I’m here to tell you that your life isn’t some big break, like everybody tells you that is. It’s about taking one big life transforming step at a time.
You can pick a problem, any problem—the list is long. There’s gun violence, and inequality, and media bias...and the dreamers need protection...the prison system needs to be reformed, misogyny needs to stop. But the truth is you cannot fix everything. What you can do here and now is make a decision, because life is about decisions—and the decision that you can make is to 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 volunteer, you will shout out, you will radically transform whatever moment you’re in, which will lead to bigger moments.
The truth is, success is a process—you can ask anybody who’s been successful. I just passed on the lane up here here, successful restauranteur Danny Meyer, who’s sitting here with his family—Charles is graduating today. Ask Danny or anybody who’s successful, you go to any one of his restaurants—Shake Shack, love it!—Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern—you will be impressed by not only the food, but the radical hospital and service. Service is not just about when you’re getting served.
When I started my talk show, I was just so happy to be on television. I was so happy to interview members of the Ku Klux Klan. I thought I was interviewing them to show their vitriol to the world, and then I saw them using hand signals in the audience—and realized they were using me, and using my platform. Then we did a show where someone was embarrassed, and I was responsible for the embarrassment. We had somehow talked a man who was cheating on his wife to come on the show with the woman he was cheating with and, on live television, he told his wife that his girlfriend was pregnant. That happened on my watch.
Shortly after I said: I’m not gonna do that again. How can I use this show to not just be a show, but allow it to be a service to the viewer? That question of "How do we serve the viewer?" transformed the show. And because we asked that question every single day from 1989 forward—with the intention of only doing what was in service to the people who were watching—that is why now, no matter where I go in the world, people say "I watched your show, it changed my life." People watched and were raised by that show. I did a good job of raising a lot of people, I must say. That happened because of an intention to be of service.
So I live in this space of radical love and gratitude. Truly, I live the most beautiful life that you can imagine. I sit around trying to imagine: Who can have a better life? Whatever you imagine my life to be like…it’s always ten times better than whatever you think! It’s true! It’s not because I have wealth—although I love money, money’s fabulous, I love it—and that I get a lot of attention, which is also good...sometimes. It’s because I had appreciation for the small steps, the seeds that were planted, the maps of my life that unfolded because I was paying attention. You have to pay attention to your life, because it’s speaking to you all the time. That led me to a path made clear.
So that is what I’m wishing for you today: Your own path made clear. I know there’s a lot of anxiety about what the future holds and how much money you’re gonna make, but your anxiety does not contribute one iota to your progress, I gotta tell you. Look at how many times you were worried and upset—and now you’re here today. You made it. You’re going to be okay.
Take a deep breath with me right now and repeat this: Everything is always working out for me. That’s my mantra—make it yours. Everything is always working out for me. Because it is, and it has, and it will continue to be as you forge and discover your own path. But first: You do need a job. And may I say, it doesn't have to be your life’s mission, our your greatest passion, but a job that pays your rent and lets you move out of your parents house—because yes, they are tired of taking care of you, and they’re hoping this CC education will pay off! And it will in ways that you can’t imagine.
I do a lot of graduations, lecturing, talking, and exchanging with the girls, we talk about passion and purpose and realizing your dream. But I realized I was confusing them and their expectations were out of wack. One of my daughter girls two years ago graduated with an internship, bought a used a car, all with no help from me. She’d only been working about six months and called me and said "Mama O, they want to give me a promotion, and I don’t want to take it because I don’t think it fulfills my purpose.” And I said “Your purpose right now is to keep that job! To do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do." (I borrowed that line from the great debaters.)
For years, I had a job, and after years of doing what I didn’t want to do, I ended up finding my life’s calling. My job ended when I was 28 years old. I got my first job in radio at 16, got on tv at 19, and every day I said "I don’t know if this is what I’m really supposed to be doing." But my father was like: ‘You better keep that job!" At 28, it wasn’t working out on the news because I was too emotional. I would cry while interviewing someone who had lost their home. I was told that I was going to be talking on the evening news and put on a talk show, and that was a demotion for me at the time. But that actually worked out for me.
For years at graduations I’ve said there’s no such thing as failure. But there is. I’ve also said failure is life pointing you in a different direction, and it indeed does. But in the moment when you fail, it really feels bad. 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.
I realized this during the struggle of my life trying to build a network at the same time as running a show. I did not have the right leadership, and everything is about having the right people around you to support you. All of my mistakes were in the media—I can’t do anything privately. So when everything is about struggle-struggle, I had to say: What is this about? What is this here to show you? That is now my favorite question in crisis: What is this here to teach you or show you?
Jack Canfield in Chicken Soup for the Soul says “The greatest wound we’ve all experienced is being rejected for being our authentic self. And then we try to be what we’re not to get approval, love, acceptance, money...but the real need for all of us is to reconnect with the essence of who we really are…we all go around hiding parts of ourselves." He said he was with a Buddhist teacher years ago who said, “Here’s the secret: If you were to meditate for 20 years, here’s 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—by being myself, using the energy of myself to serve the purpose of my soul. That purpose, I’m here to tell you, gets revealed to you daily. It is the thread that’s connecting the dots of who you are.
At 19, I was just happy to have a job. But later through experience, trial, failure, I realized my true purpose was to be a force for good, to allow people to be themselves. so that becomes my legacy. I remember when I finished the [Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls] school, and I went to my friend Maya Angelou’s house, and Maya was making biscuits and teaching me to make the biscuits. I said "I’m so sorry you weren’t able to be there to see the school open..it’s going to be my greatest legacy.” And she put down what she was making and said “Baby, you have no idea what your legacy will be, because your legacy is every life that you touch.”
And that I repeat everywhere, because it’s true. It’s not one thing, it’s everything, and the most important thing is how you touch other people’s lives. Every day, you’re carving out the path, even when it looks like you’re not. Every action is creating equal and opposite reactions. How you think and what you do is being done unto you—that is my religion, I live by that. That is creating a blessed and spectacular life.
If I could teach a class in how to live your best life, it would include some gems I've gotten from world leaders. But also some I have not. Yes, it does pay to floss. Yes, you need to look people in the eye when you speak to them. You need to keep your commitments, you need to make your bed every day because when you do, it makes your whole house look better. And you need to leave your cell phone away at the dinner table.
I put so many of those in a book that I did for graduates like you. I wrote The Path Made Clear with gems of wisdom from thought leaders. Since I know you just wanna get that diploma, I’m gonna save all my wisdom for my book…You get a book and you get a book and you get a book! Everybody gets a book! Congratulations class of 2019!