Oprah Winfrey is certainly no stranger to the commencement speech circuit, having spoken at 19 graduations to date. And in her speech at Colorado College this weekend, Oprah did what Oprah does best: give practical and actionable advice you’d be foolish not to live by. The whole speech is definitely worth a watch, but here are the highlights.
“Small steps lead to big accomplishments”
I especially appreciate and resonate with your class motto–the quote from Angela Davis, which says, ‘You have to act as if it’s possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do that all the time.’ I’m here to tell you that you actually do get to transform the world every day by your actions. Small steps lead to big accomplishments. And I’m here to tell you that your life isn’t some big break like everybody thinks it is. It’s actually about taking one significant, life-transforming step at a time.
So you can pick a problem, literally any problem. The list is long because there’s gun violence and economic inequality. And there’s media bias, and the homeless need opportunity. And the addicted need treatment. And the Dreamers need protection. The prison system needs to be reformed. The social safety net needs saving. Misogyny needs to stop. And the truth is, you cannot fix everything. But what you can do here and now is make a decision because life is about decisions. And the decision is that you will use your life in service. You will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. You will lend a hand. You will offer your talent and your kindness however you can. And you will radically transform whatever moment you’re in, which leads to bigger moments. Because the truth is success, it’s a process.
“Your own path made clear”
I live in this space of radical love and gratitude. Truly, I have, I feel, the most beautiful life that you can imagine. I sit around trying to think of who could have a better life. And I will tell you whatever you imagine my life to be like, ‘I wonder what Oprah’s doing right now?’ It’s always 10 times better than whatever you think. And it’s not because I have wealth, which is great. Money’s fabulous. I love it. And I get a lot of attention. That’s also good sometimes. But it’s because I had appreciation for the small steps–the seeds that were planted. The map and flow of my life that unfolded because I was paying attention.
You have to pay attention to your life because it is speaking to you all the time. And the bumps in the road and the failures that pointed me in a new direction and led me to a path made clear that is what I’m wishing for you today: Your own path made clear. And I know that there is a lot of anxiety, a lot about what the future holds and how much money you’re gonna make. But your anxiety does not contribute one iota to your progress. I’m here to tell you. It does the opposite. Look at how many times you worried and you were upset. And here you are today–you made it and I’m here to tell you that you’re going to be more than okay. So take a deep breath with me right now and repeat this: Everything is always working out for me. I want to hear it. Everything is always working out for me. That’s my mantra. Make it yours. Everything is always working out for me because it is, and it has, and it will continue to be as you forge and discover your own path. But first you do need a job.
“Everything is always working out for you”
Your purpose is to do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do. I borrowed that line from The Great Debaters. So here’s the truth: For years I had a job, and through that job doing a lot of things that I actually didn’t want to do, I got demoted and discovered my life’s calling. So I was on the air as a reporter. My job ended when I was 28 years old. It was a job because every day I felt like, I don’t know if this is really what I’m supposed to be doing. But my father was like, ‘You better keep that job.’
So when I was 28, it wasn’t working out for me on the news because I was too emotional. I’d go to cover stories and cry because people lost their houses or lost their children. I was told that I was going to be taken off the evening news and put on a talk show–that was a demotion for me at the time. That actually worked out for me. So I would like to say that many times there are things that look like failure in your life. And I want to clear up because for years at every graduation I’ve said, ‘There’s no such thing as failure.’ Well, there is. I’ve said there’s no such thing as failure–it’s just life pointing you into a different direction. It does. It indeed does. But in the moment when you fail, it really feels bad. And it’s embarrassing. And it’s going to happen to you if you keep living. But I guarantee you, it also will pass and you will be fine. Why? Because everything is always working out for you.
“Failure is what’s going to humble you”
My favorite question when in crisis is, What is this here to teach or show me? Jeff Weiner, one of my friends and founder of Linkedin, says that failure is what’s going to humble you. It helps you realize how fleeting success can be–at least traditional measures of success–because you realize that, to some extent, how it is just beyond your control and you invest less in it in terms of the way you define yourself. Success in terms of achieving objectives, in terms of manifesting a mission, in terms of manifesting a vision–that’s all good, especially if what you do can create good in the world. But to the extent that you start to define yourself through traditional measures of success, to the extent that that’s your source of self-esteem, you’re destined to be unhappy because you cannot control it.
“Be yourself–but be all of you”
Jack Canfield, [the author of] Chicken Soup for the Soul, another one of my thought leaders that I admire, says the greatest wound we’ve all experienced is somehow being rejected for being our authentic self. And as a result of that, we then try to be what we’re not to get approval, love, protection, safety, money, whatever that is. And the real need for all of us really is to reconnect with the essence of who we really are. Re-own all the disowned parts of ourselves, whether it’s our emotions, our spirituality, whatever. We all go around hiding parts of ourselves. He says he was with a Buddhist teacher a number of years ago and that teacher said, ‘Here’s the secret: If you were to meditate for 20 years, this is where you’d finally get–to just be yourself, but be all of you.’
So I’ve made a living, not a living, but a real life from being true to myself, using the energy of my personality to actually serve the purpose of my soul. And that purpose, I’m here to tell you, gets revealed to you daily. It is not just one thing. It is the thread that is connecting the dots of everything that you do. So when I first started television at 19 as I said, I was just happy to have a job. But later through experience, trial, error, some failures, recognized that my true purpose was to be an inspiration and a force for good to allow people to see the best of themselves through the work and the stories that we were able to tell. And so that becomes my legacy.
Watch Oprah’s full speech below, which begins at the 49:05 mark: