Oprah Winfrey is one of my favorite billionaires because she’s unique. Unlike the others, she overcame two discriminating obstacles (being black and female) to become a billionaire in an industry where billionaires are rare: entertainment. On top of that, she had a tough early life of sexual and physical abuse, and she miscarried a child as a teenager.
If that’s not enough, she was born in mediocre situations. She was conceived after a single sexual encounter under a tree. Her dad left her mom immediately after. It just goes to show you that anyone has the potential to become someone amazing.
And she did it, while staying happy and kind (something you can’t say for many rich people).
After spending a lot of time studying her (reading her book What I Know For Sure, watching her Stanford Q&A, listening to an NPR special on her, etc.), I wanted to share with you some of her secrets to success. Some will be applicable only to the entertainment industry; others will be helpful universally in becoming wealthy and successful.
If you prefer listening to reading, you can click play on the player (or Subscribe on iTunes) below to listen to the podcast version of this article:
1. Be Enthusiastic
Oprah was always bursting with energy and emotion. She talked about topics she was deeply interested in, like female dating. It made her magnetic. When she announced the next book in her book club, she said it like she was announcing the most important message in the world. This passion translated to her viewers.
2. Keep Your Blinders On And Run Your Own Race
There will always be copycats, so be okay with it. During her long TV host career, Oprah told her everyone on her to keep your blinds on and run your own race. What she meant was to focus on themselves and not on what any other talk show host was doing.
She also said, “You can’t win the race by looking over your shoulder.” And she was right. Over two hundred talk shows came and went during Oprah’s time as a host.
None of her team ever went out to do any research on what other hosts were doing and therefore, they never copied anyone else. When Oprah started getting successful, big TV executives tried to copy her format by hiring black, female hosts, but it didn’t work. They were searching for a formula they could replicate, but couldn’t find it.
3. There Are Only Two Emotions: Love And Fear
You can only experience love or fear, but not both at once. This was a mantra that Oprah internalized in her team. It helped out when they went to Georgia after the biggest riot and lynching of the country back in the 80’s to interview people.
Racism was rampant and it was a dangerous time. The locals sent Oprah’s team death threats to leave but the they were not scared because they followed Oprah’s mantra to only live by love.
4. Be Fearless of What You Want To Do and Take the Leap
Take risks. Discover what you want to do with your life over time and commit to it. For decades, the content of Oprah’s show was trashy because they featured a lot of controversial, scandalous topics (think Jerry Springer). But it was the #1 show in the world and had viewership 12 to 13 million a day.
She had spent years finding her “message and mission” and finally decided it was to raise the consciousness of others. When she told her team she wanted to change the show to be a force for good, they didn’t want to because they were scared it would ruin their success. But she persisted and they did. Oprah’s viewership initially dropped to 9 million for a while, but it slowly climbed back up as they tested new ways to add positivity into what they did.
After a lot of thinking, she also decided she wanted to launch a book club on her show, which was dangerous, because people were reading less and less. It seemed like a dying market. Her book club eventually became the largest in the world and was responsible for selling over 100 million books.
Oprah Never Feared Losing Her Following
Oprah never feared losing her followers by trying something different on her show. This is because from the beginning, her audience was “following her as a person and her instincts to discover what was true and share that.” And as long as she kept being true to herself, at least one person out there would be interested in what she had to say.
4. Think of the Person on the Other End and What They Want (to a Specific Degree)
Oprah had a very specific persona she wanted to deliver her content too (it’s funny, Ellen said a similar thing in her books). She called the persona Suzy. The persona was a middle-aged housewife, which was the demographic of most of her viewers. She always asked whether Suzy would like something before she did it on her show.
Oprah also said that she never cared about her guests’ personal and dating lives. She thought it was private to them. But she knew her audience did so she made sure to ask questions about it to her celebrity guests. I found this a little hypocritical, but I guess this was at a time when it wasn’t against her values to invade privacy for her guests and to make a living.
Later on, when she started her book club, she found out that roughly 10% of her audience would always respond and buy the book she recommended every time. Therefore, 1 million people would buy her books each time. So she always asked whether or not the book she chose would be interesting to at least 1 million people before she recommended it on her show.
5. Always Have A Good Reason For Your Actions
Oprah always told her team to ask what the intention of each of their plans, goals, and tasks were. This helped eliminate a lot of projects put forth that would not have aligned or advanced the values they stood for.
Specifically, she said she only did things that aligned with her intention or it wouldn’t work. When the show was given an excess of cars to give away, Oprah made them ask why. She wouldn’t just let them give away cars.
It had to align with their intention and values for the show. Oprah only allowed it to happen if she chose people who really needed cars because her intention behind the show was around helping others who needed it. To this day, Oprah’s retirement finale episode where she gives away the cars is still parodied and mentioned in popular culture.
6. The Packaging Is Just As Important As the Gift
On the day of the car giveaway, Oprah made them redo everything because the bow was too small. It only covered a portion of the car but she wanted it to wrap around the entire car. This trivial thing seemed to be peculiar to me.
But when I thought about it, I considered if it may be a hidden secret to Oprah’s success. Delivery, service, and packaging are really important in giving gifts and the entertainment industry. Oprah’s delivery and setup of the car giveaway was just as important for the TV audience as the car itself.
7. Don’t Let False Words From Others Affect You. Keep Calm and Check The Truth
At one point during the show, cattlemen sued Oprah for millions of dollars because they claimed she used her massive audience to depress beef sales by talking badly about beef. They called her a manipulator.
Oprah kept calm, assessed the situation, knew she did not do it to manipulate or depress sales, and realized what was actually true. She was ultimately found not guilty.
8. Be Patient And Use Progressive Trial and Error To Find Your Purpose
It took Oprah decades to finally figure out the message and purpose of her show. Towards the end, she made her final tweak. She changed her show slogan from “Change Your Life” to “Live Your Best Life” because she wanted to make it less about spirituality and rapid change.
9. Start Scrappy
When Oprah began her talk show career, her team consisted of three other female producers sitting in a tiny room. It was so informal that they borrowed jewelry from each other and passed around notes.
10. Work Hard
This may generic advice but true. Since the beginning, Oprah and her team made the show their entire life. Often, it was all they did from when they got up to when they went to bed.
11. Be Strategic
Oprah decided on Chicago as her ideal city to make her big break by a process of elimination. D.C. was too competitive and every radio station was already occupied by a black host. She was already living in and ready to move on from Baltimore.
New York was too busy and movement-centric; she needed one place to settle down. Therefore, she made Chicago her goal for many years and strived to move towards that goal.
12. Stand Out
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. I can only offer how Oprah did it in her time. Maybe you can use it as inspiration. For her, she was the first TV show host to be vulnerable and share personal feelings. More importantly, she was the first to be her genuine self rather than a TV persona.
In her first ever TV episode, she admitted that she was so nervous that there were hives all over her. This was unheard of because at the time, no one revealed anything personal on television, let alone their insecurities.
Many people have remarked that Oprah was genuinely herself on and off the show. She calls it one of her greatest talents. This unique ability propelled her to success in a competitive television industry. You may not have the same talent, but it’s a sign how important identifying your strengths are and a clue to what might be your strength.
How do you stand out from the crowd?
13. Do Something That Will Never Happen Again & Celebrate It
Oprah launched a TV show in an era where there were only a dozen TV channels out there, which meant you could capture up to 13 million women daily with her show if you’re good. This would never happen again as hundreds of TV channels have now popped up and tens of thousands of entertainment channels on the Internet.
14. Stand Out From The Crowd And Be Different
On a similar note, Oprah did things very differently from other hosts when she started. As mentioned, she revealed insecurities and showed her flaws, which was unheard of for TV hosts. She also pioneered something new on television by bringing on a lot of the most controversial guests, people who were openly racist, gay, or cheated on their wife.
Of course, this success principle is applicable to many areas of life. In business and career, it’s a competitive world. Being different from everyone else (who all look the same to the consumer or employer) can give you the advantage to get ahead.
15. Make The Experience Personal
The technical aspects of the show were built so that the viewer felt like she was sitting right next to Oprah. Most other talk shows set up their microphones so that the sounds felt like you were in a big room. But the microphones for Oprah’s show were hidden everywhere close to her, like inside couches, so that it felt like you conversing with Oprah.
I’m not sure if this tip is actually going to work for you. Maybe the core principle behind this tip is to “stand out.” Maybe this different way of wiring microphones only worked because it was different from everyone else.
16. Make Your Show A Scheduled Habit — At The Same Time Every Day
When she retired, Oprah thought her twenty million loyal fans would transfer over to her TV network but only a small fraction did. It turns out that they were not as loyal as she thought. She realized that it was the habit of watching her everyday at 4pm that she had programmed in them. And she lost that 4pm slot when she retired.
17. Be Blind To Race
Oprah is truly a one-of-a-kind billionaire. She said in her Stanford Q&A that she still finds herself in rooms of rich, white men. She’s often the only black female. But she said she never got to where she is by looking at someone and seeing their color.
Like I said, I am blown away by Oprah’s story. I marvel at how she has overcome so many stereotype barriers to achieve her success in the form of wealth and impact.
Her story is also one of alignment. Everything worked together, and I noted how she was in the right place at the right time. She worked really hard, but also she had genetic talents that were useful in the era she was born. You always have to give credit to luck, no one is truly 100% self-made.
Small things she has said, like how she doesn’t look at someone by their race, has helped me through tough times and changed how I behave.
I hope you learned something from her as well. If there’s something impactful she said that I missed, let me know in the comments. I’d love to know.