change, and one who empowered others. I salute her courage and boldness for writing memoirs that spoke volumes in her life-time.

  • http://www.tipsforlawyers.com/ Chris Hargreaves

    All great comments in this post – in particular the point about optimism – it keeps us motivated and strong to be looking at the positives of what we do and why. It’s not always easy, but worth it when we can.

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