In June of 2014, the Massachusetts Conference for Women announced a highly anticipated keynote speaker for the upcoming December conference: Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, best known for her breakout role in the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave. Six months later, I can tell you that her inspiring and insightful message was well worth the wait.
During her keynote, Nyong’o explored the opposing sides of her success: fear of failure as she reached for her dreams and new challenges that came with her amazing success. After sharing her own story of fear, confusion and self-discovery, Nyong’o offered her more than 10,000 listeners a list of seven “tools” derived from her own experience and learning:
1. Recognize and articulate your fears.
Earlier in her speech, Nyong’o talked about struggling with deciding what she would do with her life. Her passion to become an actor seemed unreasonable and scary to her, but when she tried on other prospective careers, they didn’t fit. She recalled her frustration: “I have a dream to be an actor and it dwarfs me, but it’s my dream, damn it!”
A dream can be intimidating, seemingly impossible and out of reach, but Nyong’o encouraged her listeners to reach for them anyways: “Our dreams derive from our imagination. We own them. We cannot let them defeat us.”
2. Reach out to your stretcher bearers… at least four who would carry you to safety and remind you that you aren’t alone.
Nyong’o explained that her “stretcher bearer” reference comes from a Bible story where two men carried their sick friend, bearing him on his stretcher, to a place where Jesus was healing the sick. Jesus saw how much the stretcher bearers loved their friend and all they had gone through to get him to that place, and so Jesus healed their friend.
She continues to embody this “tool” in her own life. Twitter and Instagram posts reveal that Nyong’o brought her mother to the event, and that she was texting with friends prior to her speech, staying connected with the familiar while she prepared to address the conference of 10,000 women.
3. Ask questions of yourself, for yourself – and listen for the answers.
“There is so much pressure to define ourselves,” observed Nyong’o. “We can and should be able to define ourselves by many things!”
4. Do not underestimate the power of writing your goals and dreams down.
As a poignant example, Nyong’o recalled writing in her diary about what kind of work she wanted to do. The list included her desire to spend two weeks in New Orleans. Mere weeks after writing that list, she signed onto the movie 12 Years a Slave, which required her to spend five weeks in New Orleans during filming.
5. Breathe. Meditate. Be still with your soul.
Throughout her speech, Nyong’o referenced the places she has turned for guidance in her self-exploration: her family, her faith, books she had read and quotations that spoke to her.
6. Go for it and always allow failure to be an option.
As we reach for what we want, we fear failure. We fear being told “no” and we fear not being good enough. But “without the possibility of being bad, you cannot be extraordinary.” Nyong’o encouraged her listeners to take risks as they dare to reach for what they want without expecting to be perfect. They should “always have perfection to work towards. It gives perspective.”
7. Step forward and repeat it all. With each step and challenge, expect to learn these lessons again and again.
“Step and repeat,” she said again. “It doesn’t get comfortable, but it does get familiar.”
The best speeches given at the Massachusetts Conference for Women provide attendees with insights and ideas that they can apply to their own lives, and Lupita Nyong’o’s was among the best of these. Her words were inspiring, revealing, heartfelt, brave, gentle and wise.