5 Career Lessons from Oprah Winfrey

By Beth Leslie

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Oprah Winfrey was born into a family so poor that as a child she wore potato sacks as clothing. Her single, teenage mother struggled to support her, and Oprah suffered physical and sexual abuse from her family. At fourteen, she became pregnant, but her baby died shortly after birth.

It is from this background, and these beginnings, that Oprah became the “Queen of All Media” and, according to some, the most influential woman in the world. Her flagship venture, The Oprah Winfrey Show, is the highest-rated TV talk show in history and Oprah has gone on to command an empire that has made her North America’s first and only multi-billionaire black person.

It is hard to overestimate this businesswoman’s power. Oprah has been credited with the ability to make books instant bestsellers, for bringing LGBT people into the mainstream, and for swinging presidential elections.

Her advice, in short, is worth listening to. 

Oprah career advice  

Lesson #1: You can have it all. You just can't have it all at once.”

The ability to prioritise is a skill many of us struggle with. Especially as career starters, there are often so many things that we want to achieve that it’s easy for us to spread ourselves too thin. But most goals require 100% of our time, energy and effort to give us a fighting chance of hitting it. Figure out what’s most important to you at this moment in time, and pour your heart and soul into getting it.

Realistic timelines are also important: you simply cannot become CEO overnight. Break big goals down into segments and focus on achieving one step at a time. Constant progress keeps you motivated, and small steps forward keeps you on track.


Lesson #2: “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”

Few things are as important as the people who surround us. In the workplace, great colleagues provide career starters with mentors, inspiration, ideas and support. These are the very things that give us the knowledge and confidence to keep striving forwards. Positive influencers are also crucial in providing you with candid feedback. Good feedback celebrates your strengths with critiquing (never criticising) your weaknesses in order to help you identify and improve them.

When applying for jobs, therefore, try hard to pick one with a positive, inspirational work culture. Your future career depends on it.


Lesson #3: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not.”

Being great at your job isn’t just about dazzling your boss at a company meeting with a whizzy new proposal. It’s about consistently being a strong, ethical, and dedicated worker, even when colleagues won’t notice or praise you for it.

It’s not about slaving away at work for all hours of the day and night, but about being honest with your clients and considerate to you co-workers. Offering help to a colleague who is struggling, for example, or owning up to a mistake that was damaging but unlikely to be noticed.

Besides, having integrity isn’t just its own reward; the attitude that you display will influence the strength of the professional network you build around you. Having a reputation for dedication will pay dividends in the future.


Lesson #4: “Turn your wounds into wisdom.”

Your career -and your life- is always going to be full of setbacks and failures. There’s nothing you can do to avoid them, but there is something you can do to profit from them: learn from your mistakes. Take every bad experience as a training exercise and appreciate them for making you stronger and better.

Building up resilience is a crucial career skill, allowing you to rebound from slip-ups in a positive, proactive way that will reassure your manager and co-workers that you are a capable and dedicated worker.


Lesson #5: “Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”

Savvy careerists always keep one eye on their future. It is by considering where we want to be one day, one year, and ten years from now that we can ensure we spend the present putting in the groundwork that will get us there.

Especially as a workplace newbie, many aspects of every job are dull and uninspiring. But it is the people who can carry on working hard and with a positive attitude that are first fingered for promotion. Whatever the situation you find yourself in, putting your head down and planning forwards will ensure that the next step you take is one in the right direction.



Beth Leslie is a career and lifestyle writer, and editor of the Inspiring Interns blog, which provides graduate careers advice. Inspiring Interns is a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream job or internship. Click here to browse their London-based graduate jobs, and here for their graduate jobs Manchester page.



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