5 Lessons From the Life of Oprah
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Few people in history have been able to reach the same level of achievement as Oprah Winfrey.
Best known for her multi-award-winning daytime talk show, Winfrey has also created a television network (OWN), earned the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, been nominated for an Oscar and been recognized as the first Black female billionaire in the United States.
While Oprah is known for encouraging others to live their best lives, there are valuable lessons we can learn from her own life story.
1. Your past doesn’t define you
Oprah’s success contrasts sharply with her upbringing. Born to an unwed teenage mother, she spent the first few years of her life in extreme poverty on her maternal grandmother’s farm. Winfrey left the farm when she was 6-years-old to join her mother, Vernita, in Milwaukee. Unfortunately living conditions there were not an improvement. While her mom was away at work, Oprah was repeatedly molested by male relatives and a family friend.
This abuse sent Winfrey down a dangerous path to promiscuity and, at age 14, to a pregnancy. After her son died soon after birth, Oprah moved to Nashville to live with her father, Vernon.
The move proved to be a turning point. Guided by dad's strict rules, Oprah became an honor student, earned awards for dramatic recitation at age 17 and won the title of Miss Black Tennessee.
Winfrey didn’t let her past experiences define her. Instead of basing her identity on a previous life of poverty, abuse and self-destructive behavior, Oprah focused on her potential and started on a new path.
2. Education is the key to progress
Oprah has stated that her father’s love of learning was key to helping turn her life around. She believes that the only way a person can truly grow is by changing their way of thinking.
Winfrey learned this lesson after a failed attempt at helping poverty-stricken families in the Chicago area. As Oprah describes in an article for O Magazine:
“…I came up with the misguided idea of moving families out of the projects and into new homes. Trying to show people how to build successful lives was overwhelming—I had taken for granted that they understood what it means to go to work, be on time, and make sure their children go to school and do their homework. So I failed with that idea, but I learned something invaluable: In order to make meaningful changes, you have to transform the way people think.”
The only way to improve your life is by changing your mind first, which happens through education.
3. Don’t be afraid to try something new
Much of Oprah’s success can be attributed to the fact that she took risks and was willing to venture into new territory. Winfrey began her broadcasting career at a Nashville-area radio station and continued working there for several years until she was offered a newscasting job at a local television station.
That was just the first of many opportunities that Oprah embraced. Other people in a similar situation might let the fear of failure prevent them from taking chances. But instead of being complacent, she continued to learn and grow.
This willingness to take risks and explore new avenues has continued throughout her career. Even after the astounding success of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she refused to rest on her laurels.
4. Be authentic and intentional
When Winfrey's talk show first began, it focused on sensational topics like most other daytime offerings. But after taping an episode where a woman found out on the air that her husband had been unfaithful, Oprah made a conscious decision to change the show’s format to align with her values.
As Winfrey explained in another article for O Magazine:
“Right then I decided I'd never again be part of a show that demeans, embarrasses, or diminishes another human being. I replaced the ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ news philosophy with an intention that still guides me—to use the medium of television for its higher good.”
From that point on, The Oprah Winfrey Show shifted its focus away from the salacious to self-improvement.
Regardless of the uncharted territory risk, Oprah let her principles take the lead. As she explains: “Once the light bulb came on for me that day, my calling became to create shows that encourage and inspire as much as they entertain -- television that leaves guests with their dignity and helps us all see our lives in a different way.”
The change in format proved to be beneficial; it led to even greater acclaim and popularity, demonstrating that don’t have to compromise your values to become successful. On the contrary, making intentional, authentic choices can often lead to greater success.
5. Find success through service
As Winfrey stated in yet another article for O Magazine:
“What I know for sure is that if you want to have success, you can't make success your goal…the key is not to worry about being successful but to instead work toward being significant—and the success will naturally follow. How can you serve your way to greatness? When you shift your focus from success to service, your work as a teacher, clerk, doctor, or dot-comer will instantly have more meaning.”
Our culture tends to believe that success must be doggedly pursued at all costs. Oprah’s life demonstrates that you can become successful simply by serving others.