When Skidmore College invited the incredible Oprah Winfrey to deliver the commencement address to excited young graduates, I’m sure they were expecting complete awesomeness, and Ms. Winfrey did not disappoint! Her compelling speech garnered much praise for good reason. At the heart of her address were four essential questions she believes every successful person can answer:
1. What is your inner voice telling you?
It’s incredibly important to listen to your own voice, and sometimes it can be difficult to drown out what everyone else is thinking and feeling. When I have to make a decision and I’m not sure what to do, I like to sit in my shower and just let my thoughts flow naturally. Then, immediately after, I write down whatever the closest thing to a conclusion I’ve come to.
Do I want to move to Napa and run wine tastings or take a class on beekeeping? What feels right, despite what might make sense? For Oprah, this meant walking away from a stable job in Baltimore to Chicago in the hopes of landing a new job despite the fact that many people told her to stay with the sure thing. Ultimately, she knew what she was capable of, and that told her to take big risks that scared other people.
2. What is your intention?
This is my favorite question, and I feel it’s the most powerful. It’s easy to get caught up in daily routines and doing things without thinking. From choosing what to wear in the morning to choosing to wear in the morning to choosing to stay at job, passively going through motions without considering why may not lead to earth-shattering consequences, but it seldom (if ever) leads to success. If your intention for the day is to be as happy as possible, you might wake up two hours earlier to go for a run to get your endorphins pumping, eat your favorite breakfast when you get home, wear the outfit you feel most beautiful in, and call your favorite person to go to your favorite restaurant for dinner. Stopping to truly consider what you want to get out of the day or month or year can influence what big lifestyle decisions you make as well as the choices you make on a granular level.
3. What are you grateful for?
Stopping to take stock of the good in life attracts more good. "I practice being grateful," says Oprah, who has kept gratitude for years, "A lot of people say, 'Oh, Oprah, that's easy for you 'cause you got everything!' I got everything because I practiced being grateful."
Sheryl Sandberg credits writing down things she was grateful for with helping her recover from her husband’s passing in 2015. Personally, when I focus on the negative, it makes making any strides towards goals feel utterly pointless. But thinking about how much good there is in the world makes it seem like even if I only accomplish three little things in the service of a goal, they will add up, like the way small pieces of gratitude can add up to a happy life.
4. What is your truth?
Whatever your worry may be, expending excessive energy critiquing yourself through the eyes of others is a major drain of time and energy. This is why understanding your truth is so important—when you understand who you are, the judgements that others pass on you is less weighty. When you know who you are, you no longer have to use your mental energy to map the ideas of others onto yourself, so you’re free to use that energy to pursue your goals.
Oprah was underestimated many times in her life, and if she let what others assumed become what she believed was true about herself, she might have been too afraid to break off and run her own show. But she understood her truth—that she had good intent and was capable of achieving unparalleled success, so that’s what she did.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.