Maya Angelou on Courage and Creativity

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned author. For more, read the Life's Work section in the May issue of HBR.

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Alison Beard. I'm on the phone today with one of America's most beloved writers, Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou, thanks so much for joining us.

MAYA ANGELOU: My pleasure, thank you, Ms. Beard.

ALISON BEARD: So your latest book is about your mother. What were the most important lessons she taught you?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, I don't know if I can select one. I would say she encouraged me to develop courage. And she taught me by being courageous herself. And after years of leaving her and, I think, becoming courageous, I realized that one isn't born with courage. One develops it.

And you develop it by doing small, courageous things, in the same way that one wouldn't set out to pick up 100 pound bag of rice. If that was one's aim, the person would be advised to pick up a five pound bag, and then a ten pound, and then a 20 pound, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to actually pick up 100 pounds. And that's the same way with courage.

You develop courage by doing courageous things, small things, but things that cost you some exertion-- mental and, I suppose, spiritual exertion.

ALISON BEARD: Both your mother and your grandmother were businesswomen.

MAYA ANGELOU: Yes.

ALISON BEARD: What did they teach you about good management?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, that's it's wise to be fair. It's unwise to be a cheat. And both of them were really [INAUDIBLE] fair. And, of course, by teaching that, they also taught me, or I learned from them, not to lie. And that doesn't mean tell the truth and tell everything you know. You're never supposed to do that. But just make sure that what you do say is the truth.

I know there are people who say, I'm brutality frank. Well, one doesn't have to be brutal about anything. One can tell the truth and tell it in such a way that the listener hears it and really welcomes it. So I learned that from both of them.

ALISON BEARD: What you were just talking about sounds a lot like giving constructive criticism. So which critics do you listen to?

MAYA ANGELOU: You know, I've reached an age where many of the critics I respect have gone on to the next transition. But I've learned to listen to young people. And sometimes they're my students, here at Lake Forest, or students I encounter around the world who have something to tell me. And I'm reaffirmed, more often than not-- that is to say, I don't learn something new from them. But I do find that what I have found to be true is still true.

ALISON BEARD: You've lived around the world, from Stamps, Arkansas, to San Francisco, later France, Egypt, Ghana, now North Carolina. And you have an incredibly diverse fan base. So what's the key to bridging cultural, racial, and other social divides?

MAYA ANGELOU: I just don't buy them. I don't buy the divides, the man-made differences between human beings. I don't accept them. And so I find, if human beings are there, I'm at home. I don't know what I'd do with zebras, or cockroaches, or elephants-- I do know I'd ride an elephant. But in human company, whatever the culture is, I respect it. And I have respect for my own and would like to see my own respected.

ALISON BEARD: You've worked in so many different professions-- -- a streetcar conductor, singer, dancer, teacher, civil rights organizer before becoming a writer. So which has been most challenging for you and why?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, writing poetry is the most challenging. And it's the one I love. When I come close to saying what I want to say, I'm over the moon. I pull out a bottle of campaign and treat myself, even if it's just six lines, and they come just close to what I meant to say-- yes. But until they come that close, oh my goodness. They worry me like a mosquito in the ear.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me about your writing process. When and where do you do your best work?

MAYA ANGELOU: I keep a hotel room in my town wherever I am, although I live in a huge house, but I don't work in the house. I keep a hotel room. And I go to the room about 6:30 in the morning. I have a yellow pad and Roget's Thesaurus, and in the dictionary, and the Bible, Judeo-Christian Bible, a yellow pad and pens, and that's it. And I go to work. I encourage the housekeeping and then the management never to go into my room since I leave there about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. I've never used the bed or anything.

After a couple of months, the management will slip a note under my abilities, and ask me, please, Doc Angelou, let us change the bed. We think sheets may be molding. And I leave a note it's all right. But I feel, when I go in there, I'm going into my own place. And it's waiting for me. And I step away from the world, somehow, and step into a space.

ALISON BEARD: What do you do when you're faced with writer's block?

MAYA ANGELOU: Oh no, I don't know that. I don't know that at all. I just don't call it a block. I'm careful about the words I use because I know that my brain will remember and will tell it back to me. And so there are times when I sit at that, bed, on that bed, with Roget's Thesaurus, the dictionary, and the Bible, and a playing deck of cards. I play solitaire. And sometime in a month of writing, I might use up two or three decks of bicycle cars. Giving my "little mind" something to do.

I got that from my grandmother, who used to say, when something would come up, and it would surprises her she'd say sister, you know, that wasn't even on my littlest mind. So I really thought that there was a small mind and a large mind. And if I could occupy the small mind, I could then go more quickly down to the big mind.

So I play solitaire. And I've used up a deck of Bicycle cards, really good cards, in a week and a half. And sometimes, out of that week and a half, I've gotten two pages worth looking at. And sometimes, I've got 20.

ALISON BEARD: You're now 85 and still writing and teaching. So what's the secret to staying so productive? Where do you get your energy?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, Mrs. Beard, you know, energy is what we all are. It's in this wire connecting me to you. That's energy. It's all over the place. And I just love what I'm doing. I have a passion about what I'm doing. I owe it to it, to it. I owe it to the muse, to the creator. So I don't mind. I don't mind working. I don't mind the struggle.

When it comes out, when it's good, a-ha! When it comes out just right, mmm, my goodness. It's such a blessing.

ALISON BEARD: I'd like to wrap up asking about leadership. You've worked with some exceptional political leaders, from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. So what you think makes a leader great?

MAYA ANGELOU: A leader sees greatness in other people. He nor she can be much of a leader if all she sees in herself.

ALISON BEARD: Given the success of Barack Obama and other African American leaders not only in politics, but also in business and the media, how would you rate the progress of minorities in the past few decades?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, I think just knowing that we're about to celebrate, hist state of the union address, his second. Not that many white presidents have come in on the second term. And so I think our a country is healthier than we think it is. Many of the people who have the most raucous voices are heard. But the people who are really seen and counted are those who fill the ballot box. I think we're in better shape than we know we are.

ALISON BEARD: Well, that's a wonderful, optimistic note to end on. Dr. Angelou, thanks so much for your time.

MAYA ANGELOU: Thank you.

ALISON BEARD: That was the writer Maya Angelou. Her latest book, Mom and Me and Mom is out now. For more from this interview, pick up the May issue of Harvard Business Review or visit us online at hbr.org.

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