The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Max Out Your Humanity: Oprah’s Harvard Commencement Address on Failure & Finding Your Purpose

On the tail end of the year’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, and Arianna Huffington on successOprah Winfrey took the stage at Harvard’s 362nd Commencement on May 30, 2013, and addressed the graduating class with a powerful message about failure, purpose, and the meaning of life, with a side of essential political awareness about gun control, immigration, and media ethics. Transcribed highlights below.

Winfrey, echoing Debbie Millman’s wisdom on failure and the creative life and Daniel Dennett’s recent case for the value of mistakes as a tool of improvement, reflects on the inevitability of failure and the necessary, if uncomfortable, growth it affords us if only we approach it with the right mindset:

It doesn’t matter how far you might rise — at some point, you are bound to stumble. Because if you’re constantly doing what we do — raising the bar — if you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages predicts that you will, at some point, fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.

Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. . . . And when you’re down in the hole, when that moment comes, 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, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

And then, figure out what is the next right move. The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.

She goes on to emphasize the importance of finding fulfilling work that doesn’t feel like work and that, above all, reflects your sense of purpose and measures success accordingly — something Arianna Huffington argued for in her own recent commencement address — rather than according to the conventional material metrics of success:

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’s a resume that doesn’t just tell a story about what you want to accomplish, but why; a story that’s not just a collection of titles and positions, but a story that’s really about your purpose. Because when you inevitably stumble, and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out.


No matter what challenges or setbacks or disappointments you may encounter along the way, 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 wanna max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.

Underpinning Oprah’s message is an important reminder about the deep and universal desire driving most of our actions: the need to be seen for who we really are.

Your generation, I know, has developed a finely honed radar for B.S. — the spin and phoniness and artificial nastiness that saturates so much of our national debate. I know you all understand better than most that real progress requires an authentic way of being, honesty and, above all, empathy. … The single most important lesson I learned in twenty-five years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience … we want to be validated, we want to be understood.

Complement Winfrey’s advice with more timeless words of wisdom for graduates from such cultural icons as Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

Published June 4, 2013




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