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Oprah WinfreyTelevision extraordinaire Oprah Winfrey delivered the 2013 commencement speech to Harvard University on May 29 before receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters. It is a massive leap from her humble beginnings in Mississippi and the importance of the moment wasn’t lost on the billionaire. Though her speech was one of several offered this commencement cycle, it was one of the most important and inspirational. Winfrey offered the graduating class vital lessons meant for them, but also viable in our own lives. Here are five of the most important ones designed to “banish the darkness with light and seek positivity.”

Max Out Your Humanity

Instead of accruing debt, Winfrey advised students to max out their humanity instead. She told the graduating class to “fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being.” In doing this, the Oprah Winfrey Network owner encouraged students to come alive because the world needs us to be our full selves so we can evoke change.

“No matter what challenges or encounters you face, you will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal 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.”

Create Your Own Story

Winfrey’s words regarding the importance of being your own author are still resonating with me:

The challenge of life, I have found, is to build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be, but it’s a story about who you want to be. It doesn’t just tell a story about what you want to be but why. A story that’s not just a collection of titles, and positions, but a story that’s really about your purpose. When you inevitably stumble and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out. What is your true calling, what is your dharma, your true purpose.

Maya Angelou always says, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” That is what makes your story great.

You Will Fall, But Failure Doesn’t Exist

“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. If you are constantly doing what we do, raising the bar, If you are constantly pushing yourself higher, the law of average predicts that you will at some point fall. When you do, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. When you are down there in the hole, it looks like failure.”

These words are especially important to Winfrey after OWN was deemed a failure in its first few quarters. She vowed not to speak at Harvard University until she turned the network around.

“What could I possibly say to Harvard graduates…at the very moment when I had stopped succeeding? So I went to the shower. It was either that or a bag of Oreos. I chose the shower.”

In the shower, the words of her favorite hymn comforted her: “Trouble don’t always last.” It inspired her to invest her energy into making OWN a success.

“So this past year, I had to spoon feed those words to myself. When you are down in the hole, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost, but then learn from every mistake. Every encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you to be more of who you are.”

Develop an Internal Compass

Oprah advised the class of 2013 to develop an internal “moral and emotional” GPS that will guide them through the troubling times. She said, “This is so important because when you inevitably stumble and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out.”

We All Need to be Validated

Winfrey has conducted more than 35,000 interviews in her career and she’s noticed that all humans “want to be validated.” “We want to be understood.” Oprah recounted how even Beyoncé “in all her Beyoncé -ness” needs validation. “Even Beyoncé whispered ‘Was that okay?’—because that’s what everyone wants to know: Was that okay? Did you hear me? Did what I say mean anything to you?”

What other life lessons did you take from Oprah’s commencement speech?

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  • Tina

    That’s how you give a commencement address. Obamas take note.

    • h

      The Obamas would never give the kind of speech they give to black college graduates at Harvard or any other predominantly white University. They wouldn’t dare.

    • h

      The Obamas would never talk down to white college grads the way they talk down to black ones.

    • justanotheropinion

      Great clarification ‘h’ and I would agree. Thumbs up to Tina for her original comment. Take note: You don’t need to break an individual/people down in order to uplift…

  • JN

    I graduated from HAA-vard yesterday, from one of the grad schools! I got to see her, and she was amazing! Having taken a few stumbles, her speech definitely inspired me, as a person who struggles to reconcile my degree and titles with how I see myself.

    • Mademoiselle

      Congratulations and good luck to you and all the other graduates this spring.

    • JN

      Thanks Mademoiselle!!

    • leelah

      Congratulations! What degree did you graduate with and what are your future plans?

    • JN

      It’s a Master of Education in Prevention Science and Practice. (see: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/academics/masters/psp/) The program is pretty dynamic, and produces people who want to impact change on a smaller level (such as guidance counselors) to large-level system game changers (policy makers and evaluators in the field of education) This fall, I am starting my doctorate in clinical psychology, focusing on family/adolescent trauma.

  • leelah

    I just watched her speech. She was funny and very alive, but still managed to fit in a lot of positive advice. I feel like she gave practical advice anyone could use to make progress in their lives.

  • Oprah continues to give me so much life!!!!!!!!!!!