Stanford Report, June 15, 2008
Oprah talks to graduates about feelings, failure and finding happiness
Following is an edited transcript of Oprah Winfrey's speech at Stanford's Commencement ceremony Sunday, June 15, 2008
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.
need to begin by letting everyone in on a little secret. The secret is
that Kirby Bumpus, Stanford Class of '08, 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.
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, "Ohmigod,
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, "Ohmigod, is that Gayle King?" And Kirby's like, "Uh-huh. She's my mom."
And so the person says, "Ohmigod, does it mean, like, you know Oprah Winfrey?"
And Kirby says, "Sort of."
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.
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
just love saying "Stanford." Because the truth is, I know I would have
never gotten my degree at all, 'cause 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, 'cause,
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."
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 gonna do
without that degree." And I'd say, "But, Dad, I have my own television
And he'd say, "Well, I still don't know what you're going to do without that degree."
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."
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.
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.
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
being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and
that which is going to best help you evolve, 'cause 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.
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
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
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.
three lessons that have had the greatest impact on my life have to do
with feelings, with failure and with finding happiness.
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.
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, "Ohmigod, 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.
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."
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.
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 OK.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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, 'cause 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.
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. And that's where
everything that followed for me began.
I got that lesson. When you're doing the work you're meant to do, it
feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you're getting
true. And how do you know when you're doing something right? How do you
know that? It feels so. What I know now is that feelings are really
your GPS system for life. When you're supposed to do something or not
supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know.
The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking
your gut instead. Every right decision I've made—every right decision
I've ever made—has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I've ever
made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice of myself.
it doesn't feel right, don't do it. That's the lesson. And that lesson
alone will save you, my friends, a lot of grief. Even doubt means
don't. This is what I've learned. There are many times when you don't
know what to do. When you don't know what to do, get still, get very
still, until you do know what to do.
when you do get still and let your internal motivation be the driver,
not only will your personal life improve, but you will gain a
competitive edge in the working world as well. Because, as Daniel Pink
writes in his best-seller, A Whole New Mind,
we're entering a whole new age. And he calls it the Conceptual Age,
where traits that set people apart today are going to come from our
hearts—right brain—as well as our heads. It's no longer just the
logical, linear, rules-based thinking that matters, he says. It's also
empathy and joyfulness and purpose, inner traits that have transcendent
qualities bloom when we're doing what we love, when we're involving the
wholeness of ourselves in our work, both our expertise and our emotion.
I say to you, forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly,
just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody
has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you.
how do I define success? Let me tell you, money's pretty nice. I'm not
going to stand up here and tell you that it's not about money, 'cause
money is very nice. I like money. It's good for buying things.
having a lot of money does not automatically make you a successful
person. What you want is money and meaning. You want your work to be
meaningful. Because meaning is what brings the real richness to your
life. What you really want is to be surrounded by people you trust and
treasure and by people who cherish you. That's when you're really rich.
So, lesson one, follow your feelings. If it feels right, move forward. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it.
I want to talk a little bit about failings, because nobody's journey is
seamless or smooth. We all stumble. We all have setbacks. If things go
wrong, you hit a dead end—as you will—it's just life's way of saying
time to change course. So, ask every failure—this is what I do with
every failure, every crisis, every difficult time—I say, what is this
here to teach me? And as soon as you get the lesson, you get to move
on. If you really get the lesson, you pass and you don't have to repeat
the class. If you don't get the lesson, it shows up wearing another
pair of pants—or skirt—to give you some remedial work.
what I've found is that difficulties come when you don't pay attention
to life's whisper, because life always whispers to you first. And if
you ignore the whisper, sooner or later you'll get a scream. Whatever
you resist persists. But, if you ask the right question—not why is this
happening, but what is this here to teach me?—it puts you in the place
and space to get the lesson you need.
My friend Eckhart Tolle, who's written this wonderful book called A New Earth
that's all about letting the awareness of who you are stimulate
everything that you do, he puts it like this: He says, don't react
against a bad situation; merge with that situation instead. And the
solution will arise from the challenge. Because surrendering yourself
doesn't mean giving up; it means acting with responsibility.
of you know that, as President Hennessy said, I started this school in
Africa. And I founded the school, where I'm trying to give South
African girls a shot at a future like yours—Stanford. And I spent five
years making sure that school would be as beautiful as the students. I
wanted every girl to feel her worth reflected in her surroundings. So,
I checked every blueprint, I picked every pillow. I was looking at the
grout in between the bricks. I knew every thread count of the sheets. I
chose every girl from the villages, from nine provinces. And yet, last
fall, I was faced with a crisis I had never anticipated. I was told
that one of the dorm matrons was suspected of sexual abuse.
was, as you can imagine, devastating news. First, I cried—actually, I
sobbed—for about half an hour. And then I said, let's get to it; that's
all you get, a half an hour. You need to focus on the now, what you
need to do now. So, I contacted a child trauma specialist. I put
together a team of investigators. I made sure the girls had counseling
and support. And Gayle and I got on a plane and flew to South Africa.
the whole time I kept asking that question: What is this here to teach
me? And, as difficult as that experience has been, I got a lot of
lessons. I understand now the mistakes I made, because I had been
paying attention to all of the wrong things. I'd built that school from
the outside in, when what really mattered was the inside out.
it's a lesson that applies to all of our lives as a whole. What matters
most is what's inside. What matters most is the sense of integrity, of
quality and beauty. I got that lesson. And what I know is that the
girls came away with something, too. They have emerged from this more
resilient and knowing that their voices have power.
their resilience and spirit have given me more than I could ever give
to them, which leads me to my final lesson—the one about finding
happiness—which we could talk about all day, but I know you have other
wacky things to do.
a small topic this is, finding happiness. But in some ways I think it's
the simplest of all. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem for her children.
It's called "Speech to the Young : Speech to the Progress-Toward." And
she says at the end, "Live not for battles won. / Live not for
the-end-of-the-song. / Live in the along." She's saying, like Eckhart
Tolle, that you have to live for the present. You have to be in the
moment. Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over
this present moment, because life is now.
I think she's also saying, be a part of something. Don't live for
yourself alone. This is what I know for sure: In order to be truly
happy, you must live along with and you have to stand for something
larger than yourself. Because life is a reciprocal exchange. To move
forward you have to give back. And to me, that is the greatest lesson
of life. To be happy, you have to give something back.
know you know that, because that's a lesson that's woven into the very
fabric of this university. It's a lesson that Jane and Leland Stanford
got and one they've bequeathed to you. Because all of you know the
story of how this great school came to be, how the Stanfords lost their
only child to typhoid at the age of 15. They had every right and they
had every reason to turn their backs against the world at that time,
but instead, they channeled their grief and their pain into an act of
grace. Within a year of their son's death, they had made the founding
grant for this great school, pledging to do for other people's children
what they were not able to do for their own boy.
lesson here is clear, and that is, if you're hurting, you need to help
somebody ease their hurt. If you're in pain, help somebody else's pain.
And when you're in a mess, you get yourself out of the mess helping
somebody out of theirs. And in the process, you get to become a member
of what I call the greatest fellowship of all, the sorority of
compassion and the fraternity of service.
Stanfords had suffered the worst thing any mom and dad can ever endure,
yet they understood that helping others is the way we help ourselves.
And this wisdom is increasingly supported by scientific and
sociological research. It's no longer just woo-woo soft-skills talk.
There's actually a helper's high, a spiritual surge you gain from
serving others. So, if you want to feel good, you have to go out and do
when you do good, I hope you strive for more than just the good feeling
that service provides, because I know this for sure, that doing good
actually makes you better. So, whatever field you choose, if you
operate from the paradigm of service, I know your life will have more
value and you will be happy.
was always happy doing my talk show, but that happiness reached a depth
of fulfillment, of joy, that I really can't describe to you or measure
when I stopped just being on TV and looking at TV as a job and decided
to use television, to use it and not have it use me, to use it as a
platform to serve my viewers. That alone changed the trajectory of my
I know this—that whether you're an actor, you offer your talent in the
way that most inspires art. If you're an anatomist, you look at your
gift as knowledge and service to healing. Whether you've been called,
as so many of you here today getting doctorates and other degrees, to
the professions of business, law, engineering, humanities, science,
medicine, if you choose to offer your skills and talent in service,
when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that
paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift. And I know
you haven't spent all this time at Stanford just to go out and get a
been enriched in countless ways. There's no better way to make your
mark on the world and to share that abundance with others. My constant
prayer for myself is to be used in service for the greater good.
let me end with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King. Dr.
King said, "Not everybody can be famous." And I don't know, but
everybody today seems to want to be famous.
fame is a trip. People follow you to the bathroom, listen to you pee.
It's just—try to pee quietly. It doesn't matter, they come out and say,
"Ohmigod, it's you. You peed."
That's the fame trip, so I don't know if you want that.
Dr. King said, "Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be
great, because greatness is determined by service." Those of you who
are history scholars may know the rest of that passage. He said, "You
don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make
your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about
Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory
of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of
thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace
and a soul generated by love."
In a few moments, you'll all be officially Stanford's '08.
have the heart and the smarts to go with it. And it's up to you to
decide, really, where will you now use those gifts? You've got the
diploma, so go out and get the lessons, 'cause I know great things are
sure to come.
know, I've always believed that everything is better when you share it,
so before I go, I wanted to share a graduation gift with you.
Underneath your seats you'll find two of my favorite books. Eckhart
Tolle's A New Earth is my current book club selection. Our New Earth webcast has been downloaded 30 million times with that book. And Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future has reassured me I'm in the right direction.
I really wanted to give you cars but I just couldn't pull that off! Congratulations, '08!
Thank you. Thank you.