Renowned speaker, actress, author and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey spoke about what it means to live a meaningful life in the annual “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” on Monday, April 20. Before giving the lecture, Winfrey met with The Stanford Daily and shared why she wanted to participate as this year’s Rathbun Visiting Fellow.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you want to speak in the “Last Lecture” tonight?
Oprah Winfrey (OW): It’s pretty heady to get invited to speak at Harry’s Last Lecture talking about the meaning of life…I said to myself, “You better know who you are, stepping on the Stanford campus, talking about the meaning of life.” And then I thought, well I do know who I am. I’ve done this for more than 25 years on the Oprah Show, trying to get people to see for themselves what the meaning of their lives are. I think it’s the most important question that never gets asked.
When people come to my house for dinner, all my friends will tell you that you just don’t get to come to my house and eat, but the subject usually turns to what’s the meaning of life, what does it take to truly make you happy, what really matters. Because I think being able to ask the questions on a regular basis, having the moral and spiritual inquiry to do that for yourself, forces you to live the answers with greater clarity.
TSD: What does that happiness look like for you?
OW: That’s great…Nobody ever asks me that. Happiness for me looks like being able to use my art, my gifts of connecting people and ideas – through film, through television, through multiple platforms, now even the internet – in a way that helps them see the best of themselves. That makes me really happy, when I get somebody who gets it. When somebody says I watched your show or I saw your show and it made me think differently, it made me see that I can go back to school, I don’t have to hit my kids, I don’t have to yell at my kids. It made me think of a different way of parenting. So any time I can do that, it makes me feel a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that I did what I was supposed to do because that is my job – to connect people to ideas and make them feel better. For me personally, it means having the time to Be, capital B, with myself, with a sense of gratitude and appreciation and self-reflection that allows me to refuel for whatever the next thing is. So I have to have a combination of helping people and then taking some time to refuel. And refuel can mean self-reflection.
TSD: Do you think that you’ve always felt this about yourself?
OW: I think I wasn’t able to articulate it as well, but life for me has always been better when you share it…When I was a little girl living in rural Mississippi and with not a whole lot of access to town, you couldn’t even get candy because the store was twenty miles [away], so getting candy was a big deal. And whenever I’d get a big candy bar, I’d always try to save it as long as I could until my cousins or somebody else showed up because the nature of my personality is that I believe that life gets better when you share it. That’s just the nature of me. And it started out with a Three Musketeers bar. Now I feel the same way about information. I feel about information that if I found something good – whether it’s a good book, a good story or a good film – I want to share it. Because life is better when you share it.
If I had a double chocolate mint ice cream cone right now, I wouldn’t even be able to sit here and enjoy it myself because I’d want you to have a lick so that you could verify for me how great that ice cream is. I would want to share it with you, and just by sharing it with you, it would expand my experience of it. And I found that to be true about all things. My sharing it with you expands my experience of it. So now I’m just not experiencing it, I get you to say, “Girl, you are right about that mint.” For all things, it’s true. Life is better when you share it.
TSD: We’re talking a lot about happiness, and the theme is meaningful life. Do you think those two things are synonymous?
OW: I think it’s impossible to be happy unless you have meaning. And I think it’s the chicken or egg question. Happiness allows you to create meaning, and meaning allows you to create happiness. If you have meaning, something matters to you and you are passionate about it, it’s impossible to not be happy about that. On the other hand, if you are happy and content within yourself, you are more likely to do things that are meaningful for yourself and others as well. One feeds the other. But I think it’s impossible to have one without the other, long term. You might have an experience, like you go to Disneyland, and it’s happy. But what makes you happy is the meaning that’s created. I don’t know anyone who’s gone to Disneyland and rode the rides and has been happy by themselves. It’s great when you can share that experience with someone else, and it has meaning when you can share it with someone else.
TSD: How does Harry’s Last Lecture differ from other events at which you have spoken?
OW: I get asked to do lots of stuff, probably 100 speaking requests a week. And I turn most things down. The word Stanford gets my attention. I have a daughter that goes here, from South Africa. The Harry’s Last Lecture series got my attention because the idea of speaking about what is meaningful and how to lead a more meaningful life is exactly what I’ve done with my entire career. That’s why I’d say yes. I’ve spoken to a lot of students today – and will tonight – about intention and how intention fuels my everything. One of the reasons I said yes to this is because I do a lot of talking to adults, through my magazine. I was just talking to the folks who run my magazine, and I said I wish I could talk to more college students. No one needs to hear this more than college students who are trying to figure out which courses to take, what to major in and now what do I do with my life.
My great message is that it’s hard to make a mistake that you can’t recover from and that even mistakes are messages to help move you in a better direction. So everybody’s like, “Should I take this job or that job?” If you take the wrong job, if you get a job that ends up making you not feel fulfilled or not feeling happy, you can use that job to get to the next job. I’ve done that. And if that doesn’t work, at the next job, you use that job to get the next job. Every one of those jobs is information. There’s nothing ever happening that you cannot use for your future. There’s nothing that’s ever going to be wasted. There’s no experience that’s ever happened to you that’s going to be wasted. In every experience, in every encounter, you get to interact in such a way that gives you information about yourself. And that’s what you’re doing – you’re building a self, and you’re strengthening yourself. And strength over time is power.
TSD: Is there a way you prepare differently to talk to college students?
OW: No. This is what I know: All people are the same. We’re just different stages of getting to where we need to be. Over the years, my audiences have included college students. So many kids, who are now adults, who started watching me when they were 10 years old, come up to me and tell me they watched the show. And I go, “Yeah, and I raised you, right?” Because I raised a lot of people who are now raising their own kids. And the message is the same whether you are starting out and 22, or whether you have made a lot of detours and wrong turns and are 47 and have to start over. The principle is the same: having enough sense of self worth and self value that you know that you can make the right choices for yourself. And then being able to pick yourself up and move yourself in the right direction. And knowing that there is no such thing as failure. That all things are happening to move you to a higher level of becoming more of yourself.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Contact Josee Smith at jsmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ada Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu.