Oprah Winfrey’s Harvard Commencement Speech: Failure is Just Part of Moving Through Life

If you watch enough commencement speeches, if you gather the collective wisdom of people who “have made it” in life, you start to see a trend. The key to life isn’t being smarter than the rest, though that doesn’t hurt. The key is resilience — your ability to deal with inevitable failures, learn from your mistakes, dust yourself off emotionally, physically or financially, and then move forward. It’s easier said than done, but essential. J.K. Rowling, who went from homelessness to writing Harry Potter, delivered that message at Harvard several years ago. Now Oprah Winfrey, who emerged from the Jim Crow South to become America’s most enduring TV personality, returns to Harvard to tell students her version of that story:

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

For more insights into constructively managing failure, you can visit these talks below:

Paulo Coelho on The Fear of Failure

Conan O’Brien’s Harvard Graduation Speech

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

via Harvard Gazette



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  1. Pierre says . . . | June 1, 2013 / 12:41 pm

    To be a successful flute player, put your fingers over the holes and blow here.

    Honestly, there has never been a commencement speech in history that said anything even remotely useful.

  2. Avi Burstein says . . . | June 1, 2013 / 1:50 pm

    I don’t think commencement speeches are meant to be “useful”. They’re meant to be inspirational.

  3. Avi Burstein says . . . | June 1, 2013 / 1:50 pm

    And regarding Oprah’s message, it’s in line with the research on the importance of “grit” over other qualities:
    http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/grit/angela-duckworth-grit.html

  4. A Farkas says . . . | June 1, 2013 / 4:19 pm

    Unfortunately, many Harvardites will never have to experience failure, and will go on to be awful CEO’s, et al, because of it.

  5. joseph russoniello says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 10:49 am

    Oprah You should say instead: ” With Luck, there is no such thing as failure”

  6. Barbara O'Meara says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 12:21 pm

    Oprah said it perfectly. We all encounter moments in our lives when we seem stuck in some rut, then miraculously we move beyond that rut. Somehow life is perfectly in harmony with where we are each meant to be at the exact moment throughout our lives. I went full circle a few years back realizing that most everyone I met in Alaska played an important part in saving a tribal village from losing it’s ethnicity. Drugs, alcohol, greedy embezzlers, had consumed the spirits of the village. I had a vision, followed the directions of the voices that spoke to me, and voila’ when it was all over, I realized, “I was born to do this one task” No one else could possibly have accomplished it. Only I had been directed for the past 30 years to meet the people and learn things that were required to bring about the conclusion necessary to save a tribe from complete destruction. “If we pay attention, we all have a purpose” It might not be to be rich and famous, but when we complete the task, there is a blessed fullness that engulfs our spirits. “We are not without reason”

  7. teresita ignacio says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 2:08 pm

    yes, it is okey…Ophra you did it again…i have been hearing your voice for more than twenty years, my life will not be it without your talks…Kudos! you are the embodiment of how life is to live…love you…mwah!

  8. Danny Mangru says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 2:46 pm

    Success is the assurance obtained in Christ of being able to stand in judgment before God with the full confidence of a faithful saint.All other accomplishments though essential they may be are secondary to this one overriding objective.

  9. cLARENCE wILLIAMS says . . . | June 2, 2013 / 3:16 pm

    VERY INSPIRATIONAL.

  10. christopher palermo says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 12:45 am

    A bizarre megalomaniacal tirade. Is she running for president?

  11. Estella Kent Walthour says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 5:09 am

    MY GOD OPRAH I HAVE LISTEN AT MANY SPEECHS BEFORE I HAVE LISTEN TO THE PRESIDENT GIVE THEIR SPEECH, BUT TODAY WAS MY FIRST TIME LOOKING INTO MY LIFE FROM A DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW.AT 68 YEARS OLD MY HEART WENT WEAK I CRIED REAL TEARS OF LIFE THAT I MISS OUT ON. BUT I AM GREATFUL FOR MY LIFE I HAVE BEFORE. THANKS FOR THAT TALK YOU GAVE AT HARVARD GRADUATION HAS MADE THOSE PASS YEARS GO AWAY. MAY GOD BLESS YOU. AND HARVARD TO LET YOU TELL YOUR PART IN LIFE AND YOUR STRUGGLE AND BECAME A DEFEATER,SO CAN I ALONG WITH ALL THE GRADUATES OF HARVARD.THANKS AGAIN OPRAH.

  12. Dennis Osiemo says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 10:20 am

    Thumbs up Oprah your speeches has inspires many of viewers all over the world.From Kenya congratulations!

  13. Hanoch says . . . | June 3, 2013 / 11:36 am

    It is refreshing to hear someone who is apparently listened to and highly regarded by many deliver a message like that. Enough with the mentality of envy, ingratitude, and victimhood.

  14. Susan Chang says . . . | June 21, 2013 / 12:48 pm

    This is so instrumental/inspirational!

  15. Seik FAYE says . . . | June 24, 2013 / 5:14 am

    J’ai suivi avec passion votre discours à Harvard,une allocution exemplaire et instructive à plus d’un titre.Votre personne,vos actions sont des sources d’inspiration pour la réussite de ce que nous voulons faire pour un monde meilleur surtout pour nous qui voulons changer les choses dans des pays peu nantis comme le Sénégal.
    Merci et Dieu vou protége.
    Seik

  16. nancy says . . . | June 24, 2013 / 9:07 pm

    Is great that she spoke to the graduates the importance of making a difference. It starts with one person. Human kindnes it gets forgotten with power. Lets end hunger, selfishness, hate. Lets make it ok.,

  17. Poonam says . . . | June 30, 2013 / 5:01 am

    wonderful speech-inspirational,motivational and energetic.by listeningthe examples given by oprah made me to look into myself;to be the change.

  18. potato says . . . | February 6, 2014 / 9:07 am

    super major swag

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