Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He sadly was assassinated in 1968, but his accomplishments and his speeches are still remembered to this day. Who for example hasn’t heard of his famous “I have a dream” speech.

It was not his initial ambition to lead a civil rights movement. Instead, Martin Leader King was destined to become a preacher, like his father, and his grandfather. But life moves in unexpected ways, and Martin Luther King became the most visible civil rights leader of his time. One of his many accomplishments includes being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A feat only a few extraordinary people have accomplished.

Reading his autobiography, it’s clear this was a man on a clear mission. Someone who continuously throughout his life made a conscious effort to make the world a better place for everyone. And change he definitely accomplished. What can we learn from Martin Luther King to become a better person, to lead a better private and professional life, and to make the life of our fellow men better and with it the world?

1. The power of a visual language and metaphors

Visual communication is so much more powerful than mere words, and Martin Luther King was very skilled in using visuals and metaphors in his speeches and writings. Why do people still remember and reference to his speeches to this day? The visual references and metaphors he used made his words so vivid and memorable.

He, for example, had been sent to jail numerous times. He wrote about his experiences in prison. Imprisonment wasn’t simply horrible. But according to Martin Luther King “It is life without the singing of the bird, without the sight of the sun, moon, and stars, without the felt presence of the fresh air. … it is life without beauties of life; – it is bare existence …” It’s almost poetic.

Words like ‘horrible’ or ‘bad’ are vague. Martin Luther King instead used words that sparked the imagination, made vague concepts clear. And most importantly, caused an emotional response which made it stick in people’s head. This is just one of many examples, with his ‘I have a dream’ being the most memorable of course.


The next time you have to give a presentation or a speech, think about how you could improve your text to include more metaphors and visual references that cause an emotional response with your audience.

2. Seek opposing and new views to broaden your knowledge and worldview

When Martin Luther King went to college, he was confronted with scientific readings that didn’t correspond with his religious teaching and upbringing. He could’ve neglected this new evidence and stick to his own views. But instead, he decided to rethink the world he knew in the light of this new evidence and to broaden his horizon.

Martin Luther King actively looked for new viewpoints, some that even directly opposed his own views. In doing so, he learned much more than he ever could if he stuck with what he already knew.

One of the best ways to grow as a person is to seek out new views and experiences. If you stick to what you already know, you’ll never learn anything new. Go out, read about new, different topics, experience new things, broaden your knowledge base.

3. Focus on love not hate

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Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King chose the way of non-violence in his struggle for equal rights. Non-violence is not a passive, cowardly method. It is an active method of resistance. But instead of responding from hate which leads to violence, he chose to use love as a basis like Gandhi, which leads to non-violence.

Why was love so much more powerful than using hate?

It’s easier hurting someone who has hurt you. Unfortunately, this way of thinking can quickly spiral down. Because once you’ve retaliated, the other person wants to get revenge too. Hate thus breeds more hatred, and a permanent solution gets even further away.

Responding with love keeps the door open for further communication, and a basis for resolution without ego’s being hurt. Because even if you win by brute force, you’ve gained by brute force. Choosing a violent way makes it harder for your opponent to reconcile once the battle is over. In other words, you haven’t persuaded anyone to see it your way. The intrinsic motivation is therefore lacking, which is crucial for long-term change.

When his opponents used severe brute force, Martin Luther King chose the way of love, of non-violence, and eventually won over people’s hearts leading to long-term change.

4. Have faith and keep a positive outlook

Woman sunset positive outlook

Even in the direst of situations Martin Luther King always kept an unconditional faith in God. He was sure God would do what’s best for him, which gave him peace of mind even in the most difficult of situations.

When things didn’t work out the way Martin Luther King had planned or wanted, he also accepted it. If this is the way God wanted it to be, then so be it. Acceptance also gives excellent peace of mind.

Even when you don’t believe in God, have faith that things will work out. Be positive, hopeful. Somehow the universe has a tendency to make things work if you believe it will. If things don’t turn out the way you want it, accept it. Having peace of mind is crucial to move forward in this life.

5. Look at the system instead of the individual

In his fight for equal rights, Martin Luther King came across a lot of ill-willed people who wanted to sabotage, hurt, or even kill him. These people were full of hate. Lesser men would perhaps mark these people as evil. But Martin Luther King did not. Instead, he asked, “Is this specific person really evil, or has the system in which (s)he operates corrupted him to do evil things?”

In an evil system, even good people can do evil things. The Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, has perfectly demonstrated that. If you put good people in a corrupt system, then even the good ones will perform evil acts. So, should you fight the person or the system?

Martin Luther King always made an effort to distinguish the person from the system. He would always try to assess what forces were in play, which caused an individual to do certain things. If the system is the culprit, should you really be fighting against the person working within that system?

Looking at the system makes it easier not to feel any hate for the person who’s a victim himself of said system. This makes it easier to help that person too so you can fight the evil system together.

6. Focus

Practically all successful people have said that focus is the most important thing when you try to reach a goal. It also applied to Martin Luther King.

Early campaigns to get equal rights were too scattered, leading to little results. King saw the results and realized he needed to focus on one specific target to be successful. Once his team started focusing on one single campaign, results improved drastically.

Great results are seldom achieved if attention and actions are divided.

7. Three dimensions to focus on for a complete life

Speaking of focus, Martin Luther King had an interesting view on how one could live a fulfilling, complete life. He believed you should focus on reaching your personal goals, but also make it an explicit part of your life to help others as well, and finally to make room for God. I think this makes complete sense.

8. Have dreams and do your best to fulfil them

“The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. It’s well that it’s in thine heart.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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There was an eerie prophecy in Martin Luther King’s final address at Bishop Charles J. Mason Temples on April 3rd 1968, a day before he was murdered. In that speech, he speaks of unfulfilled dreams. He gave numerous examples of people who fought hard to realize their dreams but died before they could see the end results. They did all, however, do their best to try and fulfil their dreams. The speech was inspirational, but also realistic.

What is a life worth if you don’t have dreams and don’t try to realize those dreams? You and you alone are the sole owner of your life. No one else can decide for you what your life should be and what you should do. Dare to dream. Take action to make those dreams a reality.

In this life, there are a lot of external factors we don’t have any control over. This means there are a lot of external factors that may prevent us from realizing our dreams. But the things we do have control over, we should take full control. This included our own actions, and it means we can do our best to try and achieve our personal goals.

External forces may prevent us from reaching those dreams. But at a very minimum, we should always do our best to realize our dreams because doing our best is one of the few things we do have full control over.

Closing thoughts

It’s an understatement to say that Martin Luther King made the world a better place. Hopefully, the list above inspires you to make a positive mark on this world too. If you want to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr., read the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (affiliate link helps support this site).

Images via Pixabay.