If anyone has a success story to brag about, it's the one and only Oprah Winfrey. Over more than four decades, the long-time talk show host, actress, and philanthropist has worked her way up from poverty to the billionaire rank, fame and worldwide influence.
But at Colorado College's commencement on Sunday, May 19, Winfrey stayed true to her usual form, skipping self-praise and sharing some profoundly deep truths about failure, legacy and success.
Success isn't immediate
No one wants to languish in obscurity. We'd rather swallow the quick pill and wake up with everything, especially when we hear about some new, overnight sensation who really did manage to get rich quick. But don't buy the snake oil.
"Your life isn't some big break like everyone thinks it is, or waiting on the break," Winfrey asserted. "It's actually about taking one significant, life transforming step at a time. [...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."
And while Winfrey acknowledged the incredible nature of her life, she made it clear that her joy and success hasn't come from her money or the attention she gets.
"...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."
So be observant. Be patient. It's even OK, as Winfrey pointed out, to be in a job that's not your life's mission for a while, because where you are now is a rung on the ladder to where you want to or should be. And to restate her own personal mantra, everything is always working out for you.
Failure isn't permanent (or clear)
When failure happens, we're mortified, afraid that somehow we'll never recover or regain what was lost. And we get lost in our own certainty that the way we see the situation is, in fact, reality. But we're not omnipotent, and your perception of what happened can change once you have more pieces of life's puzzle.
"[...Many times there are things that look like failure in your life," Winfrey insisted. "And I want to clear up, because for 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 life pointing you into a different direction. It 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."
And Winfrey offered this single question to ask yourself whenever you screw it up--what is this here to teach or show me? In making that inquiry and seeking a genuine answer, your eyes always stay open to opportunity and growth.
Your legacy is everything
You might have done it.
Said, "I'll be happy when I...[get a degree, earn my first million, am CEO]."
Maybe you've used labels to rationalize your happiness, too (e.g., "I should be happy because I'm a...")
But life has a way of throwing curves, and you can't predict or be in the driver's seat for everything. Cultural standards generally don't match the heart, either.
"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," Winfrey stated. "But to the extent that you start to define yourself through traditional measures of success, to the extent that that's your source of self-esteem, you're destined to be unhappy, because you cannot control it."
So the bottom line is, your job isn't to achieve x, y or z, and to "be" that. Rather, your real purpose and need is to ignore culture, to stop hiding, to "reconnect with the essence of who [you] are, re-own all the disowned parts of [yourself]. [...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 my energy of my personality to actually serve the purpose of my soul," Winfrey explained. "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."
Winfrey admitted didn't always get this truth--her friend, the great poet Maya Angelou, revealed it to her over baking. The real legacy, Angelou taught, the real success and source of joy, is every life that you touch.
So go out. Connect. Do a million small things that matter to a million different people. Because no small thing done with great love and integrity is ever insignificant. It all has meaning, even if we can't pinpoint exactly what that meaning might be where we are. Accept that, and your sense of purpose will never be lost.