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.