The invitation from Harvard University caught Oprah Winfrey at a low point. Her new TV network was struggling, branded a flop in the media, when Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust called last year to ask Winfrey to address 2013 graduates.
The request came “in the very moment when I had stopped succeeding”, Winfrey recalled.
She headed for a long shower to think (“It was either that or a bag of Oreos,” she joked) and emerged resolved to change her story by the time her speech rolled around.
A year later, Winfrey said, her Oprah Winfrey Network has found its footing and her approach to facing setbacks had been validated. Stumbles are inevitable but not permanent, Winfrey told graduates Thursday.
“I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure,” she said. “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
Winfrey spoke during the afternoon session of Harvard’s 362nd commencement before a packed Harvard Yard. The media mogul and former talk-show host urged graduates to find their own story, which she described as their true calling or purpose.
“When you inevitably struggle and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out,” she said.
Her own calling, she said, was to use television to show people “that what unites us is ultimately far more redeeming and compelling than anything that separates (us).”
Winfrey’s speech dipped into politics, as she referred to entrenched partisanship that’s stymied legislation she said most Americans favour, including stronger background checks for gun purchases and a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Winfrey urged graduates to break through divisions and spoke of a lesson she learnt from doing thousands of interviews. Every person — from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Beyonce, “in all her Beyonce-ness” — asks the same thing when the interview is over: “Was that OK?”
People want to be validated and know that they’re being understood, Winfrey said. She challenged graduates to do that by personally connecting with people as a way to bridge divides.
“Even though this is the college where Facebook was born, my hope is that you will have the courage to go out and have conversations with people you disagree with,” she said.
Ultimately, graduates need to be true to themselves and open to sharing who they are, she said.
“What you learn, teach” what you get, give,” Winfrey said. “That, my friends, is what gives your life purpose and meaning.”