Oprah Winfrey gave her commencement address to the Class of 2008 at Stanford on June 15, 2008. In her address, she shared three lessons about feelings, failure and finding happiness.
Well, thank you, President Hennessy, and to the trustees and the faculty, to all of the parents and grandparents, to you, the Stanford graduates. Thank you for letting me share this amazing day with you.
I need to begin by letting everyone in on a little secret. The secret is that Kirby Bumpus, Stanford Class of 2008, is my goddaughter. So, I was thrilled when President Hennessy asked me to be your Commencement speaker, because this is the first time I’ve been allowed on campus since Kirby’s been here.
You see, Kirby’s a very smart girl. She wants people to get to know her on her own terms, she says. Not in terms of who she knows. So, she never wants anyone who’s first meeting her to know that I know her and she knows me.
So, when she first came to Stanford for new student orientation with her mom, I hear that they arrived and everybody was so welcoming, and somebody came up to Kirby and they said, “Oh my god, that’s Gayle King!” Because a lot of people know Gayle King as my BFF – best friend forever.
And so somebody comes up to Kirby, and they say, “Oh, my God, is that Gayle King?” And Kirby’s like, “Uh-huh. She is my mom.”
And so the person says, “Oh my God, does it mean, like, you know Oprah Winfrey?”
And Kirby says, “Sort of.” I said, “Sort of? You sort of know me?”
Well, I have photographic proof. I have pictures which I can e-mail to you all of Kirby riding horsey with me on all fours. So, I more than sort-of know Kirby Bumpus.
And I’m so happy to be here, just happy that I finally, after four years, get to see her room. There’s really nowhere else I’d rather be, because I’m so proud of Kirby, who graduates today with two degrees, one in human bio and the other in psychology.
Love you, Kirby Cakes! That’s how well I know her. I can call her Cakes. And so proud of her mother and father, who helped her get through this time, and her brother, Will.
I really had nothing to do with her graduating from Stanford, but every time anybody’s asked me in the past couple of weeks what I was doing, I would say, “I’m getting ready to go to Stanford.” I just love saying “Stanford.”
Because the truth is, I know I would have never gotten my degree at all, because I didn’t go to Stanford. I went to Tennessee State University. But I never would have gotten my diploma at all, because I was supposed to graduate back in 1975, but I was short one credit.
And I figured, I’m just going to forget it, because, you know, I’m not going to march with my class.
Because by that point, I was already on television. I’d been in television since I was 19 and a sophomore. Granted, I was the only television anchor person that had an 11 o’clock curfew doing the 10 o’clock news.
Seriously, my dad was like, “Well, that news is over at 10:30. Be home by 11.” But that didn’t matter to me, because I was earning a living.
I was on my way. So, I thought, I’m going to let this college thing go and I only had one credit short.
But, my father, from that time on and for years after, was always on my case, because I did not graduate.
He’d say, “Oprah Gail” that’s my middle name “I don’t know what you’re going to do without that degree.”
And I’d say, “But, Dad, I have my own television show.”
And he’d say, “Well, I still don’t know what you’re going to do without that degree.”
And I’d say, “But, Dad, now I’m a talk show host.”
He’d say, “I don’t know how you’re going to get another job without that degree.”
So, in 1987, Tennessee State University invited me back to speak at their commencement. By then, I had my own show, was nationally syndicated. I’d made a movie, had been nominated for an Oscar and founded my company, Harpo.
But I told them, I cannot come and give a speech unless I can earn one more credit, because my dad’s still saying I’m not going to get anywhere without that degree.
So, I finished my coursework, I turned in my final paper and I got the degree. And my dad was very proud.
And I know that, if anything happens, that one credit will be my salvation. But I also know why my dad was insisting on that diploma, because, as B. B. King put it, “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take that away from you.”
And learning is really in the broadest sense what I want to talk about today, because your education, of course, isn’t ending here. In many ways, it’s only just begun.
Planet Earth as school
The world has so many lessons to teach you. I consider the world, this Earth, to be like a school and our life the classrooms. And sometimes here in this Planet Earth school the lessons often come dressed up as detours or roadblocks. And sometimes as full-blown crises.
And the secret I’ve learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons, lessons from the grandest university of all, that is, the universe itself. It’s being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and that which is going to best help you evolve, because that’s really why we’re here, to evolve as human beings. To grow into more of ourselves, always moving to the next level of understanding, the next level of compassion and growth.
I think about one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received: I interviewed with a reporter when I was first starting out in Chicago. And then many years later, I saw the same reporter.
And she said to me, “You know what? You really haven’t changed. You’ve just become more of yourself.”
And that is really what we’re all trying to do, become more of ourselves. And I believe that there’s a lesson in almost everything that you do and every experience, and getting the lesson is how you move forward. It’s how you enrich your spirit.
And, trust me, I know that inner wisdom is more precious than wealth. The more you spend it, the more you gain.
So, today, I just want to share a few lessons — meaning three that I’ve learned in my journey so far. And aren’t you glad? Don’t you hate it when somebody says, “I’m going to share a few,” and it’s 10 lessons later?
And, you’re like, “Listen, this is my graduation. This is not about you.”
So, it’s only going to be three.
The three lessons that have had the greatest impact on my life have to do with feelings, with failure and with finding happiness.
Follow your feelings
A year after I left college, I was given the opportunity to co-anchor the 6 o’clock news in Baltimore, because the whole goal in the media at the time I was coming up was you try to move to larger markets. And Baltimore was a much larger market than Nashville.
So, getting the 6 o’clock news co-anchor job at 22 was such a big deal. It felt like the biggest deal in the world at the time. And I was so proud, because I was finally going to have my chance to be like Barbara Walters, which is who I had been trying to emulate since the start of my TV career.
So, I was 22 years old, making $22,000 a year. And it’s where I met my best friend, Gayle, who was an intern at the same TV station.
And once we became friends, we’d say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it! You’re making $22,000 and you’re only 22. Imagine when you’re 40 and you’re making $40,000!”
When I turned 40, I was so glad that didn’t happen.
So, here I am, 22, making $22,000 a year and, yet, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right.
The first sign, as President Hennessy was saying, was when they tried to change my name. The news director said to me at the time, “Nobody’s going to remember Oprah. So, we want to change your name. We’ve come up with a name we think that people will remember and people will like. It’s a friendly name: Suzie.”
Hi, Suzie. Very friendly. You can’t be angry with Suzie. Remember Suzie. But my name wasn’t Suzie.
And, you know, I’d grown up not really loving my name, because when you’re looking for your little name on the lunch boxes and the license plate tags, you’re never going to find Oprah.
So, I grew up not loving the name, but once I was asked to change it, I thought, well, it is my name and do I look like a Suzie to you? So, I thought, no, it doesn’t feel right.
I’m not going to change my name. And if people remember it or not, that’s Okay.
And then they said they didn’t like the way I looked. This was in 1976, when your boss could call you in and say, “I don’t like the way you look.” Now that would be called a lawsuit, but back then they could just say, “I don’t like the way you look.” Which, in case some of you in the back, if you can’t tell, is nothing like Barbara Walters.
So, they sent me to a salon where they gave me a perm, and after a few days all my hair fell out and I had to shave my head. And then they really didn’t like the way I looked.
Because now I am black and bald and sitting on TV. Not a pretty picture.
But even worse than being bald, I really hated, hated, hated being sent to report on other people’s tragedies as a part of my daily duty, knowing that I was just expected to observe, when everything in my instinct told me that I should be doing something, I should be lending a hand.
So, as President Hennessy said, I’d cover a fire and then I’d go back and I’d try to give the victims blankets. And I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night because of all the things I was covering during the day. And, meanwhile, I was trying to sit gracefully like Barbara and make myself talk like Barbara. And I thought, well, I could make a pretty goofy Barbara.
And if I could figure out how to be myself, I could be a pretty good Oprah. I was trying to sound elegant like Barbara. And sometimes I didn’t read my copy, because something inside me said, this should be spontaneous.
So, I wanted to get the news as I was giving it to the people. So, sometimes, I wouldn’t read my copy and it would be, like, six people on a pileup on I-40. Oh, my goodness. And sometimes I wouldn’t read the copy because I wanted to be spontaneous and I’d come across a list of words I didn’t know and I’d mispronounce.
And one day I was reading copy and I called Canada “Ca nada.” And I decided, this Barbara thing’s not going too well. I should try being myself.
But at the same time, my dad was saying, “Oprah Gail, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. You better keep that job.”
And my boss was saying, “This is the nightly news. You’re an anchor, not a social worker. Just do your job.”
So, I was juggling these messages of expectation and obligation and feeling really miserable with myself. I’d go home at night and fill up my journals, because I’ve kept a journal since I was 15, so I now have volumes of journals.
So, I’d go home at night and fill up my journals about how miserable I was and frustrated. Then I’d eat my anxiety. That’s where I learned that habit.
And after eight months, I lost that job. They said I was too emotional. I was too much.
But since they didn’t want to pay out the contract, they put me on a talk show in Baltimore. And the moment I sat down on that show, the moment I did, I felt like I’d come home.
I realized that TV could be more than just a playground, but a platform for service, for helping other people lift their lives. And the moment I sat down, doing that talk show, it felt like breathing. It felt right.