Full text of Oprah Winfrey’s commencement speech Colorado College. This event occurred on May 19, 2019.
Oprah Winfrey – Talk show host
I got to say that’s a full-circle moment for me. And I just like to take a moment to thank Jesus, and the ancestors and do a little happy dance. Hello! Because I brought 20 girls to the United States. This is my 19th and final graduation today.
19 graduations in the past 3 years, and what’s interesting is… no, 17 graduations and 2 baccalaureates, because I had three, twice in one day in 3 different cities and couldn’t get to all three cities in one day.
So to be here and have you beautiful Palesa; I know where you’ve come from. I know what the blossoming has been here at CC. It gives me such pride and fills me with such joy to see you becoming the woman that you are.
So thank you for that beautiful introduction. And thank you… full circle moment.
Thank you President Tiefenthaler… Tiefenthaler thank you so much.
Good morning Class of 2019.
I’m here for Palesa and I’m here for you. This is my second time. Two years ago, I was here. One of my other daughters, Avakeil [ph], graduated two years ago from CC, and I was back there freezing like everybody else is right now, including a gentleman I saw in the elevator who said don’t mention my name, I will not. Who’d gone back in to change clothes and I thought I’m going to – I am on a cute little white dress and then I thought I’m going to freeze my buns off, so thank you gentleman in the elevator.
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.
I’m here to tell you that your life isn’t some big break like everybody thinks it is, or waiting on the big break. 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 be in service to life and 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 is a process. You can ask anybody who’s been successful. I just passed and saw walking up the lane here, successful entrepreneur and restaurateur Danny Meyer, who’s sitting back there with his family there. Charles is graduating today.
But here’s the truth. Ask Danny or anybody who’s successful. you go to any one of his restaurants: Shake Shack, love it, Union Square, Gramercy Tavern. And you will be impressed by not only the food, which you have to do that if you’re at restaurant, but by the radical hospitality and service.
And so service is not just about when you’re getting served, it’s truly everything. I started my talk show, I was just so happy to be on television.
And I was one day interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan. I thought I was interviewing them so that I could expose their vitriol to the world. I saw those giving signals to each other in the audience and I thought: ‘hmm, something’s going on here’ and I realize, they were using me… they were using the platform for themselves.
So I said to my producers afterwards, I’m not going to do that anymore. Then we did a show where someone was embarrassed and it was my fault. I was responsible for the embarrassment. For some crazy reason we talked a man who was cheating on his wife to come to the show with the woman he was cheating on and his wife. And he said yes.
And while they’re on live television, he says to his wife, that his girlfriend is pregnant. That happened on my watch. And when that happened, shortly after I had interviewed the Klan, and experienced that, I said I’m not going to do that again.
So I started to ask the question: how can I use the show to not just be a show but to allow it to be a service to the viewer. And that question of how do we serve the viewer, transform the show?
And because we asked that question every single day, from 1989 forward, with the intention of only doing what was in service to the people who were watching. It is why no matter where I go in the world, on any given day somebody comes up to me and says: “I watched your show; it changed my life”, “I’ve been watching since I was 5 years old, until I went from DVR to VCRs, to now streaming people watch and were raised by that show.”
I did a good job of raising a lot of people, I must say. And that happened because of an intention to be of service.
So I live in this space of radical love and gratitude. Truly, 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 ten times better than whatever you think.
It’s true, and it’s not because I have wealth, which is great. Money is 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 going to 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 you didn’t think you were going to make it through the block”.
I got that text a couple months ago, 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. Yep, you need your job. And may I say it does not have to be your life’s mission, not your greatest passion, not your most fulfilled self, but a job that pays your rent. Yes, and lets you move out of your parents’ house. Look who’s applauding.
Because yes, they are tired of taking care of you, and are hoping that the CC fine education you’ve received is going to pay off. And it will, I promise you, in ways that today you cannot even imagine.
For years, I’ve been talking about and I’ve done a lot of graduations, that I do a lot of lecturing, talking at the table, exchanges with the girls, and we talk about passion, and purpose, and realizing your dream. And I realized, that I was confusing them, and their expectations were out of whack.
One of my daughter girls who graduated two years ago, came out of school with a job that she previously interned. She bought her own used car, has an apartment she shares with Ron, only one roommate, all with no help from me.
And she’d only been working about six months, she calls me and says “Mama, they want to give me a promotion, but I don’t think I want the promotion. Because I don’t think it fulfills my purpose”.
And I said your purpose right now is to keep that job. 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. But I’ve been working in radio, got my first job in radio at 16, was hired in television at 19. And 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 the 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… many times there are things that look like failure in your life. And I want to clear up, because four years at every graduation I’ve said there’s no such thing as failure, well it is. I’ve said it’s no such thing as failure, it’s just like pointing you into a different direction, it does, and it indeed does.
But in the moment when you fail, it really feels bad, and it’s embarrassing, and it’s bad. 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.
So I realize this, when I was in the struggle of my life. I tried to build a network at the same time I was still trying to do a show. And I did not have the right leadership. Everything is about having people in the right positions to support you.
And so I had to take a good long look at myself, when everything in the media because all of my mistakes are on the evening news or the CNN crawl, I can’t do anything privately.
So in every news story, when every story is about struggle struggle struggle struggle… I had to have a talk with myself and say ‘what is this really about… what is this here to show you’, my favorite question when in crisis, 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’s your source of self-esteem, you’re destined to be unhappy, because you cannot control it.
Jack Canfield, 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 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.
I remember when I finished the school and I had gone to my mentor friend Maya Angelou’s house, Maya was making biscuits and she was teaching me how to make the biscuits.
And I said, “Maya, I’m so sorry you weren’t there for the opening of the school.”
She said, “Oh babe, I know it must have been beautiful.”
I said, “Yes, that school is going to be my greatest legacy.”
And she said, “You have no idea what your legacy will be.”
I said, “Oh no no, Maya, the school… those girls… that’s going to be my legacy.”
And she said as she put down the dough, ‘You have no idea what your legacy will be”.
And I said, ‘Yes ma’am’.
She said because your legacy is every life that you touch. And that I repeat everywhere, because it’s true. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. And the most important thing is, how you touch other people’s lives.
Every day you’re carving out the path even when it looks like you’re not. All your actions are creating equal and opposite reactions, which is the third law of motion in physics. What you put out is coming back. How you think and what you do is already being done unto you. That is my religion. I live by that.
And so that has created a very blessed and spectacular life for me. And I want the same for you. If I could actually teach a class on how to live your best life, it would contain all the gems I’ve learned from all the world’s leading thought leaders.
It would also contain some gems I have not, like yes it does pay to floss, yes you do need to look people in the eye when you speak to them. You need to keep your commitments. If you say you’re going to do something you need to do it. You need to make your bed every day. Because when you do that it makes the whole house look better.
But I put… and you need to not to bring your cell phones to the dinner table. I put many of those little gems, real gems from thought leaders and a little book I did with you graduates in mind. Because so many of my girls were finishing school with the anxiety of what do I do now, mama.
So I wrote- ‘The Path Made Clear’. It’s my stories of figuring it out with gems of wisdom from some of my favorite thought leaders like Jeff and Jack and Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, and many others.
And so since I know you just want to get that diploma, I’m going to save all my wisdom for the book and make sure you get one as you walk across the stage.
And here’s the deal, I’m going to hand you the book, I’m not going to take a selfie. But somebody will be there to take the picture.
And because you all, all of you showered and shaved and came all this way to support, I have made the e-book and the digital audio book version free today for the rest of the day until midnight, wherever books and digital audio books are sold in the United States and Canada. You can just go online and you can get your own digital version of ‘The Path Made Clear’. That’s Apple or Amazon or Google Play or Kobo.
So what does that mean? That means, that you get a book, and you get a book, and everybody gets a book.
Congratulations Class of 2019!
Resources for Further Reading: