The History of ‘This I Believe’
by Tanya Matthews
This I Believe is an exciting media project that invites individuals from all walks of life to write about and discuss the core beliefs that guide their daily lives. They share these statements in weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
The series is based on the 1950’s radio program This I Believe, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Each day, some 39-million Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists and secretaries — anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. Their words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism and racial division.
Eventually, the radio series became a cultural phenomenon. Eighty-five leading newspapers printed a weekly column based on This I Believe. A collection of essays published in 1952 sold 300,000 copies — second only to the Bible that year. The series was translated and broadcast around the globe on the Voice of America. A book of essays translated into Arabic sold 30,000 copies in just three days.
[The NPR series This I Believe can be read and heard here. In addition, the website and organization This I Believe houses thousands of essays written by famous people, such as the ones mentioned above, and everyday people like you and me.]
As a college student in 2020, you are faced with turbulent politics, socioeconomic issues, and ethical dilemmas that will challenge you to take a stand and contribute to the local, national, and global conversation around you. The purpose of this writing task is not to persuade you to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, it is to encourage you to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from your own. Fifty years ago, Edward R. Murrow’s project struck such a chord with millions of Americans. It can do so again today…with you.
Video Resources for Generating Ideas
Dan Gediman on Writing a “This I Believe Essay”
Read Cecelia Munoz’s essay “Getting Angry Can Be a Good Thing” referred to in the previous video here.
“This I Believe” Essay with Animation
“This I Believe” Essay Ideas
1) Analyze Others’ Statements
Consider the following statements, written in response to the question What Have You Learned About Life? Highlight any sentences that resonate with you. Talk about them with a partner or group, explaining why.
1. I’ve learned that when I wave to people in the country, they stop what they are doing and wave back. – Age 9
2. I’ve learned that if you want to cheer yourself up, you should try cheering someone else up. – Age 14
3. I’ve learned that although it’s hard to admit it, I’m secretly glad my parents are strict with me. – Age 15
4. I’ve learned that if someone says something unkind about me, I must live so that no one will believe it. – Age 39
5. I’ve learned that there are people who love you dearly but just don’t know how to show it. – Age 42
6. I’ve learned that you can make someone’s day by simply sending them a little note. – Age 44
7. I’ve learned that the greater a person’s sense of guilt, the greater his or her need to cast blame on others. – Age 46
8. I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. – Age 48
9. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you miss them terribly after they die. – Age 53
10. I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life. – Age 58
11. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. – Age 62
12. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with kindness, I usually make the right decision. – Age 66
13. I’ve learned that it pays to believe in miracles. And to tell the truth, I’ve seen several. – Age 75
14. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. – Age 82
15. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love that human touch—holding hands, a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. – Age 85
16. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. – Age 92
2) Compose Your Own Statement
Write down a sentence that expresses what YOU have learned about life. Maybe it is similar to one of the statements above; maybe it’s completely different. Whatever it is, write it down.
Now free-write about your sentence. Include at least two examples / experiences that you have had that support why you think this way.
Personal Statement/Philosophy: ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Why do you believe in this statement? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Name two experiences that you had that would support the statement:
What does this say about yourself or your personality? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
After your life experience, how have you come to the conclusion that this should be your statement? How have your beliefs changed, if at all? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How has the event effected your relationship with a person, place, or object? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How does your statement apply to you today? (How you view yourself & society)
SAMPLE STUDENT ESSAYS
Sample #1: America’s Beauty Is in Its Diversity
written by Alaa El-Saad, high school student, as heard on NPR’s Tell Me More (2009)
America is built on the idea of freedom, and there is no exception for Muslim women. I believe in the freedom of religion and speech. But mostly, I believe it’s OK to be different, and to stand up for who and what you are. So I believe in wearing the hijab.
The hijab is a religious head covering, like a scarf. I am Muslim and keeping my head covered is a sign of maturity and respect toward my religion and to Allah’s will. To be honest, I also like to wear it to be different. I don’t usually like to do what everyone else is doing. I want to be an individual, not just part of the crowd. But when I first wore it, I was also afraid of the reaction that I’d get at school.
I decided on my own that sixth grade was the time I should start wearing the hijab. I was scared about what the kids would say or even do to me. I thought they might make fun of me, or even be scared of me and pull off my headscarf. Kids at that age usually like to be all the same, and there’s little or no acceptance for being different.
On the first day of school, I put all those negative thoughts behind my back and walked in with my head held high. I was holding my breath a little, but inside I was also proud to be a Muslim, proud to be wearing the hijab, proud to be different.
I was wrong about everything I thought the kids would say or even do to me. I actually met a lot of people because of wearing my head covering. Most of the kids would come and ask me questions—respectfully—about the hijab, and why I wore it.
I did hear some kid was making fun of me, but there was one girl—she wasn’t even in my class, we never really talked much—and she stood up for me, and I wasn’t even there! I made a lot of new friends that year, friends that I still have until this very day, five years later.
Yes, I’m different, but everyone is different here, in one way or another. This is the beauty of America. I believe in what America is built on: all different religions, races and beliefs. Different everything.
Sample #2: The Essentials to Happiness
written by Alexxandra Schuman, high school student, as heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)
As a child, I was generally happy; singing and dancing to my favorite songs; smiling and laughing with my friends and family. But as far back as second grade, I noticed a “darkness,” about me. I didn’t enjoy engaging in many things. I didn’t relate to my peers in elementary school because they appeared so happy, and I didn’t have that ability to achieve happiness so easily.
In middle school things in my life began to get even worse. I began withdrawing from everything I once enjoyed; swimming, tennis, family. I hated going to sleep knowing I had to wake up to another day. I was always tired. Everything was horrible. Finally, midway through eighth grade, I was told I had a chemical imbalance; diagnosed with clinical depression and put on medication. It took months for me to feel the effects of the medication.
When I began to feel happy again, is when I realized that I had to take the responsibility for getting better myself, rather than relying on medication and therapy alone. Aristotle said, “To live happily is an inward power of the soul,” and I believe that this quote describes what I had to do to achieve happiness. Happiness is a journey. Everyone seems to need different things to be happy. But I believe people are blinded from what truly makes one happy.
Growing up, we’re encouraged to be successful in life; but how is success defined? Success and happiness are imagined now as having a lot of money. It is so untrue. Recently I went to Costa Rica and visited the small town of El Roble. I spent the day with a nine-year old girl named Marilyn. She took me to her house to meet her parents. It was obvious that they were not rich; living in a small house with seven children. The house was cluttered but full of life. Those who have decided that success and happiness comes from having money and a big house would be appalled at how utterly happy this family from El Roble is. People say that seeing things like that make you appreciate what you have, but for me, it made me envy them for being so happy without all the things I have.
“The essentials to happiness are something to love, something to do, and something to hope for,” a quote from William Blake sums up what I believe people need to realize to be truly happy in life. People need love; I feel they need their family and their friends more than anything in the world. People need work to do, something to make them feel they are making a difference in the world. People need to know that more good is to come in the future, so they continue to live for “now” instead of constantly worrying about the bad that could come. And most importantly people need to know that happiness is not something that happens overnight. Love and hope is happiness.
Sample #3: Find a Good Frog
written by Delia Motavalli, high school student, as heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)
I believe in finding a good frog. It seems that all throughout childhood, we are taught to look for a happily ever after. “And they all lived happily ever after”; isn’t that the conclusion to many children’s films? When I was a kid I always thought of that as magical; but now really it just seems unrealistic. And it teaches us that what we want is a fairytale like they have in the storybooks. We all want to be Cinderella who gets swept off her feet by the hot prince; we want to live in the royal castle, right? But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing for us to seek. Now I’m not saying I believe in being pessimistic, but I do believe in being realistic; it’s something I got from my mom.
My mother and I always have our best conversations in the rain. We sit in the car, neither of us wanting to brave the rain to get to the house. So we sit. We watch droplets race down the windshield, listen to the rain strike the roof of her little blue Honda, and feel the heater on full-blast rushing at our feet (just the way we like it). I don’t know why, but sitting in the car, we always talk more than normal. There was one rainy day when my mom told me something that is going to stick with me forever. Earlier that day she and my dad had been arguing about something; I can’t remember what. So she said, “Don’t spend your life looking for Prince Charming. Instead, find yourself a really good frog.”
At the time, I found this thought really disheartening. Who wants to think that you’ll never find Prince Charming? You’ll never get to be Cinderella? Another thought that struck my mind: if my mom says there’s no Prince Charming, then what’s my dad? A frog? I asked her, and she replied with, “Of course! If he were Prince Charming, he wouldn’t snore, would be able to cook, and we would never argue. But you know what? He’s a damn good frog.” Of course, being young, I didn’t think of the meaning behind what she was saying. I was too busy thinking of it literally, visualizing my mom as a princess and my dad in frog form.
But a few years later, I understand the value of my mom’s words. You can’t expect everything to be perfect. Let’s be completely honest; if you wait your whole life for your prince with flowing hair, statuesque features, and a white horse, you’re going to be lonely. I think that the point of finding a good frog is you accept something that’s great, flaws and all. It’s so easy to be picky. You can find the one tiny thing that’s wrong, and that one tiny thing is what you can’t get your mind off of. But in life, we can’t afford to wait years in vain for perfection. So I think that a good frog, an amazing frog, the best frog you can find is what we’re really looking for in this world. Don’t laze through life waiting for a happily ever after, because I don’t think you’ll be very happy with the outcome.
Examples from the ‘This I Believe’ Website
Be Cool to the Pizza Dude by Sarah Adams
They Lived Their Faith by Charles Henry Parrish
Returning to What’s Natural by Amelia Baxter-Stoltzfus
The Birthright of Human Dignity by Will Thomas
Remembering All The Boys by Elvia Bautista
I Am Still The Greatest by Muhammad Ali
A Goal Of Service To Humankind by Anthony Fauci
My Life Is Better by Abraham
Give Me a Waffle by Brenda
The Little Things by Sophie Crossley
You can also browse thousands more This I Believe essays by theme.
Prefer to Listen to Get Inspiration?
Check out This I Believe’s Podcast Series
Assignment Guidelines + Suggestions and Tips for Drafting
1. While the examples you’ve been given can serve as a model, it is essential that each of you write about a personal belief or philosophy that you feel strongly about.
2. Tell a story. Personal experiences are the corner stone of a good essay. Your story doesn’t have to be a heart breaker or even a major event, but it must be something that has affected how you think, feel, and act.
List your personal experiences that you intend to use as evidence below:
3. Be concise. Avoid repetition. This essay should be between 500 – 650 words. When read aloud, it should take roughly four minutes.
4. Name your belief. It is essential that you can name your belief in a sentence or two. Focus on one belief only.
This is your thesis. Write it here:
5. Be positive. Avoid preaching or persuading. You aren’t trying to change the way others think or act. Write about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.
6. Use the first person. Speak for yourself. Avoid using we or you.
7. Let your voice shine. Use language that sounds like you. Read it aloud as your revise. Keep making changes until your essay sounds like you and captures the essence of your belief.
5) Peer Review
Once you have written your first draft, arrange for your essay to be edited by a peer, using the following Peer-Editing Checklist:
Writer’s Name: ________________________________________________
Peer Editor’s Name: ________________________________________________
Use your PENCIL or PEN (NOT red or green) to make corrections. Remember, this essay is a work in progress. You are not done writing! Look for ways to improve what you’ve already written.
Tick each step if it has been completed.
_____ 1. Read the paper backwards, one sentence at a time. Check for spelling errors.
Use a dictionary, a friend, or a spell checker to find the correct spelling.
_____ 2. Check for capitalized proper nouns and the first word of each sentence.
_____ 3. Skip a line between each paragraph.
_____ 4. Every sentence should have end punctuation.
_____ 5. Check commas. Are they only used for compound sentences, a list of items, an introductory word or phrase, direct address, setting off interruptions, separating adjectives, or in dates? Do you need to add commas? Make sure you do not have commas separating complete sentences (i.e. comma splice errors that create run-on sentences).
_____ 6. Apostrophes are used only for contractions and to show ownership.
_____ 7. The use of more complex punctuation (dashes, hyphens, semi-colons, parentheses, etc.) is done correctly.
_____ 8. Have you used commonly mixed pairs of words correctly? Check these: they’re/their/there, your/you’re, it’s/its, a/an, to/too/two, are/our/hour, and others.
_____ 9. Read the paper backwards one sentence at a time. Check for sentence fragments and run-ons and correct them.
_____ 10. Did you stay in present tense (such as is, am, do, take, know, etc.) or past tense (such as was, were, did, took, knew, etc.) throughout the entire essay?
_____ 11. Did you stay in first person (I, me, my, we, us, our) or third person (he, him, she, her, they, them, their) throughout the entire essay?
_____ 12. Was there adequate use of specific details and sensory details? Were the details clear and relevant to the statement?
_____ 13. Is the overall purpose/philosophy clear?
_____ 14. Does the conclusion make you go, “Wow!” “Cool!” “I never thought about it that way,” or any other similar reaction?
Other suggestions for the overall content of the piece: