Say the word “Oprah” and no doubt every person you talk to has something different come to mind:
- A-list celebrity interviews
- Book club
- Favorite things
- Live Your Best Life
All are true and there are dozens more. It’s hard to imagine Oprah Winfrey as anyone other than the most influential women of our time. Her net worth, an astounding $3 billion, makes her one of the richest self-made women in the world. And according to Forbes, the only African-American billionaire in the US.
But it wasn’t always that way nor was it a given that she would win big. In Making Oprah, a new podcast from WBEZ Chicago, what fascinated me was that in the beginning, Oprah was flying by the seat of her pants.
Let me say upfront that I’m not an Oprah devotee. I didn’t grow up watching Oprah every afternoon like many women did. It’s not that I didn’t care for her, I just wasn’t her demographic: 30 to 40-something suburban women looking to make their lives better. In the late 80s when The Oprah Winfrey show went national in the U.S., I was in university, and definitely not rushing back to the dorm after class to watch Oprah at four o’clock. By then she was a force in popular culture, but my worldview wasn’t shaped by her.
What I love about this podcast though, wonderfully narrated by host Jenn White and Oprah herself, is that it sheds light on the early days of the show. The podcasts asks: How did she do it? then chronicles her journey from Chicago morning talk show host to national syndication, morphing her brand from tabloid-style TV to the Live Your Best Life TV of today.
There are lessons in that journey that are worth pulling out because even Oprah had bumps in the road. In the 80s, her future wasn’t clear (hard to believe, but true). Her success was never preordained.
The course of her life, like yours and mine, was a zig zag.
These five lessons from the podcast I hope you take to heart in your goal setting and planning for the year ahead. I also hope you can make some time to listen to the podcast in its entirety.
Listen to the big idea whispering in your ear (you know the one)
Your big idea doesn’t have to make sense, be fully formed, rational, or even realistic. Think of it as a seed that may not look like much on the outside, but has the potential to be something amazing one day.
From the beginning of her career, Oprah had a feeling of destiny. She says she had no idea how big of a deal she was to become, but she did believe she was in the right place at the right time, and doing work that was important.
Don’t go it alone
This could mean any number of things depending on your situation, whether it’s support from family, a business partner, ad hoc collaborators, or paid contract freelancers. One thing for certain, pulling it all together by yourself in isolation is not the way of the ‘O’.
Oprah was never “just Oprah”. From the earliest days, she created her shows with handful of producers and technical crew. On the podcast, Oprah talks about how she and her four founding producers didn’t have a clue what they were doing at first. They were really making it up as they went along. Remember, they had to produce and tape five shows a week. Coming up with ideas for the show, finding guests, deciding how to tell the story–that wasn’t all Oprah commanding from the war room. Oprah ultimately shaped how the show unfolded, but there was a supporting cast who helped her make it happen.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, even big ones, and then change course accordingly
No one likes to fail in front of family, colleagues or on a public stage but consider that failures are necessary to get you where you want to go.
Oprah acknowledges that she made some big mistakes on the Oprah show, but that those moments changed the trajectory of what she wanted to do in the world. When she had a group of skinheads on to have a conversation about racism, she realized mid-episode that they had used her platform and hijacked her voice to serve their goals. She vowed that would never happen again.
Run your own race
This means be less concerned with what critics, opposition, and competitors are saying about you. Instead, relentlessly focus on what you are doing. Keep to the vision of your work. Too much wasted energy goes into constant comparisons with the other guy.
One of the mantras Oprah drummed into her staff was this idea that everyone who worked on the show had to stay in their lane and run their own race. When daytime TV took an ugly turn with confrontational-style shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah said, “Nope, not doing that. We’re going this way.”
Operate with intention
For every tactic or strategy you employ, understand your desired outcome. By projecting or knowing your intention, the more likely you are to realize your goal.
Living and acting with intention really became the foundational message that transformed the Oprah show in the last ten years of its run. No show was produced unless the intention for it was clear. Take the free car giveaway, for example. Oprah only got on board once they defined their intention to only give a free car to audience members who actually needed one.
It’s been five years since the Oprah show ended, but Oprah’s life and career continue to fascinate. The lessons she learned along the way are applicable to everyone. In the midst of my new obsession with podcasts, I stumbled onto this one and I’m so glad. Many thanks to Jenn White and producer Colin McNulty for telling this story so adeptly, and to Oprah for letting us hear it in her own words.
Oprah Show facts
1984 Oprah moves to Chicago and hosts daytime talk show Chicago Today. In 1985 Show renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show due to it’s instant success
1986 to 2011 The Oprah Winfrey Show, later shortened to simply Oprah, becomes syndicated nationally and aires for 25 seasons
1996 Oprah’s Book club launches
2003 – Oprah becomes the first African-American woman on Forbes magazine’s “World’s Richest People” list, with a net worth of about $1 billion.
2004 – Oprah begins a new season of her talk show by giving each member of the audience a brand-new car.
2011 Oprah launches her television network OWN
What are your takeaways from these five lessons? How will you apply them in the year to come? Let me know in the comments.