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Lessons Learned from Jimmy Carter

By Atul Tandon


As a leader, neighbor, father, citizen, humanitarian, and friend, I am always looking for inspiring people who have run the race well before me—people whose stories and experiences can serve as encouragement or education as I continue my own work. And for years, I’ve been inspired by the legacy of President Jimmy Carter.

Carter is one of my personal heroes. An uncommon man, he has lived a life dedicated to the common good—and has taught me so much about leading from a place of deep faith, humility, excellence, and steadfastness. When Carter moved into hospice care, I found myself reflecting on his legacy and the lessons I have learned from his exceptional life—lessons that have shaped my leadership for decades.

So here, in his own words, are just a few of the lessons I have learned from Jimmy Carter…

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter celebrates his 85th birthday and the grand reopening of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum on Oct. 1, 2009.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter celebrates his 85th birthday and the grand reopening of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum on Oct. 1, 2009.

Pay attention to the needs around you—then do something about them

"My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference."

Perhaps the most significant thing Carter has embodied for me is a commitment to paying attention. Carter had such a profound impact on his community because he took the time to notice the needs around him. Whether it was a mother in need of a home, a congregant in need of additional support, or a neighbor in need of medical care, President Carter was always ready to serve those around him. He experimented with fast-growing trees in his backyard in order to combat deforestation; he mowed the grass at the church; he built countless homes with Habitat for Humanity. He looked, he noticed, he acted—and I hope, over the arc of my career, I can say the same.

Do small things with great faith, consistency, and humility

“I believe that anyone can be successful in life, regardless of natural talent or the environment within which we live. This is not based on measuring success by human competitiveness for wealth, possessions, influence, and fame, but adhering to God’s standards of truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”

Carter’s service and leadership were unwavering. He was raised in rural Georgia without plumbing or electricity—a humble start that reminds me of my own childhood. But Carter worked tirelessly—building his career and chasing his dream to become president of the United States. Along the way, he never lost sight of who he was. He remained committed to his community, to his wife, to his neighbors. He even taught Sunday school throughout his presidency and beyond.

Perhaps most significantly, he treated his years in the White House as just one season of impact over the course of a long, influential life. As former president of Emory University James Laney once wrote, “Jimmy Carter is the only person in history for whom the presidency was a stepping stone.”

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visited children suffering from schistosomiasis during their Feb. 15, 2007, trip to Nasarawa North, Nigeria.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visited children suffering from schistosomiasis during their Feb. 15, 2007, trip to Nasarawa North, Nigeria.

Say yes to the big, bold goal

“We have to inspire our children and grandchildren to take on challenges and risks that at first may seem to be overwhelming, or even impossible. They need to understand that the only failure is not trying.”

At Opportunity International, we know the power of a big, bold goal. When I started speaking about ending extreme poverty, it sounded, in Carter’s words, “overwhelming, or even impossible.” But we were willing to take the risk. We knew that the only failure was not trying—so we said yes to the audacious vision and have devoted our organization and our careers to that one end!

Incredibly, there has been enormous progress towards that goal even in our lifetimes. In 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty; today, that number is an estimated 719 million. The world has cut extreme poverty in half in just a few short decades, with over a billion people released from the scourge of endemic hunger and uncertain daily survival. For the first time in human history, we are driving toward the end of extreme poverty! My peers at many organizations, through collective and focused efforts, have helped eradicate diseases, dramatically improve access to healthcare, and advance justice; we have made the world better for ourselves and for future generations because we said yes to the big, bold goal.

Embrace failure

“Failure is a reality; we all fail at times, and it’s painful when we do. But it’s better to fail while striving for something wonderful, challenging, adventurous, and uncertain than to say, ‘I don’t want to try because I may not succeed completely.”

The logical corollary to saying yes to a big, bold goal is knowing that sometimes we might fail. I have experienced frequent failures over my career, but the power is in getting back up and continuing on. Like Carter, I have come to realize that the biggest failure is not trying at all.

Instead, I would rather work to make the world a better place—a place where everyone can go to bed with a full stomach and a roof over their heads; a place where everyone can wake up and find meaningful work or education. In pursuit of such an enormous goal, I may fail—but I will have failed “striving for something wonderful, challenging, adventurous, and uncertain.”

Live a life of service

“I have learned that our greatest blessings come when we are able to improve the lives of others, and this is especially true when those others are desperately poor or in need.”

Like Carter, I hope when I reach my last days, I am known for having lived a life in service to others. There is no greater calling—no greater honor—than dedicating my life to serving those living in poverty. In the words of the 8th Century BC Jewish prophet, Isaiah,

If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.”

When I began my humanitarian work, I felt challenged by the story of the Good Samaritan—and I remain challenged by it still. How can I use the gifts and blessings I have been granted to help those broken and hurt on the side of the road? Even more so, how can I help rebuild the road itself? In the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.”

This is my hope and goal for my life—and one that we share at Opportunity International. Like Carter, I have found that “the greatest blessings come when we are able to improve the lives of others.” It’s one of the greatest truths I know, and one I’m grateful to spend my life pursuing.

Wherever you are and whatever you do, I hope you will also try and make a difference in the lives of others—both those around you and those who live far away. Like President Carter, I hope you strive for something “wonderful, challenging, adventurous, and uncertain.” For when we do, we will make the world a better place for all.


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