Professional Development

How Oprah Winfrey Overcame Failure

Written by Peter Jones

Imagine being born in rural 1950s Mississippi to an impoverished teenage mother. Imagine suffering abuse from the age of 9, then running away from home at 13, only to become pregnant at 14 and lose your first child. Now imagine you’re Oprah.

Sound implausible? It’s actually true. Oprah was able to turn the tables on this disastrous upbringing, but it took guts and grit. She moved to Tennessee to live with her father, and began to excel in school. She did well in speech and debate. She even won a state beauty pageant. All while working part-time reading news for a local radio station until she could earn a scholarship to college at Tennessee State.

In college, this wounded girl became a powerhouse of a woman. She majored in communications, and landed her first post-graduation job at a Nashville station. That turned into a bigger gig with an ABC affiliate in Baltimore. Soon after that, she was hired as a primetime news co-anchor, an incredible feat considering she was a young, black woman in an era where old, white men made and enforced all the rules.

There was a publicity campaign before her debut. The network wanted to broaden their viewership. Suddenly, Oprah Winfrey was thrust into the spotlight with high expectations. She was set up for failure. When the show failed, she was blamed—and not her old, white, male co-host. She was demoted to a writing and reporting gig, but was a slow writer and too caring for the kind of hard-nosed reporting required. (On one notable occasion, she was so moved by the plight of a family who had lost their things in a fire, that she donated some of her blankets and supplies to them, drawing flack from her boss.)

Even Oprah herself looks back on these years as a failure. But she did not give up. Instead, she took stock of the situation, realized that, while she loved television, she preferred human interest stories to hard news. And while she loved hosting, she had to have significant chemistry with a co-host to make that relationship worthwhile.

Eventually, all of this soul-searching paid off. She took a job co-hosting a show called People are Talking with Richard Sher. To anyone else, this would have been considered a step down. But Oprah made lemonade. The show was successful enough to run for five years, after which Oprah was recruited to host a morning talk show in Chicago. That show became a household name. And Oprah became an international sensation.

What Oprah had was a unique combination of empathy, determination, and the ability to keep moving forward when all else had fallen apart. Her ability to excel in business while not being business-oriented is a marvel. Moral of the story? Have passion, believe in your dreams, believe in yourself even when no one else does, and keep going when hope is lost. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Oprah Winfrey: A Profile in Failure

About the author

Peter Jones