Oprah Winfrey: A Profile in Failure
The greatest people in history have been failures. Certainly, we remember these individuals as successes--success stories--and we treat those stories as legends and those individuals as gods. But each of them failed epically and repeatedly, more so than the combined successes of all of humanity.
Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed. We know this about ourselves but even as we learn to accept our own failures, sometimes we don’t recognize that the most successful people in the world have had an abundance of failure.
Our heroes need to be held to the same standard as the ancient Greek gods: awesome but not infallible. Failure is a humbling exercise, both for the observer and the observed. But learning is a humbling process. Once we realize that our heroes are just like us, we can examine how failure drives success. So I’ve started collecting stories about the failures of successful people, as a reminder that if you’re making mistakes and learning from them, you’re actually on the path to success.
There is perhaps no better example of someone who turned adversity into strength and failure into success than Oprah Winfrey. Her life started in some of the poorest conditions possible in America: born in the 1950s in rural Mississippi to a teenage mother, she was abused from the age of 9, ran away from home at 13, became pregnant at 14 and lost her baby shortly after birth. Yet she was able to turn things around by the end of high school. She moved to Tennessee to live with her father and made a transformation – she excelled in academics, was active in speech and debate, and won a statewide beauty pageant. She held down a part-time job at the local radio station reading the news while still in high school and earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she thrived.
Oprah had a natural aptitude for media and majored in communications at Tennessee State. Shortly after graduation she landed her first on-air job for a small station in Nashville, and quickly attracted the attention of ABC affiliate WJZ-TV in Baltimore. She was hired as co-anchor of the evening news, a primetime spot, alongside veteran anchorman Jerry Turner. Landing this job was a huge accomplishment for any aspiring journalist but particularly so for Oprah Winfrey; not only was she young, but also female and black at a time when anchormen were almost exclusively older, male and white. But the station management saw adding Oprah to the lineup as a way to appeal to a broader viewership, and they aggressively marketed her arrival for weeks before she started work.
Oprah described the promotional campaign this way: “I was on the back of buses. I was on billboards.The promo on WJZ: ‘What is an Oprah?’ — done to the tune from ‘A Chorus Line.’ And people would say things like, ‘I don't know. Did you say Opree? Did you say Opry? Did you say Opra? Did you say Opera?’ And what happened is that when I arrived, people were expecting this big something. The buildup was so strong. And I'm just a colored girl with a lot of hair sitting next to Jerry Turner, and everybody's like, ‘Whaaaaaaaaattttt? That's what an Oprah is? She's not all that.’”
In addition to failing to meet the public’s expectations, she had personality clashes with Jerry Turner who had never wanted a co-anchor in the first place. Unsurprisingly, the show was not a success, and Oprah took the brunt of the blame. She was dropped after just a few months, and sent from the anchor chair to an assortment of less prestigious jobs including writing and street reporting. She remained focused and determined. But she was a slow writer and was constantly being yelled at to produce copy faster. She wasn’t much better at street reporting. Once she did a story on a family whose house had burned down, and was so touched that the next day she brought them some of her own blankets and supplies. Her director chastised her for that as well, telling her it was against the rules to become personally involved in stories and if she did it again she would be fired.
Winfrey has called her early years at WJZ the “first and worst failure of her TV career,” and it’s not hard to see why. Most people in her shoes would have changed into boots, pursued a different career, quit, given up, something other than persist. But in retrospect, the lessons learned from her time in Baltimore were invaluable and she used those lessons to hone her compass and point her in the right direction, rather than change course. Oprah discovered that while she still loved television, she hated television news. While she enjoyed covering human interest stories, she was not able to stay emotionally detached. And while she thrived in the role of host, she was unable to do so with a co-host unless they had a deep connection.
Oprah’s Baltimore experience wasn’t a complete failure. She took the opportunity to co-host a new show called People are Talking with Richard Sher. The show was a talk show instead of a news show, and she and Sher had instant chemistry. At the time, it was a huge departure from anchoring the news and an enormous demotion that would have been a blow to anyone’s ego. Unlike most determined and driven people, none of this deterred Oprah. The talk show was inconsequential but for the first time, Oprah showed how she could resonate with and engage viewers. People are Talking continued for five years on local Baltimore TV, until Oprah was recruited to host another morning talk show in Chicago. As we all know, that show took off, becoming more popular than the national leader at the time—Phil Donahue—and gaining national syndication within two years. During its 25 year reign, The Oprah Winfrey Show broke record after television record and catapulted Oprah from obscurity to one of the most influential and wealthiest people in America.
Several factors contributed to her success, and most people credit her sense of empathy—no doubt stemming from her tough background—as the driving factor behind Oprah’s edge as an interviewer and talk show host. Time Magazine put it this way:
"Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey's swift rise to host of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue. What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye. They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session."
To be sure, Oprah is uniquely capable as an empathetic talk show host. She is caring, thoughtful, tough when needed, and genuine. But her success is so much more than that. Oprah has built a media empire, having created O Magazine, Oxygen Media, HARPO productions and HARPO Films. She has said publicly “I don't think of myself as a businesswoman” but she runs one of the most successful businesses in America. Her point is well taken because most people think of business in the traditional sense: go to business school, join the ranks of management, climb the corporate ladder, become a success. Her secrets were not learned in business school, rather through failure: follow your passion, don’t give up, play to your strengths, pivot don’t quit, and never listen to your critics (unless they happen to be right).
CEO @DandB, Author, Entrepreneur