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What can we learn from “Elanor” Roosevelt?

On the credenza in my office is a small chalkboard easel with the quote, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  The quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt’s book, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.  The full quote is:

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

When I face challenges in my life, I take strength from this quote as I know, deep down, I can overcome the challenges that come my way if I dig deep inside myself and do what I know I must do.  

Last weekend my husband and I traveled to upstate New York to visit my daughter at college.  We had some extra time before the flight from Albany back to Chicago so we took the opportunity to visit Val-Kill, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt and now a National Historic Park.  I have long admired Eleanor Roosevelt, having read her biography some years ago, and was pleased to have the opportunity to visit her home.  I was a fan before, but came away from the visit appreciating her even more for her strength of character, her humanitarianism, and her unpretentious nature.  

Her home is not one that most people would associate with a woman of her stature and renown.  It is incredibly humble, featuring mismatched (but comfortable) furniture, wood paneling, and a variety of keepsakes from photos of family and friends to framed holiday cards (Christmas was her favorite time of year).  Eleanor Roosevelt hosted everyone there from Winston Churchill, to kings and queens, to John F. Kennedy (who came seeking her endorsement for President, which she ultimately gave once he agreed to emphasize civil rights more in his platform).  Her guests no doubt appreciated her low-key approach to entertaining (hot dogs and macaroni and cheese were regularly on the menu) while immersed in engaging conversations about the state of the world.  With three lifelong friends, Eleanor first built a cottage on the property that belonged to the Roosevelt family just two miles from the main Roosevelt home.  She and her friends then started a business to provide opportunities for local farmers to learn the craft of furniture and pewter production.  Their business was one that inspired similar initiatives during the post-Depression era to create jobs across America.  Later, when the business closed, she turned the former factory into her home.  Eleanor also invited children from a local school to her home to visit.  One day one of the children who had learned to make signs gave her a present of a nameplate for her desk.  Though her name was misspelled (Elanor), she proudly displayed it on her desk as a reminder that no one is perfect and it is healthy to embrace our imperfections and learn through failure. 

Volumes have been written about Eleanor Roosevelt, but some of the greatest inspiration we can draw from her are from her own writings and speeches. She was a prolific writer, authoring 27 books and thousands of columns. Young people would be well served to learn from her great wisdom.  Below are my top ten favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes that are as relevant today as they were many decades ago:

  • What could we accomplish if we knew we could not fail? 
  • The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
  • Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
  • No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
  • Do one thing every day that scares you.
  • The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.
  • You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.
  • One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.
  • You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’
  • You must do the thing you think you cannot do. 

If there is a quote above that inspires you, consider sharing that quote with your child and why it inspires you.  Or maybe you would like to share all of the quotes above with your child and ask him or her which resonates the most with them.  Have them tell you why.  Perhaps it will open up a space for a deeper conversation and an opportunity to connect in a new and powerful way.  If so—please share your experience with me!

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