Life Lessons From Sidney Poitier’s Best-Selling Book ‘The Measure of a Man’

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In his 2007 autobiography, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, the legendary superstar and activist Sidney Poitier takes a look back at his life—from his humble beginnings as a child raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas to an Academy Award winning actor who overcame racial barriers to become one of the most successful stars in the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the New York Times bestseller, he explores the values that have led him to be the man that he became to be. Below are a few of those insights that we can apply to our own lives as well.

On Knowing Your True Self

“If the image one holds of one’s self contains elements that don’t square with reality, one is best advised to let go of them, however, difficult that may be.”

“You don’t have to become something you’re not to be better than you were.”

“We’re all somewhat courageous, and we’re all considerably cowardly. We’re all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.”

On Coming Into Your Own

“It’s the way of all ancient stories. The young man must go ‘down’ in order to find the right path for going ‘up.’ Call it the ‘time of ashes.’ In some African tribes, the young boys must cover their faces with ashes before their initiation into manhood. In certain Nordic cultures, the young boys used to sit down in the ashes by the fire in the center of the lodge house until they were ready to take on their adult role. And everybody knows about Cinderella, the girl who had to tend to the cinders and do all the other lowly chores until her true identity became known.”

“A person doesn’t have to change who he is to become better.”

On Realizing Your Worth

“How we see ourselves, how we see each other,” she said, “should be determined by us and not by people who generally don’t like us; people who pass laws certifying us as less than human. Too many of us see each other as ‘they’ see us,” she continued. “Time for that shit to stop. We’re going to have to decide for ourselves what we are and what we’re not. Create our own image of ourselves. And nurture it and feed it till it can stand on its own.”

“Okay listen, you think I’m so inconsequential? Then try this on for size. All those who see unworthiness when they look at me and are given thereby to denying me value—to you I say, I’m not talking about being AS GOOD as you. I hereby declare myself BETTER than you. ”

On the BS of the Powers That Be

“When you’re addressing power, don’t expect it to crumble willingly. If you’re going to say, ‘Hey now, look you guys, please look at what you did and look at yourselves and punish yourselves and at least try to square this thing, right?’—well, you’ll make slower progress at that than you would expect. I mean, even the most modest expectations are going to be unfulfilled. Think about it. Today there are still people all over the world who maintain that the Holocaust didn’t happen. There are people in the United States—people among that power echelon we speak of—who maintain that all slaves were happy. There are those power symbols that always say, ‘Well, it was for the good of the states. It was for the cohesion of the political process.’ There are myriad justifications for denial. There are also people who say, ‘Hey, after thirty years of affirmative action, they’ve got it made. Black people—it’s their own fault if they can’t make it today.’ Yeah, well, of course they say that. And they say it not just about Black people. They say it in every country. We did something for you people, whoever ‘you’ are. And we think that’s quite enough now. That’s the gist of it: we’ve done something, and we think it’s enough. It may not be perfect, but it damn sure comes close to being okay. Now let us hear you applaud that for a little while. And thank us. And you can take that hat off your head when you come in here thanking us. That’s the way it is. But let’s not get stuck there. We have miles to go before we sleep. We have lots to do, and some things just aren’t going to get done, you know?”

On Life in General

“So much of life, it seems, is determined by pure randomness.”

“Accept that environment compromises values far more than values do their number on environment.”

“Greed and cruelty are pretty widely distributed throughout humanity, as are their victims.”

On Raising Children

“I don’t mean to be like some old guy from the olden days who says, ‘I walked thirty miles to school every morning, so you kids should too.’ That’s a statement born of envy and resentment. What I’m saying is something quite different. What I’m saying is that by having very little, I had it good. Children need a sense of pulling their own weight, of contributing to the family in some way, and some sense of the family’s interdependence. They take pride in knowing that they’re contributing. They learn responsibility and discipline through meaningful work. The values developed within a family that operates on those principles then extend to the society at large. By not being quite so indulged and “protected” from reality by overflowing abundance, children see the bonds that connect them to others.”

“Child psychologists have demonstrated that our minds are actually constructed by these thousands of tiny interactions during the first few years of life. We aren’t just what we’re taught. It’s what we experience during those early years—a smile here, a jarring sound there —that creates the pathways and connections of the brain. We put our kids to fifteen years of quick-cut advertising, passive television watching, and sadistic video games, and we expect to see emerge a new generation of calm, compassionate, and engaged human beings?”

On Being a Father

“A large part of my father’s legacy is the lesson he taught his sons. He brought us together and said, ‘The measure of a man is how well he provides for his children.”

On Forgiveness

“I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me. There is a certain anger: it reaches such intensity that to express it fully would require homicidal rage—self destructive, destroy the world rage—and its flame burns because the world is so unjust. I have to try to find a way to channel that anger to the positive, and the highest positive is forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness works two ways, in most instances. People have to forgive themselves too. The powerful have to forgive themselves for their behavior. That should be a sacred process.”

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