On Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, the world lost a leader, activist, fighter for freedom, and a universal symbol of peace and equality—Nelson Mandela. At age 95, Mandela lived not only a long life, but one of inspiration for us all.
To honor his legacy, I thought we’d take a look at the former president’s life, because although his path was one most of us will never have to endure, every person—no matter his/her profession or aspirations—can learn a lesson from the leader’s journey.
Nelson Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University College of Fort Hare but did not complete the degree there as he was expelled for joining in a student protest. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa and went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.
Lesson #1: Take action
Most would not count it wise advice to get expelled for joining a student protest, but there’s a lesson in Mandela’s misfortune: take action. He was obviously passionate about a cause (or causes) while in school, and instead of just talking and voicing his opinions about the issue, Mandela joined others to take action and bring awareness to it.
Maybe you want to make a difference in your career or see so many issues in society that you hope to change. These are both great, but actions speak louder than words. Mandela showed us that 1) it’s important to actually put action behind your feelings and desires and 2) you don’t have to wait to do so. Mandela was a college student when he first joined the protest. It doesn’t matter how young or inexperienced you are; if you decide to take action and follow your passions, you can make a difference and become successful.
Meanwhile he began studying for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand. By his own admission he was a poor student and left the university in 1948 without graduating. He only started studying again through the University of London and also did not complete that degree.
In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, he obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.
Lesson #2: Follow your own route
Mandela dropped out of school, began studying again, yet didn’t finish his degree. It wasn’t until he was in prison over the course of 27 years that he obtained a law degree. His life shows that not everyone has to (or is meant to) take the “conventional” route. Although most are taught to go to post-secondary school and receive an education right after high school, many people like Mandela and others didn’t do this and were still successful.
In October 1963 Nelson Mandela joined nine others on trial for sabotage in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. Facing the death penalty his words to the court at the end of his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ on 20 April 1964 became immortalized:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have 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.”
Lesson #3: Prepare for adversity
The path to pursuing your goals will inevitably be met with adversity. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for fighting against apartheid; he was even willing to sacrifice his life for the cause. In today’s society, most of us are not called to sacrifice our lives for a cause, but do we desire to reach our goals enough to meet and overcome every obstacle we will face along the way?
In 1993 he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize and on 27 April 1994 he voted for the first time in his life.
On 10 May 1994 he was inaugurated South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
Lesson #4: Embrace your destiny
So many of us have hopes and dreams, but are we actually prepared to step into those rolls? Are we prepared to start that business, be that CEO or conduct that heart transplant? After many years of fighting against (and helping defeat) apartheid, Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president. What an immense role, especially at the age of 76, but his life teaches us to fully embrace our destinies. Be confident in your calling and purpose, and be prepared for when the time arrives to step into the role of your dreams—not matter what age you are.
There are SO many more lessons we could learn from Mandela’s life, but I think a final one is best summed up in the influential leader’s own words:
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela