Professors on Success: 10 Quotes That Inspire Excellence

Our best friends are typically the ones who tell us not just what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. The same is true of our favorite professors. In college, what we often wanted to hear was, “This will not be on the exam.” But the best profs aren’t satisfied with letting students skate by; they seek to awaken greatness in their pupils and push them to succeed both in class and throughout their lives. From teachers as far back as Einstein to modern-day academics like Chomsky, here are 10 quotes from professors to inspire you, no matter what stage of life you find yourself in.

  1. “Try to become not a man of success, but try rather to become a man of value.” – Albert Einstein:

    We’ll throw it to arguably the world’s most famous professor ever for this first quote. True to form for one of mankind’s most extraordinary minds, Einstein’s advice is a JFK-esque suggestion to ask not what glory can be heaped on you but rather what you can do to make yourself useful to your fellow man.

  2. “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch:

    Carnegie Mellon prof Randy Pausch delivered this incredibly moving talk one month after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given three to six months to live in 2007. The cancer claimed his life the following summer, and this speech (officially entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”) has come to be known as the “Last Lecture.” With absolutely zero self-pity evident, Pausch delivered these lines explaining the silver lining of the difficulties we all face in life.

  3. “My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” – Maya Angelou:

    This Wake Forest professor knows as well as anyone that not all intelligent people are found in classrooms or even know how to read. She herself never attended college and worked as a pimp, prostitute, and nightclub dancer before establishing herself as an enormously successful, award-winning author and poet who made her name writing about those life experiences.

  4. “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so … If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.” – Noam Chomsky:

    If your definition of success is monetary gain or power, you won’t find much inspiration in this venerable MIT prof’s statement. If, on the other hand, your aim is to leave the world a better place than you found it when your time is up, keeping hope alive is the first step. Your optimism will power you through the apathy that can easily set in and push you until you find success.

  5. “The thing that I think was very brave of my younger self was that he decided he would be an idiot. Just persevere. That feels brave to me: deciding that I’m going to damn well be this person that I’ve set my heart on being.” – Salman Rushdie:

    You kind of have to read his preceding lines to get his meaning, but this author and Emory University professor told Esquire magazine in 2005 that it was 12 years after leaving college before he published his first major novel. During that time, he was very tempted to give up his dream of being a writer and take a comfortable position as an ad man. Instead he listened to his inner voice and became one of the most respected writers of the 20th (and 21st) century.

  6. “I use my mind to solve problems and invent things.” – Temple Grandin:

    For those unfamiliar with this animal science professor at Colorado State University, this will seem like a simple, even child-like sentiment. But knowing Grandin was born with autism makes it a powerful call to action for those us born without hindered brain development. After all, how many of us truly engage our minds on a regular basis to solve problems, much less invent things? Judging by the number of hours we spend watching TV, not many.


  7. “Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent. Passion, interest “” it’s not the same thing. Are you really going to go to your sweetie and say, “Marry me! You’re interesting.” – Larry Smith:

    In his tough-love TED talk entitled “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career,” this econ professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo did not beat around the bush. He said there are now absolutely terrific jobs and “high-stress, bloodsucking, soul-destroying” jobs, and nothing in between. The difference depends on whether you are willing to look weird, to work really, really hard, and to stop making excuses.

  8. “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” – John W. Gardner:

    Even 30 years after his death, the words of this novelist and Stanford professor still inspire students and leaders alike. Those who knew him still recall his encouraging them to “be interested, not interesting.” Though himself an esteemed intellectual, he clearly never undervalued excellence, whether it be in manual labor or high-minded academia.

  9. “You have to live a life that has meaning. You have to live life large, and then you just play it large.” – Virginia Novine-Whittaker:

    For those of you that don’t speak jazz, “play it large” is slang for finding success. Elon University music adjunct and saxophonist Novine-Whittaker believes teaching students to play music is crucial because it eventually leads to that moment when they achieve something after they’ve “worked so hard and long for it.” We agree and think the same could be said about any educational or self-improvement endeavor.

  10. “‘Live each day as if it is your last,’ said Mahatma Gandhi. ‘Learn as if you’ll live forever.’ This is what I’m passionate about. It is precisely this. It is this inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience, no matter how risible, no matter how esoteric, no matter how seditious it might seem.” – Ben Dunlap:

    Strictly speaking, Dunlap is a college president now, but he spent decades as a distinguished professor at both Harvard and South Carolina, so we think he gets a pass. Especially since this quote, and the rest of his comments in his TED talk called “The Life-long Learner,” are so inspiring. The eponymous learner is Holocaust survivor Sandor Teszler, textile titan, successful developer of double-knit, and perpetually curious student of life.

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