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9 Lessons from Nelson Mandela about Building Your Career

I listened to the United States President, Barrack Obama deliver a powerful tribute at the memorial service for late Dr. Nelson Mandela as he said, “Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and a President.”

This statement prompted me to ask myself, “What lessons can I learn from this great man?”

I have selected a few quotes from Dr. Nelson Mandela that specifically strike me as an entrepreneur and as a person; and I believe will resonate with you.


I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear

The late Nelson Mandela was a man who showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our beliefs. He said he inherited “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. And this built in him a desire to fight the system that imprisoned his people.

But through the struggles, he made it clear that he was like everyone of us, in flesh and blood; that he feels fear as much as we do; but that the feeling of fear is only human and should not hold you back from pursuing your dreams.

Feel the fear, but take the step anyway.

Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death

There’ll come a time when your resolution will be put to test. Deciding to follow the road less travelled is bound to bring with it tough times when your faith in what you do is passed through fire. But as this great African puts it, giving yourself to despair only leads to defeat and death.  And these are luxuries you cannot afford.

Weather through the tempest but keep your head up and your feet moving.

A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.

President Obama spoke on how Mandela was insistent in sharing with us his doubts and fears as well as his hopes and aspirations. It takes a literate tongue and pen to do that effectively

Gerald Ford, the 38th US president, once said “If I could go back to college again, I will concentrate on two things; learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively

One of the greatest skills that determine ones success is your ability to communicate effectively; to negotiate, to present your thought in a concise and organized manner that connects with your potential partners, customers or clients.

Good ideas and good intentions are nice but without good communication skills, your idea may just be that tall tree in the forest we never heard off – whether it stands or falls.

It always seems impossible until it’s done.

Do you think your idea is crazy and don’t deserve attention; well this great leader of our time urges you to think again. Who would believe that a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his tribe would emerge as a great liberator of the 20th century; a movement that at its start had little prospect for success?

Accept the fact that you are human. Put your ideas to test and if it fails, dust your feet and try again.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

In President Obama’s tribute he said, “…But in America and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done

With more power comes great responsibility. Someone once said that you can tell how far one will go from how long he or she is willing to rests on their laurels. There will be moments of breakthrough and achievements in your live but what will determine how long you’ll last is what you do at those moments; do you relax like you have finally arrived or do you set a bigger goal and forge ahead?

I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

It was precisely because he could admit imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood… for nothing he achieved is inevitable – President Obama

Nothing kills creativity and ingenuity like perfectionism. Waiting for the perfect time to start that business or to pursue your passion will leave you running the rat race. He reminds us that one failed attempt is better than a hundred intentions – after all we are human and we are bound to make mistakes.

The greatest glory in living lies, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Take these words from J.K.Rowlings. “It is impossible to live without failing at something; unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default.

Failure to try is failure by default. So you are already a failure if you are not trying. Between failure while trying and failure by default, I’ll always choose the former.

There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

A man who spent the most exciting stage of his young life in the struggle for the liberation of his people, this great leader would never settle for less than he was capable of. He had a large heart that yearns for democracy and equality in a time when it was scarce.

In his words, “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Is your career or business worth living for?

As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.

What more can I say here. It all begins with honesty with self and a willingness to change for the better.

Let me end with this message from President Obama’s tribute:

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” What a magnificent soul it was”

God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela!