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Top 5 Quotes from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was the first female poet I ever read, and to this day, “Still I Rise” continues to move me in the most visceral and profound of ways. So in order to honor her, and International Women’s Day, I decided to pick my top 5 quotes from Maya Angelou, and share them with you guys. I hope that they will fill you with as much inspiration, or more, as they did me.

#5. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

What I like about it is that there is a “Try to be…” instead of just “Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” There’s a sense of effort, of desire, of wanting to do something for somebody else, and often times, just the willingness to complete that action, or the hope we have when trying to complete something else–that in itself is sufficient. We do our best to be kind, be altruistic, to rid the world of all evil and maladies, and at the end of the day, while the chance of it all happening is none, all we can say is that we tried to be that rainbow in the cloud, and that is all that matters.

#4. “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

Need I say more? These are the goals.

#3. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

One of my most favorite things about Maya Angelou is the honesty and no-nonsense attitude that she puts into things. Even when she was talking about caramel icing to Martha Stewart or something, she was really really to the point and realist. Sometimes we get so caught up in empowering quotes about changing everything we don’t like that we forget it might not be in our power to change some things. At least for the time being. Instead of moping about, or swearing to change it, try to change yourself own attitude and perspective. 

#2. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Steven Spielberg talked about “character-defining moments” at his commencement speech last year. These are the moments when somebody shows you their true colors, and it is best for you to take note. They might not be as rare as once per movie, but they are relatively infrequent unless you take on an analytical lens and scrutinize everything that they do. But in big moments of crisis–true characters always appear. We preach that people can change, and not to set judgment quickly, but if they remove the veil of uncertainty at a serious time, it is best that you take what you see for everything that it’s worth. Maybe your opinion will change next time, or maybe they will change, but trust what you saw, and trust what they showed you, whether it was good or bad.

#1. “Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up.”

I’ve gotta be honest. My quote preferences change with time and with mood, and two or three years ago, this would not at all have been up there even in her top ten quotes. It seemed just so pessimistic at the time, saying that we don’t actually grow up and mature within ourselves. Rather, we simply take on a physical, superficial alteration, whether it’s taking responsibility for our finances, taking care of others, or making commitments…etc. But in college, as we move from our teens into adulthood, “growing up” takes on many more layers of qualitative meaning than it ever had before. What does it really mean to grow up? To have lots of degrees, to have loans and mortgages? To have kids?

Does all of the above necessarily mean that there has been a real change within us? A qualitative, not quantitative change? The answer is, I don’t know. Angelou’s quote provides comfort in telling us that most people don’t grow up, because truly being an adult, accepting responsibility, and living in the world is a scary, difficult thing. And somehow  many of us manage to grow through all the motions of doing so while still maintaining the piece of childhood in our hearts. 

Amy Zhao

Harvard '18

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