6 must-read bits of wisdom from Oprah’s college commencement speeches

Instagram | Oprah

You’d be hard-pressed to think of someone more successful than Oprah Winfrey. She had a nationally syndicated TV talk show that topped the daytime television ratings for two decades, starred in movies, started her own television network and has interviewed the biggest celebrities and multiple presidents.

Even early in her career, Winfrey smashed barriers — she was Nashville’s first African-American television news correspondent and the youngest person to co-anchor the news for CBS affiliate WTVF at the beginning of her career in 1973. And she’s now one of the richest people in the world.

Winfrey’s success hasn’t just come from her hard work and on-screen talent, but her uncanny ability to inspire people to go out and do fulfilling, meaningful work in the world. So, who’s the best person to impart wisdom to the next generation to go after their dreams — and not because it’ll bring them fortune or notoriety, but because it will make them happy? None other than Winfrey herself.

This spring, she delivered an incredibly moving commencement speech to the graduating class at Colorado College, but she’s delivered a number of graduation speeches —19, according to Fast Company — throughout the years.

Here are some of the best pieces of wisdom she’s imparted on college seniors that all of us can learn from:

1. Know What You Stand For

The question, “What are you willing to stand for,” Winfrey told the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at their 2018 commencement ceremony, “is going to follow you for the rest of your life.” So, she suggests, “Put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it,” she said, also noting that it’s important to “Show up, do the work, get your hands dirty.”

oprah winfrey usc photo
Getty Images | Leon Bennett

2. Seek Fulfillment

“How can I be used in the greater service to life? You ask that question, and I guarantee, the answer will be returned and rewarded to you with fulfillment — which is really the major definition of success for me,” she said to the class of 2017 at Smith College. She also pointed out, “Understanding that there is an alignment between who you are and what you do is what authentic empowerment is.”

You can see a snippet of the speech in this clip from MassLive’s YouTube channel:

3. Small Steps Lead To Big Accomplishments

“Small steps lead to big accomplishments,” she told the class of 2019 at Colorado College. “And I’m here to tell you that your life isn’t some big break like everybody thinks it is. It’s actually about taking one significant, life-transforming step at a time.”

Colorado College posted the moving moment to their YouTube channel:

4. There’s No Such Thing As Failure

Winfrey also told the class of 2019 at Colorado College that there’s no such thing as failure if you see everything as working toward your greater goal. She illustrated this point with a personal anecdote.

“So when I was 28, it wasn’t working out for me on the news because I was too emotional. I’d go to cover stories and cry because people lost their houses or lost their children. I was told that I was going to be taken off the evening news and put on a talk show — that was a demotion for me at the time,” she said.

She continued, “That actually worked out for me. So I would like to say that many times there are things that look like failure in your life. And I want to clear up because for years at every graduation I’ve said, ‘There’s no such thing as failure.’ Well, there is. I’ve said there’s no such thing as failure — it’s just life pointing you into a different direction. It does. It indeed does. But in the moment when you fail, it really feels bad. And it’s embarrassing. 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.”

oprah winfrey photo
Getty Images | Kevin Winter

5. Be Your Whole Self

Be your authentic self, Winfrey told the graduating class at Colorado College. “Jack Canfield, [the author of] ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul,’ another one of my thought leaders that I admire, says the greatest wound we’ve all experienced is somehow being rejected for being our authentic self. And as a result of that, we then try to be what we’re not to get approval, love, protection, safety, money, whatever that is. And the real need for all of us really is to reconnect with the essence of who we really are. Re-own all the disowned parts of ourselves, whether it’s our emotions, our spirituality, whatever. We all go around hiding parts of ourselves. He says he was with a Buddhist teacher a number of years ago and that teacher said, ‘Here’s the secret: If you were to meditate for 20 years, this is where you’d finally get — to just be yourself, but be all of you.’”

“I’ve made a living — not a living, but a real life — from being true to myself,” she said.

You can see the entire speech, which begins around the 49-minute mark, in this video from Colorado College on YouTube:

6. By Being Yourself, You Lift Up Others

Being your best self will help everyone around you, Winfrey told Harvard’s graduating class of 2013. “You will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal. There really is only one, and that is this: To fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You want to max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.”

“Theologian Howard Thurman said it best. He said, ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’”

You can see the entire speech on Harvard University’s YouTube channel:

It’s hard not to feel more inspired after hearing those wise words!

Good News, Life, News

Related posts

Fantasia Barrino-Taylor at 2023 premiere of 'The Color Purple'
'The Color Purple' brings in biggest Christmas box office earnings since 2009
image of the color purple cast at Empire State Building event
See the Empire State Building glow in purple to celebrate 'The Color Purple'
Adele at 2017 Grammy Awards
Adele announces TV concert special and exclusive Oprah interview
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry
Meghan Markle interview: Baby's sex revealed during shocking Oprah interview

About the Author
Augusta Statz
I have a B.F.A. in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. I’m an avid writer with a genuine sense of curiosity. I feel the best way to absorb the world around you is through fashion, art and food, so that’s what I spend most of my time writing about.

From our partners