Own It: 15 Inspiring Business Lessons from Oprah Winfrey

Nick Scheidies
    Topics: Entrepreneurship     More posts about: Famous Entrepreneurs, Mindset

Oprah Winfrey is a self-made CEO worth about $2.8 billion.

By most accounts, she’s the greatest black philanthropist in American history and the most influential woman in the world.

But she could have been just another talk show host.

In 1984 she got her dream job: hosting a show called ‘AM Chicago’. Under her watch, it went from last to first in the ratings. Two years later, the program was being syndicated nationally as ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’.

That’s when Oprah made the decision that transformed her from an entertainer to an entrepreneur with a salary of $290 million a year. I’ll explain that decision and how you can adopt Oprah’s mindset in the 15 lessons below.

#1 Be True to Your Self

“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.”

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah has been captivating audiences since she was three years old. Her local church had nicknamed Oprah “The Preacher” for her ability to recite Bible verses.

She had a knack for interviewing too. Back then, Oprah’s favorite game was to ask question of her doll and the crows on the fence of her family’s property. In other words, Winfrey was pretty much born to be a talk show host.

If you feel like your job is a round hole and you’re a square peg, it’s time to make a change.

#2 Respond to Prejudice with Excellence

In the early 1970’s, Oprah landed a job as the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. In 1976 Winfrey got an offer to anchor the six o’clock news in Baltimore. Ten years later, she was the host of The Oprah Winfrey Show – the number-one daytime talk show in America.

Oprah knew all along that she wasn’t what TV producers wanted in front of the camera. As TIME magazine wrote, “In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk.”

Knowing this, she could have given up. But Winfrey believed that she could overcome prejudice in her industry by being the best in her industry:

“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.”

Oprah Winfrey

#3 If You Haven’t Fallen, You Haven’t Walked

“Go ahead. Fall down. The world looks different from the ground.”

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah, like mostly insanely successful people, doesn’t believe in failure.

What most people think of as failure, Winfrey considers to be a new perspective, a new lesson, another stepping stone to her destination.

This is the advice she has for those afraid to fail: “Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better.”

#4 Find the Good in the Bad

When Winfrey was co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, a botched hair treatment destroyed her hair and left her totally bald. Winfrey was devastated, knowing how important a good head of hair is for a news anchor.

But she was also able to look on the bright side. Years later, Oprah told Ms. magazine, “You learn a lot about yourself when you’re bald.”

“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”

Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey’s past is full of struggle – she grew up poor, was sexually abused as a child, and had a son at the age of 14 who died in infancy – but she credits these events for giving her more capacity to relate to the pain of others.

I’m not going to tell you that “everything happens for a reason,” but I can promise you that there are two sides to every coin. As Winfrey puts it, “every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear.”

#5 Challenge the Status Quo

School teaches kids that success is achieved by following instructions and by doing things the way they’re “supposed to be” done.

But life and business teach a different lesson.

When Winfrey got her first job as a news anchor, she didn’t read the news in a dry, objective tone (as it was “supposed to be” read). She spoke with emotion and empathy, as if she was really experiencing what she was reporting. It was different, but audiences liked it – and so TV producers did too.

After a few years of hosting ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’, she again wanted to challenge the norm. Winfrey explains:

“I’m sick of people sittin’ in chairs stating their problems. Then we roll the videotape… then we have our experts on the topic… I’m in the ‘What’s next?’ phase of my career.”

What was next for Winfrey was a different kind of talk show, one that focused less on tabloid stories and more on broad issues like health, politics, and spirituality. Again, Winfrey’s willingness to forge her own path paid off: ‘Oprah’ ruled the day-time TV ratings until it went off the air in 2011.

#6 Follow Your Gut

“Your gut is your inner compass. Whenever you have to consult with other people for an answer, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”

Oprah Winfrey

A few years ago, I was faced with a big life crossroads. I wanted to choose my path in the most rational way possible, so I made a weighted chart with all of the positives and negatives, analyzed the data, and determined the “right” choice.

But something didn’t feel right.

Oprah would have told me to go with my gut. She’s a strong believer in her instincts, saying they’re “where true wisdom manifests itself.” She’s made her big decisions (like deciding to retire from ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’) just based on a gut feeling.

Instinct-based decision making is faster, less stressful, and more holistic. So if you’ve been making all of your decisions based on rational analysis but you’re not 100% happy with the results, try following going with your gut for a change.

#7 Make Your Own Luck

You can’t earn $2.7 billion without getting lucky at least once.

Oprah understands that she’s been lucky, but she doesn’t see luck as pure chance:

“I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

Oprah Winfrey

Every entrepreneur hopes to land a huge client or get a sudden spike in traffic, but if they’ve spent all their time hoping (and not preparing) then when that huge opportunity finally does come along, their business won’t be fully equipped to make the most of it.

Instead wishing for luck, think about what opportunity you would most like to receive in your life. Are you completely prepared to make the most of it?

#8 Help Yourself by Helping Others

Not only has Winfrey started her own charity (Oprah’s Angel Network), she’s also given more of her own money to philanthropic causes than any other performer in America (estimated at $303 million in 2007).

The main reason that Oprah does this is so that she can make a positive impact in the lives of others, but she also has a selfish reason:

“The surest way to bring goodness to yourself is to make it your intention to do good for somebody else.”

Oprah Winfrey

As entrepreneurs helping others, we demonstrate our value, encourage reciprocal help, build our networks, and create good karma. Doing good for others is doing good for yourself.

#9 Say “Thank You” More

 “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”

Oprah Winfrey

To celebrate two decades on national television, Winfrey thanked her hard-working staff by taking them and their families on vacation to Hawaii (1065 people in total). That’s a pretty big thank you.

Oprah’s such a fan of saying thanks, that she’s created an app called the “Thank You Game” which aspires to thank a half a billion people.

Feeling thankful for what we have and what other people have done for us is a great way to foster contentment in our lives. But Oprah also believes that it’s a key to finding success and getting more of what you want in life:

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

Oprah Winfrey

#10 Know How to Slow Down

The life of an entrepreneur is hectic. As I type this sentence, I have about five very different tasks on my to-do list and all of them probably should have been done yesterday.

Oprah’s life is even busier and much more stressful, which is why it’s so important for her to have ways of coping:

“Sometimes in the thick of life, when my call list is longer than the day and people are lined up waiting for meeting after meeting, I just stop. I still myself. And look at a tree. A flower. The sun’s light reflecting off the window. And I remember love is available. I inhale it, exhale, and get back to work.”

Next time you’re in a crunch and you’re ready to throw in the towel, remember Oprah’s method for slowing things down and regaining your clarity and focus. If she can put on a daily television show while working as CEO of Harpo Productions, there’s a chance you can get everything on your to-do list checked off today as well.

#11 Choose Your Friends Wisely

Oprah WinfreyOprah Winfrey

“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”

Oprah Winfrey

Peer pressure is a powerful thing. We take on the habits, attitudes, and tastes of the people we spend our time with. I’ve read several places that your income will be the average of your five closest friends.

But the more rich and successful you are, the more important it is for you to have true friends. Oprah knows this well: “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

#12 There is No Big Secret

“The big secret in life is that there’s no big secret. Whatever your aim, you will get there if you’re willing to work.”

Oprah Winfrey

Every successful entrepreneur who I’ve profiled is different, but they have one thing in common:  each has worked hard to accomplish their goals.

Oprah Winfrey pulled in a $290 million salary last year, but that figure represents 40 hour weeks piled on top of 50 hour weeks piled on top of 60 hour weeks.

#13 It’s Easier to Succeed While Doing What You Love

“You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job, and not be paid for it.”

Oprah Winfrey

When you’re doing what you love, then you’re probably going to do a better job.

You’ll also have more energy. Oprah says, “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

#14 Own Everything You Do

“This is your moment. Own it.”

Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey chose to take ownership of her show when she founded Harpo Productions. Being CEO of Harpo empowered her to have control over every aspect of her show. It also opened the door for Winfrey to produce films, broadcast radio programs, and publish a magazine.

Oprah’s refused countless offers to endorse other company’s products. Everything that Oprah says, creates, or lends her name to, she owns. And she’s done it with virtually no outside investment: Winfrey owns 90% of stock in Harpo.

Not satisfied with just her own show, as of 2011 Winfrey has her own network. Naturally, its name is ‘OWN’ (Oprah Winfrey Network).

#15 You’re In Charge

“We’re each responsible for our own life. No one else is or even could be.”

Oprah Winfrey

I talk to a lot of people who have adopted a passive mindset in their life. The way they see it, things just happen to them and all they can do is react. These people allow other people and external forces control them.

Oprah never thought that way. She once said, “I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”

You’re the only person in control of your hands, your feet, and your brain. What you choose to do with them will make all the difference in the world.