The School of Oprah

“I know why the caged bird sings.” - Maya Angelou

In 1988, The Oprah Winfrey Show wasn’t the “live your best life” Oprah we came to love by her series finale in 2011. In what is now known as the “skinhead episode,” Oprah interviewed four white supremacists to both grab headlines and oust racist America. The show predictably turned into shouting, antics, and drama as the skinheads left the stage before completing the interview.

Following the show, Oprah realized what she had done. She wasn’t “exposing racism.” She had naively given the skinheads a platform to spread hate across the nation for the sake of tv ratings. She made a decision the next day; Oprah would never again use her show to amplify negative attitude. The Oprah Winfrey Show would be transformed overnight from a the tabloid interview style to a platform of positivity and spirituality. Oprah defined her new philosophy to her producers the next week. Every episode must have an intention behind it. The underlying thread and bottom intention to every single episode going forward would to be a force for good. If a producer brought Oprah an idea with no intention behind it, she would immediately reject it.

The First Principle

“The number one principle that rules my life is intention,” Oprah said in an interview. The “Philosophy of Oprah,” as I’ll call it, is ruled by that single principle. Every single message she or action she has taken has been intentional. Manifesting from her intention comes three philosophies that she returns to again and again.

First, Oprah preaches control: “We are each responsible for our own life—no other person is or even can be.” Oprah grew up in a rural poor Mississippi literally wearing potato sacks as dresses. She was then separated from her grandmother that raised her and moved to Milwaukee where she felt alone and afraid. She was molested by her uncle and cousins that took her there. Her life was not picturesque. But, she realized early on that “you are responsible for your own life.” If you wait for someone to help you or to save you, then you will wait forever. “It doesn’t matter what your mamma did,” Oprah teaches us, “what matters is now, this moment, and your willingness to take responsibility and move forward.”

We often think that the successful were given handouts and that our mountain is too steep to climb. But, what is steeper than being a potato sack wearing black woman in the 50s and 60s? Despite her circumstances, at the age of 17 Oprah found a part-time job at a local black radio station. In her 20s, she relocated to Chicago to host the lowest-rated local talk show. Given to her as a last attempt to save the show, Oprah transformed the daily segment into the number one rated Chicago talk show. Soon she was hosting The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The Second Principle

Being intentional every day and taking control of her life was the vessel that lead Oprah to succeed, allowing her to surpass her shortcomings. All of this was guided by her second principle: “What we dwell on is who we become.” Before she was hosting television, Oprah’s single goal was to become the black cast member on a talk show. That was her only goal and all of her thoughts were directed toward it. In a matter of a few years, she had achieved her goal. It was then that she directed her goals toward proving that a black woman could make it on television. Not only did she make it, but her show became the number one in the Chicago market and was picked up for national syndication. Oprah visualized who she was before she became that person and it worked every single time.

This is something she continues to share with her audiences today:  “With every experience, you alone are painting your own canvas, thought by thought, choice by choice.” Taking control of your life begins with your thoughts. What do you think when you wake up in the morning? Do you begrudgingly remove your blanket and head for the coffee, or do you even get up at all? What if every day you woke up, you visualized what a successful day looked like? That’s what Oprah did. Every day she had an intentional vision and every time that vision was accomplished she moved on to the next one. Even small goals compound into large accomplishments. If you better yourself only 1% a day, by the end of the year those accumulated accomplishments have bettered you by almost 3800%. Small changes, small thoughts, and small intentional actions really can change your life.

The Third Principle

If you can do these things, then you can live Oprah’s third principle: “The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.” This is Oprah’s “live your best life” principle that she is known for preaching during the last three decades. Almost all emotions that one feels comes from two core ones: love or fear. When we are our truly vulnerable and fragile selves, we realize that everything we do in life is because of those two things. To live our best life we must accept fear and live in love as much as possible.  

Oprah teaches that “whatever you fear most has no power—it is your fear that has the power.” When you are stressed, or angry, or just scared, then you are giving fear the power over your life. You cannot go through life without being fearful, so be it, but you can determine your reaction to it. In our careers, going toward what is fearful often brings the most results. In our relationships, recognizing and dealing with fear often brings us closer together. Fear is scary, but Oprah reminds us that “you cannot be defeated if you just keep taking one breath followed by another.”

On the other hand, love is what truly fulfills your dreams. Intentionally loving everything that you do will allow you to accomplish far more than the person who simply tolerates what they do. But, perhaps Oprah’s most important lesson, is to love yourself. Everything from her book selections, to her interviews, to her online Life Class preach the importance of loving yourself. It is impossible to live your best life without it. Instead of living a fear-driven and love-seeking life, try making love the most important aspect and seeing through the facade of fear.

Living your best life

Oprah’s brilliance is mesmerizing, but it often reveals our own fragility. She reminds us that our fragility is actually the source of our power. The fragile mind is open to discovery and the fragile heart is open to connection. The fragility of Oprah herself lead to her astounding success. But, Oprah would be the first to remind us that success does not equal a life best lived. “The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success, but significance—and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.” Her philosophy is to live moment by moment, leaving a trace of love when you are gone. She preaches total control over spirit through intentional choices and thoughts. More than anyone, Oprah shows us how to live our best life.