Campus & Community

Winfrey: Failure is just movement

8 min read

In Commencement address, she counsels graduates to keep grasping for goals

It may have seemed odd that one of the world’s most successful women would counsel Harvard’s 2013 graduating class about failure, but media leader Oprah Winfrey told her audience in Tercentenary Theatre Thursday afternoon that no matter how far you rise, at some point “you are bound to stumble.”

Her story was personal. A year ago, after spending 25 years atop the talk show circuit, Winfrey was struggling to get her Oprah Winfrey Network off the ground. She also was trying to ignore negative media reports that called her new venture “a flop.”

“It was the worst period of my professional life,” she said. It also proved to be one of the most enlightening. One day during this temporary turmoil, the phone rang and Harvard President Drew Faust asked Winfrey to deliver Harvard’s Commencement address. Given her recent difficulties, a disheartened Winfrey hesitated, but then rebounded after she recalled the words of an old hymn: “Trouble don’t last; always this too shall pass.”

When you fall, Winfrey told the Class of 2013, remember, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Her speech capped Commencement Day’s Afternoon Program, which included an address from Faust about the past year and the importance of continued federal support for research universities. Projected federal cutbacks in those areas, Faust said, can undercut the ability of universities to “fulfill our commitment to the public good.”

When you fall, Winfrey told the Class of 2013, remember, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

In her half-hour long address peppered with humor and thoughtful advice, Winfrey offered encouraging words and an inspiring message about facing adversity and living a meaningful life.

“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 want to max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.”

The key to doing that, she said, is to develop your “internal, moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

She said her own moral compass came into focus in 1994 when she interviewed a 9-year-old girl who had begun collecting spare change for people in need. That effort inspired Winfrey to create Oprah’s Angel Network, which encouraged viewers to contribute to others in need. The initiative raised millions of dollars and helped to send underprivileged students to college, to build schools, and to rebuild homes devastated by hurricanes. It also helped her to decide, she said, to use her television fame, philanthropy, and interviews to “illuminate the transcendent power of our better angels.”

Having Harvard on their résumé will act as an important calling card, Winfrey told the new graduates. But she urged each of them to build a résumé that is not just a collection of titles, but is based on a “story that is 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.”

As Harvard graduates, she told the audience, they are able to understand the nation’s difficult challenges, such as a polarized electorate plagued by cynicism, the lack of a fair path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented immigrants, and a lagging public education system.

“Each of you has been blessed with this enormous opportunity of attending this prestigious School. You now have a chance to better your life, the lives of your neighbors, and also the life of our country. When you do that, let me tell you what I know for sure. That’s when your story gets really good.”

Have more face-to face conversations with people you disagree with, she urged the Facebook and Twitter generation. Personal interactions are critical to keeping dialogue open, to helping people remember what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, and to validating others’ points of view.

After every interview she conducts, Winfrey said, presidents and performers alike ask her the same question: “Was that OK?” What they really want to know, she said, is: “Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Faust recaps year at Harvard

It was an unprecedented year, Faust said earlier as she welcomed alumni and members of the graduating class to the Afternoon Program and delivered her customary report on the year to the Harvard Alumni Association.

The University hadn’t officially closed for a day for more than 30 years. “This year,” she said, “it closed three times.” Two of the closures were caused by bad weather, a winter blizzard and a fall hurricane. The last came during the Boston-area lockdown in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

But she said that the closings helped shine a light on the work that Harvard is doing to address “so many of the important and trying questions these recent events have posed.”

Weeks ago, Faust recalled, climate scientists and relief workers attended a session sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Harvard University Center for the Environment to discuss how researchers and responders can collaborate better during natural disasters. The conference, Faust said, was an example of how Harvard’s faculty and researchers are working to address challenging issues.

In the aftermath of the Marathon bombings, Faust said, the Harvard community rallied to keep the University running smoothly, and worked to “meet the needs of Boston and our other neighbors in crisis.” Several Harvard University Police officers helped to save the life of a transit police officer wounded in Watertown, and medical staff at Harvard-affiliated hospitals performed “a near miracle in ensuring that every injured person who was taken to a hospital survived.”

Such tragedies highlight the ongoing responsibility of universities, Faust said, “to ask and address the larger questions that any such tragedy poses; to prepare for the next crisis and the one after that, even as we work to prevent them; to help us all understand the origins of such terrible events in human lives and societies.”

Whether the efforts involve research at Harvard’s hospitals into better techniques for managing injuries, or crisis leadership training at the Harvard Kennedy School, or panels exploring the dimensions of evil and the lessons learned from violence, Faust said that members of the Harvard community are “already engaged in interpreting the world that had produced such tragedy, and in seeking ways to prevent its recurrence.”

But such work needs ongoing federal funding, she said. Erosion of federal support of research, made more acute by sequestration budget cuts, threatens the ability of universities to continue work on difficult issues such as climate change and cancer treatments. Such cuts also can turn young people away from careers in science, can hamper economic vitality, and can threaten society’s “investment in the ideas and the people who will build and be the future.”

The projected numbers paint a grim picture, Faust said, since federal funding makes up approximately 16 percent of the University’s operating budget. “We anticipate we may see declines of as much as $40 million annually in federal support for research,” she said.

“The challenges facing the world are too consequential, the need for knowledge, imagination, and understanding is too great, the opportunity for improving the human condition too precious for us to do anything less than rise to the occasion,” she said. “With the devotion of our alumni, with the inspiration of our new graduates, and — I hope — with the will and support of our nation’s leaders, we must and we will.”

Charles and Isabel Kurzon, Cambridge residents and members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1959, return to campus regularly, but made it a point to attend this year’s Alumni Association meeting to hear Winfrey and Faust.

Charles Kurzon said to him, the most important message of the afternoon was Faust’s detailing of the impact of the federal budget sequester.

“Her plea for some support from Congress was very important and meaningful,” he said. “She pointed out concretely the impact on Harvard’s resources.”

Isabel Kurzon called Winfrey’s speech inspiring, adding that she was surprised to hear Winfrey talk about the struggles of her television network.

“I think her voice is incredible. Everything she says comes from the heart,” she said.

The gathering also included remarks from the president of the Harvard Alumni Association, Carl F. Muller. “For those of you who choose to stay connected,” Muller told the newest alumni, “it’s a lifetime of limitless possibility.”

Oprah Winfrey 2013 Harvard Commencement speech