As a child, Karen Swallow Prior didn’t see herself as belonging to the Church, though she was raised and immersed in Christian culture. Instead, books became her quiet refuge, her place of solitude and an escape from the boredom of her faith. But once she reached grad school, she realized the connection that books had with God, being that He is the Word and the author of all words. She found her faith again.

Prior is now an English professor at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is also the best-selling author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Her upcoming book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, goes on sale September 4th.

RELEVANT asked Prior five questions in regards to her leadership and advice she’d share to someone seeking success.

1. What is the (or one of the) best piece(s) of advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I received was from a professor I had during my first year of college who urged me to change my major to English. I had always loved English and done well in it in school, but I kind of laughed off his advice. I was majoring in social work and had big plans to make the world a better place by helping people.

By the time I was a sophomore, however, I realized that pursuing the thing I really loved while I had the chance to do it would make the world a better place. And now that I’ve been teaching English for nearly 30 years, I think I’ve helped a lot of people, maybe not in quite the same ways I would have as a social worker—but maybe not all that differently either. 

2. What is the last book you read that provided some kind of perspective shift for you?

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs translated knowledge I had about the horrors of slavery from mere abstraction to (vicarious) personal experience. It is one thing to know the facts of history and quite another to read in her own words the profound effects those facts had on one person as she lived through them.

It was a reminder that politics and policy are never separate from the people whose lives they affect. 

3. What’s your favorite inspiring quote? Why?

If a Bible verse counts as an inspiring quote, then my choice would be Proverbs 16:9: “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” This verse captures marvelously the tension between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. As a human being made in God’s image, I have a mind and imagination that allows—even compels—me to dream and scheme. Yet, even as I am doing this, God is in control and working all things, including my life, according to His purpose. As I step forward, I must remain open to His leading. 

4. If you had to name just one essential quality a leader has to have, what would it be and why?

The essential quality for a good leader is humility. In the chapter on humility in my new book, On Reading Well, I explain how the word humility comes from the same root word as the word human. To be humble simply means to have an accurate assessment of who one is as a human being, in both abilities and limitations. It’s an essential quality for all of us but for leaders even more so. One cannot lead well without knowing one’s strengths and one’s weaknesses.

5. If you could give your 21-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

My advice would be to be patient. When we are young, it’s easy to look at the accomplishments of others but not see the time and effort it took to get there. Sometimes we want things or achievements so badly that we are willing to take shortcuts or accept poorer quality to get them. But patience and persistence bring better things in due time.

Life is long. Don’t be in a hurry to do it all at once. And the 40s can be pretty amazing.

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