There are so many paths to take in life that will lead you to your destiny and to your bliss, but in order to know which one is right for you,  life requires you to be alert to your choices and to find inspiring role models whose wisdom is worth emulating.

One of our most amazing role models died last week on May 28, 2014.  Maya Angelou, known to the world as a poet (see His Day is Done, a poetic tribute to Nelson Mandela) was truly a teacher whose lifetime of work defied labels. Although a high school dropout, she wrote 36 books, worked as an actress, director, playwright, composer, singer and dancer.  She was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees and became a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University.  “I have created myself,” she told a reporter, “I have taught myself so much.”

She was a survivor.  Her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has been widely read in schools. In it she described a painful childhood, being raped at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend, and when he was murdered by her uncles, she felt responsible and stopped talking to everyone but her brother for almost five years until a teacher coaxed her to speak again. She became an unwed mother at age 17, raising a son, Guy Johnson, who also became a poet and novelist.

One of her closest friends, Oprah, noted that “What stands out for me is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life.  She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.” And in a reference to a spiritual that Angelou often cited, she added, “She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”

Here are five life lessons we can learn from the life of Maya Angelou:

1. Dig deep to unearth who you are.  Knowing yourself, your values, your strengths, the things you aren’t good at, as well as what makes your heart sing, is the foundation for your life.  She warned that “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”  So figure out who you are and celebrate that.

2. Declare your life purpose and unique mission. Each of us has certain talents we can give to the world and it is this passion that our soul yearns to express through our work.  “Whatever you want to do, if you want to be great at it, you have to love it and be able to make sacrifices for it” she declared.

3. Identify what’s stopping you from turning your dreams into reality. It’s funny how this works, but the thing you are afraid to do is the one thing you need to do in order to reach your goals.  She spoke to this in an address to a graduating college class, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”

4.Find a cheering squad of allies to support you throughout life. Frankly, be careful of who you let sit in the front row of your life; not everyone is deserving of that honor. Choose to spend time with positive people who truly want what’s best for you, and who will be there to soothe you in the hard times, and celebrate with you in the good times. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” was her sage advice.

5. Live Life Fully Each Day. In order to do this you must make peace with the simple truth that no one gets out of life alive.  Don’t hold yourself back with the premature
fear of dying.  Live with abandon, with zest, with passion and use all of your talents each day in the service of something greater than yourself.  This quote by her is one of my favorites, “What is a fear of living? It’s not doing what you came here to do out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – and for the time you take up and the space you occupy.”

Remind yourself that “Time is a precious gift. Every breath you take is one less breath remaining of your life here. So, you don’t have forever to honor
your dreams; you have now.”  (from The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, written by hospice nurse, Bronnie Ware, a book I wrote about earlier in my blog.)