What Nelson Mandela Can Teach about Education

The story of Nelson Mandela is a story of courage, tenacity, and transformational leadership. His book Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela is a journey describing both his formative years and his long struggle to bring freedom and equality to his people and to the nation of South Africa.


One theme that captured my attention is his focus on education and learning. Even during his painful and challenging years in prison, he fought for both his own education and acted as a catalyst for the learning in others.

These words capture his view on the value of education and the difference it can make in your life:

Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. (Loc. 3049)

Then he said these powerful words:

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given,
that separates one person from another.

These words are another way to describe what it means to “dance with the rest.”

When handed a lemon, you can be stung by the lemon juice that gets in your eyes and squint in pain or add some sugar and turn it into lemonade.

When handed a painful loss, you can either shrink back and let it define you or move through your grief with courage and find a new purpose and growth in it.

When handed failure in spite of your best efforts, you can either wallow in self-pity and despair or turn your failure into a classroom for deeper learning and growth.

Nelson Mandela failed in his attempts to bring equality and justice innumerable times during his life but he never gave up the fight. He kept growing through his failed attempts and disappointments until his hopes were realized.

Thomas Edison was always in school. His journey to invent the light bulb was long and difficult. He once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

It’s what Edison made out of what he had, not what he was given that made the difference.

Education paves the way for future achievement and significance.

Nelson Mandela could have shrunk back during all his years in prison. He could have given up the fight for the freedom of his people and nation but he didn’t. He kept pressing forward – kept learning, kept reading on a wide range of topics, initiated stimulating conversations with his prison mates and guards, and expressed his thoughts stealthily through writing.

Even in the dips he kept his heart and mind active.

Where does education happens?

  • In the classroom (sometimes)
  • Through mentoring, coaching, and other focused conversations
  • Through books, seminars, workshops, podcasts, webinars, etc.
  • Through group discussion and intentional interaction
  • When you reflect and evaluate your experience (the success and failure)
  • When you see failure and disappointment as a teacher not as what defines you

Michael Jordan was educated through his losses and misses, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another. (N. Mandela) 

What have you been given?
What are you learning and making out of what you have?

To receive each new post by email when they come out, enter your email address on the top right at www.camtaylor.net. And I welcome your comments!

About Cam Taylor

I'm help people live inspired, focused and tenacious lives. I work as a coach, facilitator, author, and speaker.
This entry was posted in Adversity, Attitude, Character, choice, Conflict, dreams, Endurance, failure, grieving, Growth, healing, Hope, learning, Mandela, Optimism, Pain, suffering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What Nelson Mandela Can Teach about Education

  1. pastorb@bethelbarrie.ca says:

    Please change my email address to bsticklee@gmail.com Original email:

  2. Thanks for sharing this inspirational story Cam. Nelson Mandela’s struggles and ultimate triumph will resonate with millions around the globe for years to come. It’s the stories of courage and determination by people like Mr. Mandela, a survivor of a brutal regime; the beautiful young Pakistani girl Mulala who miraculously lived to tell her story a murderous attack by the Taliban, and my nephew Cam who is recovering from an almost-fatal motorcycle accident that give us hope for the future. Our daily trials and tribulations seem mighty dim compared to these three heroes of many. Keep up the fight Cam and keep your eloquent words flowing.

  3. Tom says:

    Cam you are so positive through horrific circumstances. I wish I had a mustard seed dose of your strength and love for others. Tom

  4. Pingback: Secrets to Nelson Mandela Surviving 27 Year in Prison | camtaylor.net

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s