Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and philanthropist
USC Annenberg School of Communications, Los Angeles, California
May 11, 2018
Born in a small Mississippi town in 1954, Oprah Winfrey has become an influential and highly respected talk show host, author, philanthropist, actress, and media personality. She plays a key role in modern American life, helping shape cultural trends and fearlessly promoting civil and human rights. In this speech, Oprah calls on graduates of journalism and communications to battle bias, hysteria, and misinformation spread in the media by employing sharp critical thinking, challenging the narratives we are berated with, and lifting up voices whose stories go unheard. She uses the last half of her speech to offer advice for entering the real world, ranging from mattress quality to trusting one’s gut.
You did it! Thank you, thank you Wallis Annenberg, and a special thank you to Dean Willow Bay for inviting me today, and to the parents again I say – and faculty, family, friends, graduates… good morning! I want to give a special shout-out because I was happy that Dean Bay invited me, but I was going to be here anyway because one of my lovely daughter girls attends the Annenberg School of Journalism and is getting her Masters today. So I was coming whether I was speaking or not.
So a special shout-out to a young woman who I met when she was in the seventh grade, and it was the first year that I was looking for smart, bright, giving, resilient, kind, open-hearted girls who had it – that factor that means that you keep going no matter what. And this was the year that I chose everyone individually, and I remember her walking into the office in a little township where we were doing interviews all over South Africa, and she came in and recited a poem about her teacher. When she walked out the door, I go, “That’s an it girl.” Thando Dlomo, I am here to say, “I am so proud of you.”
Long way from the township in South Africa and her aunt has flown 30 hours to be here for this celebration today. Thank you so much.
So today I come bearing some good news and some bad news for anybody who intends to build a life around your ability to communicate. So I want to get the bad news out first so you can be clear, I always like to get the bad stuff up front.
Everything around us, including and in particular the internet and social media, is now being used to erode trust in our institutions, enter fear in our elections, and wreak havoc on our infrastructure. It hands advertisers a map to our deepest desires, it enables misinformation to run rampant, attention spans to run short, and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets. We have literally walked into traffic while staring at our phones.
Now the good news. Many of your parents are probably taking you somewhere special for dinner tonight. I can do a little better than that. Now that I’ve presented the bad news…
The good news is that there really is a solution. And the solution is each and every one of you because you will become the new editorial gatekeepers, an ambitious army of truth seekers who will arm yourselves with the intelligence, the insight, and the facts necessary to strike down deceit.
You are in a position to keep all of those who now disparage real news… you all are the ones who are going to keep those people in check. Why? Because you can push back, and you can answer false narratives with real information. And you can set the record straight. And you also have the ability and power to give voice to people who desperately now need to tell their stories and have their stories told.
And this is what I do know for sure, because I have been doing it a long time, if you can capture the humanity of people – if you can just capture the humanity of the people, of the stories you are telling – you then get that much closer to your own humanity. And you can confront your bias and you can build your credibility and hone your instincts and compound your compassion. You can use your gifts – that’s what you’re really here to do. To illuminate the darkness in our world
So this is what I also know: this moment in time – this is your time to rise. It is. Even though you can’t go anywhere – you can’t stand in line at Starbucks, you can’t go to a party, you can’t go any place – without everywhere you turn, people are talking about how bad things are, how terrible it is.
The problem is everyone is meeting hysteria with more hysteria, and we just are all becoming hysterical. And it’s getting worse. What I’ve learned in all these years is that we’re not supposed to match it or even get locked into resisting or pushing against it. We’re supposed to see this moment in time for what it is. We’re supposed to see through it and transcend it. That is how you overcome hysteria, and that is how you overcome the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean-spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices, the out-and-out hatred. You use it. Use this moment to encourage you to embolden you and to literally push you into the rising of your life. And to borrow a phrase from my beloved mentor Maya Angelou,
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like the hopes springing high,
You will rise.Maya Angelou (adapted from “Still I Rise”)
So your job now is to take everything you’ve learned here and use what you’ve learned to challenge the left, to challenge the right, and the center. When you see something, you say something, and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it. Here’s what you have to do: you make the choice every day, every single day, to exemplify honesty. Because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth.
The truth exonerates, and it convicts. It disinfects, and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption our shield against greed and despair; the truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth. Be the truth.
I want to get down to the real reason we are here. In about an hour and a half, you are going to be catapulted into a world that appears to have gone off its rocker. And I can tell you I’ve hosted on The Oprah Show, number one show, so I know how to talk, I can tell you that. But I was a little intimidated coming here because graduations – it’s tough. It’s hard coming up with something to share with you that you haven’t already heard. What can I possibly say? Because any inspiration or guidance I can offer is nothing that your parents or your deans or professors or Siri haven’t already provided. So I’m really here to tell you that I don’t have any new lessons. I don’t have any new lessons. But I often think that it’s not the new lessons but so much as it really learning the old ones again and again. So here are variations on a few grand themes, beginning with this.
Pick a problem, any problem. The list is long; here just a few that are at the top of my list. There’s gun violence, climate change, systemic racism, economic inequality, media bias, the homeless need opportunity, the addicted need treatment, the DREAMers need protection, the prison system needs reforming, the LGBTQ community needs acceptance, the social safety net needs saving, and the misogyny needs to stop. Needs to stop!
But you can’t fix everything. And you can’t save every soul. So what can you do?
Here and now, I believe that you have to declare war on one of our most dangerous enemies and that is cynicism. Because when that little creature sinks its hook into you, it’ll cloud your clarity, it’ll compromise your integrity, it’ll lower your standards, it’ll choke your empathy, and sooner or later, cynicism shatters your faith.
When you hear yourself saying, Oh it doesn’t matter what one person says, oh well, so what, it’s not going to make a difference what I do, who cares. When you hear yourself saying that, know that you’re on a collision course for our culture. And I understand how it’s so easy to become disillusioned, so tempting to let apathy set in, because anxiety is being broadcast on a hundred fifty-seven channels, twenty-four hours a day, all night long. And everybody I know is feeling it.
But these times are here to let us know that we need to take a stand for our right to have hope. And we need to take a stand with every ounce of wit and courage we can muster.
The question is what are you willing to stand for? That question is going to follow you throughout your life.
And here’s how you answer it: you put your honor where your mouth is. Put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it. Show up. Do the work. Get your hands dirty. And then you’ll begin to draw strength from the understanding that history is still being written. You’re writing it, every day. The wheel’s still in spin and what you do or what you don’t do will be a part of it. You build a legacy, not from one thing, but from everything.
I remember when I just opened my school in 2007, I came back and had the joy of sitting at Maya Angelou’s table – she hadn’t been able to attend the opening in South Africa – and I said to her, “Oh Maya, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy is going to be my greatest legacy.” I remember she was standing at the counter making biscuits, she turned, she put the dough down and looked at me and said, “You have no idea what your legacy will be.” I said, “Excuse me? I just opened this school and these girls and it’s gonna be – ” and she said, “You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch. Every life you touch.”
That changed me. And it’s true. You can’t personally stop anybody from walking into school with an assault rifle. Nor can you single-handedly ensure that the rights that your mothers and grandmothers fought so hard for will be preserved for the daughters that you might someday have. And it’ll take more than you alone to pull 40 million Americans out of poverty. But who will you be if you don’t care enough to try? What mountains could we move, what gridlock could we eradicate if we were to join forces and work together in service of something greater than ourselves.
My deepest satisfaction and my biggest rewards have come from exactly that. Pick a problem, any problem and do something about it. Because to somebody who’s hurting, something is everything.
Now, I hate to say this because the rumors from my last big speech have finally died down, but here it is: Vote!
Vote, vote! Pay attention to what the people who claim to represent you are doing and saying in your name and on your behalf. They represent you and if they have not done right by you, if their policies are at odds with your core beliefs, then you have a responsibility to send them packing. If they go low – thank you Michelle Obama – we go to the polls.
People died for that right, they died for that right. I think about it every time I cast a vote, so don’t let their sacrifice be in vain
A couple of other thoughts before I go: eat a good breakfast – it really pays off. Pay your bills on time. Recycle, make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you and actually mean it, ask for help when you need it, and put your phone away at the dinner table. Sit on it, really. And know that what you tweet and post and Instagram today might be asked about in an interview tomorrow, or twenty years from tomorrow.
Be nice to little kids, be nice to your elders, be nice to animals, and know that it’s better to be interested than interesting. Invest in a quality mattress – I’m telling you, your back will thank you later. And don’t cheap out on your shoes. And if you’re fighting with someone you really love, for God’s sake find your way back to them because life is short even on our longest days.
And another thing you already know that definitely bears repeating, don’t ever confuse what is legal with what is moral, because they are entirely different animals. You see, in a court of law, there are loopholes and technicalities and bargains to be struck – but in life, you’re either principled or you’re not. So do the right thing especially when nobody’s looking.
And while I’m at it, do not equate money and fame with accomplishment and character because I can assure you, based on the thousands of people I’ve interviewed, one does not automatically follow the other.
Something else, you need to know this, your job is not always going to fulfill you. There will be some days where you might just be bored. Other days, you may not feel like going to work at all. Go anyway. And remember, your job is not who you are; it’s just what you’re doing on the way to who you will become.
Every remedial chore, every boss who takes credit for your ideas – that is going to happen – look for the lessons because the lessons are always there. And the number one lesson I can offer you where your work is concerned: become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.
Finally, this – this will save you – stop comparing yourself to other people. You’re only on this planet to be you, not someone else’s imitation of you. I had to learn that the hard way on the air, live, anchoring the news. One night in my twenties – when I first started broadcasting I was 19, moved to an anchor by the time I was 20 – and I was just pretending to be Barbara Walters. I was trying to talk like Barbara, act like Barbara, hold my legs like Barbara… and I was on the air, and I hadn’t read the copy fully, and I called Canada, Ca-NAH-duh. I did that on the air – I cracked myself up because I thought Barbara would never call Canada Ca-NAH-duh. And that little breakthrough, that little crack, that little moment that I stopped pretending allowed the real me to come through.
Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being – that’s why you’re here. You will do that through your work and your art, through your relationships and your love. And to quote Albert Einstein, “Education is what remains after we forget what we’re taught.”
You’ve learned a lot here at USC, and when all that you’ve been taught begins to fade into the fabric of your life, I hope that what remains is your ability to analyze, to make distinctions, to be creative and to wander down that road less traveled whenever you have that opportunity, and that when you go, you go all in. And that your education helps you to walk that road with an open, discerning mind – discernment is what we’re missing – and a kind heart. You know, there’s seven billion people on the planet right now, and here you are.
Your degree from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, this degree you’re about to get is a privilege. It’s a privilege. And that privilege obligates you to use what you’ve learned to lend a hand to somebody who doesn’t get to be here. Somebody who’s never had a ceremony like the one you’re having this morning.
So, I hold you in the light, and I wish you curiosity and confidence, I wish you ethics and enlightenment. I wish you gut; every great decision I’ve ever made, I’ve trusted my gut and goodness. I wish you purpose and the passion that goes along with that purpose. And here’s what I really hope; I hope that every one of you contributes to the conversation of our culture and our time, and to some genuine communication. Which means you have to connect with people exactly where they are – not where you are, but where they are. I hope you shake things up. And when the time comes to bet on yourself, I hope you double down. Bet on yourself.
I hope that you always know how happy and incredibly relieved everybody is in this room that you’ve made it to this place, at this time, on this gorgeous day. Congratulations USC Annenberg Class of 2018!