motivational words
Fans of The Harry Potter series look up to characters like Professor Albus Dumbledore. Source: AFP

Words have power. It is why we put so much stock into motivational words to help us achieve our dreams. 

I remember when I first heard the Scottish proverb, “What’s for you will not go by you” (or in the local slang, “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye”) while studying at the University of Glasgow.

Akin to the better-known quote “what will be, will be”, this proverb gave me a more visual representation and perspective, making it easier to believe and resonate with.

There’s a cultural aspect to motivational words too. For instance, this proverb offered an insight into Scottish culture and mindset. It gave me a better idea of what growing up there must have been like.

Many of us grew up with colourful posters with uplifting quotes decorating the walls of our schools and colleges. 

These phrases push us forward. They remind us of what we would like to work towards and help us look at the bright side. 

People have these motivational words jotted on their planners — some planners even have quotes decorating their covers — and there are even productivity apps that use these quotes to help you along. 

Some use these wise phrases as mantras to live by. Famous people do too.

Running a marathon can be an excruciating journey, but Japanese author Haruki Murakami uses the quote, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”, to motivate himself forward.

It helps him redirect his thoughts and have a more positive outlook.

When faced with insults from Donald Trump, Michelle Obama uttered, “When they go low, we go high”. She used this phrase to hold her head high and not be baited by others’ anger and negativity.

This line encourages people to practice restraint in the face of frustration.

But how useful are these motivational words for students and workers?

University, office and life aren’t easy, as these stats show:

  •  80% of higher education students reported symptoms of stress or anxiety (Uni Health study)
  • Nine out of 10 students experienced stress, while one NUS survey found that nine in 10 students experienced stress (NUS survey)
  • More than half of 1,500 US workers said they were feeling burned out as a result of their job demands (2021 survey by Indeed)
  • More than two-thirds of Americans said they were anxious about how climate change would affect the planet (American Psychiatric Association poll)

Are there motivational quotes strong enough to deal with the rat race, social media-driven anxiety to live the perfect life and a burning world?

The power of words

Anyone who doubts the power of words need only remember the last time their mother scolded them, a stranger remarking on their race or a lover saying “I’m breaking up with you.”

But pain, shame and humiliation aren’t its only effects. Think of when your mother consoled you, a boss praising your hard work or a partner saying “I love you” for the very first time.

In moments of uncertainty, homesickness, self-doubt or at any time when our strength falters, words of wisdom can be a beacon of hope.

They offer guidance, inspiration, and the strength to persevere. 

In these times, the more unique these motivational words are to you, the better.

Language does play an important part in the impact of these quotes. For instance, if we had not given you the translation from the Scottish slang of the proverb earlier, you may not have understood or gained anything from it. 

Can motivational words get lost in translation?

Short answer, yes. Anything can get lost in translation, especially when you rely solely on AI or online translators. 

Recently, The Guardian reported that the growing reliance on language apps has jeopardised some asylum applications in the US.

For instance, on one application, the AI translator did not recognise Belo Horizonte as a city in Brazil and put down its literal translation: “beautiful horizon”.

Literal translations can be damaging as they do not convey the full message of the word or phrase.

The word rice, for example, is difficult to translate directly to Japanese or Swahili as these languages have specific words for uncooked, cooked and brown rice. 

As The Guardian points out, the direct translation of the phrase “This rice is tasty” can suddenly become “this uncooked rice is tasty” if you are unable to see the distinction. 

In his latest comedy special, “I Wish You Would”, Trevor Noah explains the German term, schadenfreude: to take great joy in the pain and suffering of others

While his explanation takes a comedic turn that fully explains how versatile this word is, the literal translation does not make much sense. 

According to Britannica, schadenfreude combines Schaden, which means “damage,” and Freude, which means “joy.” As an English speaker, it is hard to process the phrase “damage joy.” It doesn’t mean anything to us. 

What these examples tell us is motivational words have cultural origins — and the deeper we look into them, the richer our understanding becomes.

In turn, they give more impact to motivational words, nourishing our souls and helping us become better versions of ourselves.

10 best motivational words for international students 

1. “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X

What you learn in university can prepare you to make your way in the job market in the future. (add something about Malcolm X — and why we should take his words seriously) 

Education provides you with a great foundation to build your success. From skills like teamwork and time management to critical thinking skills and meeting deadlines, these are all important as you progress into the working world.

These words by Malcolm X suggest that the future does not happen by chance or luck. Instead, it is shaped by those who take the time and effort to prepare for it. 

motivational words

Nelson Mandela is known for his thought-provoking thoughts and speeches. Source: AFP

2. “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Who better to take advice from than the man who ended the apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to the country?

This statement of his emphasises the potential of education in shaping societies and fostering positive change.

Education is not just about acquiring knowledge; it is a tool of empowerment. Education equips you with the intellectual and critical thinking skills to challenge the status quo, address societal injustices and drive positive change.

It allows you to understand complex issues, communicate effectively, and engage in informed and constructive conversations. 

Making it a “weapon” for dismantling ignorance, prejudice, and inequality, ultimately leads to a better world.

3. “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” – John Wooden

John Wooden was an American basketball coach and player. Nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood,” he won 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association national championships in a 12-year period as head coach for the UCLA Bruins, including a record seven in a row.

His quote encourages the need to focus on your strengths and abilities rather than be hindered by them. It emphasises the importance of a positive mindset and the belief that you can succeed by harnessing your capabilities.

motivational words

Quotes in different languages can help international students understand the culture of a new country. Source: AFP

4. “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein

We will likely make mistakes when we do things we have not mastered. In life, you will make many mistakes, but it is all about how you overcome them that determines your strength. 

Albert Einstein believed that making mistakes is an inevitable part of the learning process and that taking risks and trying new things is necessary for growth and progress. (talk about how many mistakes Einstein made) 

5. “Never let the fear of striking out stop you from playing the game.” – Babe Ruth

Said by the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth, these motivational words transcend beyond just sports. It carries a message about never giving up despite challenges and setbacks. 

Just as in baseball, where the fear of missing a pitch can prevent a player from swinging, in life, the fear of failure can stop someone from pursuing their goals and dreams.

Babe Ruth’s words implore us to push through that fear, step up to the plate, and take our best shot, regardless of the possibility of failure.

It acknowledges that failure is inevitable in any endeavour, but it should not be a reason to stop yourself from participating. Instead, it should be seen as a learning opportunity. 

Imagine if Walt Disney gave up after his first rejection or if JK Rowling didn’t pitch the Harry Potter series 12 times until it got accepted.

motivational words

While Elon Musk has said many controversial things, he is also known for a few words of wisdom. Source: AFP

6. “I think it’s possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.” — Elon Musk

How does one person have enough time to launch rockets into space, build tunnels under Los Angeles, and create one of the most recognisable car brands in the world? Well, if anyone can do it, it is Elon Musk. 

Likened to the real-life Tony Stark, Musk believes that any ordinary person can become extraordinary.

This statement sums up his belief in the power of determination, ambition and hard work. He is one of the wealthiest people in the world, a visionary entrepreneur known for his ambitious ventures in space exploration, electric vehicles and renewable energy. 

He himself is a testament to the idea that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary feats through their choices and actions. He emphasises that your potential is not predetermined by your background or circumstances but rather shaped by your willingness to set and pursue your goals.

Musk’s own journey from a South African-born entrepreneur to a leader in the aerospace and technology industries serves as a living example of how ordinary people can choose to be extraordinary by daring to dream, working tirelessly and challenging to achieve success.

7. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Albus Dumbledore says these words during the first dinner of the school year at Hogwarts. He explains that the school will host several dementors who are there to guard the students.

He knows that dark times are coming and takes this opportunity to give the students the hope they will need to defend themselves against the dementors and other dark creatures.

Throughout the books and movies, Dumbledore shares many motivational words. This line, in particular, sends the message of the power of optimism and resilience. In the face of adversity and challenging circumstances, it encourages you to seek happiness within yourself and to continue being hopeful.  

The metaphorical “light” symbolises one’s inner strength, positivity, and the ability to find joy even when surrounded by difficulties. This quote reminds us that if we focus on the positive aspects of life, we can overcome even the most trying situations.

8. “Venture outside your comfort zone. The rewards are worth it.” – Rapunzel, Tangled

These motivational words of wisdom are a timeless reminder of the value of taking risks and embracing new experiences. Rapunzel spent her entire life in a tower; it was her comfort zone, but she took the risk to break free and explore the unknown. 

Stepping out of your bubble can lead you to a path of personal growth, discovery, and fulfilment that often lies beyond the boundaries of what feels safe and familiar. You open yourself up to a world of possibilities and opportunities they might never have encountered otherwise.

While it can be intimidating to venture into uncharted territory, you will often find your true potential and discover your strengths in those moments of discomfort and uncertainty.

Whether you pursue a new career path, embark on an adventure, or take a leap of faith in your career, the quote reminds us that life can be fully experienced when we are willing to take those brave steps. 

motivational words

There are many lessons to learn from our favourite silly old bear, Winnie The Pooh. Source: AFP

9. “The things that make me different are the things that make me, me.” – Piglet, Winnie the Pooh

Small but mighty, little Piglet might just be the wisest of them all. As a foreign student in a new country, you may feel different and not fit in, but listen to Piglet’s motivational words and remember that it is okay to be different.

After all, who wants to blend in when you can stand out instead?

This quote emphasises the importance of embracing one’s unique cultural background, experiences, and perspectives. It encourages international students to recognise that their differences are not something to be hidden or ashamed of but rather celebrated as part of their identity. 

This quote promotes a sense of self-acceptance and self-confidence among international students who may sometimes feel like outsiders in a new cultural context.

Your uniqueness can be an asset in building connections with others. Piglet’s wisdom encourages international students to navigate the challenges of studying abroad with a positive mindset, ultimately leading to a more enriching experience.

10. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” – Dory, Finding Nemo

These famous motivational words by Dory are sung twice in the movie, first when he and Marlin swim towards the Abyssopelagic Zone to find the mask.

It is briefly sung by Dory again at the end of the film when Marlin tells a group of groupers caught in a fishing net to swim downwards as the groupers break the giant fishing net.

This is an encouraging message, especially for international students struggling while studying abroad. Leaving your home, family and friends for another country isn’t easy and comes with its fair share of challenges. The repetitive chant symbolises persistence and resilience in the face of adversity. 

Dory’s words serve as a reminder that, even when the journey seems tough or uncertain, the key to success lies in continuous effort. By persistently pursuing your goals, you can navigate the unfamiliar waters of your journey. 

Dory’s cheerful and optimistic spirit is also a reminder to maintain a positive attitude and a sense of humour when facing challenges. You can use the same approach as Dory, who encourages her friends to swim through life’s trials with a smile.

So next time you feel beat down and don’t know what to do, listen to Dory and “just keep swimming.”