Oprah Winfrey Gives Harvard Commencement Speech, Encourages Grads to Set “Inner Moral GPS” (VIDEO)

Oprah Winfrey at Harvard (Photograph by Jim Harrison)

Media titan and global philanthropist Oprah Winfrey gave the Commencement Address at Harvard College today after receiving an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University.  According to Harvard Magazine.com, Winfrey, appropriately clad in Crimson (the school color) gave a 30-minute address of inspiration, anecdote, and uplifting aphorisms, drawing on her own experience. She hoped to offer inspiration to “anyone who feels inferior or disadvantaged or screwed by life—this is a speech for the Quad” (a reference to the former Radcliffe, now College, residences considered by some undergraduates to be inferior to the Houses closer to the Charles River and the center of campus).

During her introduction, Winfrey said one did not have to have a Type A personality to come to Harvard (or to succeed in television), “but it helps.” Her original talk show had been an enormous success for a quarter-century, she noted, topping the ratings in its time slot for 21 years. But she felt the need for new challenges, stopped the program, and launched the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), only to see it become a dismal flop. A year ago, at the low point, she recalled, “the worst time in my professional life,” President Faust called to ask her to speak today. At that moment of stress, frustration, and embarrassment, Winfrey said, she could scarcely conceive of addressing successful Harvard graduates. She repaired to the shower (“It was either that or a bag of Oreos”), remembered the spiritual lyric “when the morning comes,” and determined that her professional woes would not last—that she would turn things around, certainly by the time of her Commencement address.

More broadly, she told the graduates, “It doesn’t matter how far you might rise,” no matter how they might raise their own bars and push themselves, they would surely stumble and fall. Then, they must remember, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction”–even though, from deep in a hole, it might feel like failure.

To proceed, to learn from every mistake, the graduates must figure out the right next move by consulting their “inner moral GPS.” When members of the class of 2013 Google themselves hereafter, she said, their Harvard identity will always appear. But their success will be measured not by what they want to be; rather it will depend on who they want to be. Knowing who they want to be depends on creating the story that’s “about your purpose.”

Winfrey said she found her purpose in 1994, when she met a young girl who collected pocket change, ultimately amassing $1,000, to help others—an act that inspired Winfrey to call on viewers to do something similar. They collected $3 million in one month, she recounted, and established the Angel Network to fund education and build schools. That “focused my internal GPS,” she said, changing her purpose from appearing on television to determining to “use television and not be used by it.” She aimed to do so by finding the things that unite people and highlighting the transcendent nature of humans’ better selves.

She recalled the commitment of the parents of a child murdered in Sandy Hook last winter, facing Congressional resistance to weapons legislation, who nonetheless declared that “our hearts are broken, but our spirits are not.”

The media depict a country “that is polarized, that is paralyzed, and that is self-interested,” Winfrey said. But Americans are better than the cynicism expressed in Washington and the story told by 24-hour cable-news channels. A majority, she said, supports stronger gun background checks, understanding that they would protect children and not infringe on the Second Amendment. A majority wants a clear path to citizenship for undocumented aliens. And a majority “from both parties and from no party” wants indigent mothers to have access to food and shelter for their children.

“What are you going to do about it?” she asked. She challenged the graduates to enter public service, start their own television show, or collect their own supplies of pocket change, all with the aim of breaking down the barriers to change, drawing on the advantages of their Harvard education. “That’s where your story gets reallygood,” she said.

Her philanthropic work began from an analog network and program that reached 20 million viewers at its peak; the graduates, in a digital world, could reach billions of people in seconds. Their generation, predictions to the contrary, voted heavily in 2008, and more heavily in 2012. “Your generation has developed a finely honed radar for b.s.” she said, and understands that real progress depends on authenticity, integrity, and empathy. Humans don’t want to be divided, she said—they “want to be validated.” After the cameras are shut off, she said, every one of her 35,000-plus interview subjects–from presidents to heroes and housewives—has asked, anxiously, “Was that okay?”

Facebook, she went on, was invented at Harvard. But the graduates must go out and have “more face-to-face conversations with people you disagree with” to bridge the issues that are divisive. There is “a light inside each of us,” and it will prove illuminating if allowed to shine. Success and happiness would follow, as it had for her, if graduates “fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of your self as a human being. You want to max out your humanity.”

After a few more anecdotes, Winfrey assured the graduates that when they stumble and fall, when they are full of doubt, if they then are guided by “the GPS within yourself to find out what makes you come alive, you will be more than okay. You will be happy, you will be successful, and you will make a difference in the world.”

She thanked her audience, and concluded, “Was that okay?”  Watch Part One of her address below:

article via HarvardMagazine.com, additions by Lori Lakin Hutcherson


2 thoughts on “Oprah Winfrey Gives Harvard Commencement Speech, Encourages Grads to Set “Inner Moral GPS” (VIDEO)”

    1. Not quite sure if Ms. Winfrey has officially ever studied law (though we’d certainly not put it past this fabulously accomplished woman), but her degree from Harvard was honorary.

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