On Sunday evening, I was flying home from Washington D.C., and as the plane landed in Portland, my phone was blowing up with updates about the Golden Globes. While my old roommate was very concerned about Kerry Washington’s too-robust eyelashes, most people were talking about Oprah’s speech. Since then I have seen actual Facebook fights about whether Oprah should run for President and speculation about whether her speech signaled a plan for the run.
Before the speech, there had already been suggestions and speculation about Oprah running for President, but I started wondering why this particular speech signaled something to its audience – after all Oprah does not mention running for President in the speech. Why did we all know there was something special about this speech? When I re-read the text of the speech (available in full here), the answer became clearer.
The structure Oprah uses is simple, and it signals the competence, authority, and clarity of someone ready to advance in her leadership role. While the office of President is arguably a demotion for Oprah, there is still a lot for all of us to learn from her speech if we want to advance in our careers.
The components I want to talk about are (1) disadvantage plus natural talent, (2) ideal audience, (3) specific enemy, (4) clear message, and (5) allies. This format can create the mission statement for your career. This is very high level work, so if you feel discouraged or your brain goes into confusion, don't worry! I'll let you know how you can get support for advancing in your career at the end of this article.
Disadvantage Plus Natural Talent
In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother's house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: "The winner is Sidney Poitier." Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. . . . [A]nd it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.
Oprah goes on to mention starting out at AM Chicago. She says Quincy Jones saw her and told Steven Spielberg she was meant to play Sophia in The Color Purple.
We love a rags-to-riches story! We see a person compelled by a singular purpose to overcome all obstacles in order to achieve their vision for their life, and it is so inspiring. Oprah knew what her destiny was – to become the female Sidney Poitier – and we are watching her fulfill it, looking just as elegant as Poitier ever could have. She flew from the linoleum floor to the center stage in a flash before our eyes. We know it must have taken grueling hard work, but it was worth it for the purpose she was meant to fulfill. She knows the bone tiredness of her mother cleaning houses, but she knows the secret of how to go from the linoleum to the ballroom.
The mention of Quincy Jones discovering her lets us know she was a natural talent.
In Grit, Angela Duckworth talks about the research behind this, which concludes that we assume someone who is a “natural talent” will be more successful than someone who is a “hard worker.” You might be discouraged by this news, which is not surprising – the research also shows that most of us view ourselves as having worked our way to whatever we’ve achieved. But, we view others as having been destined for whatever they’ve achieved. While the research shows that hard work determines success, while natural talent does not, the advice from Duckworth’s research is that those who see, value, and are willing to describe their own natural talents will be more successful in job interviews and sales than those who do not.
Each of us can tell our stories as though we were a natural talent or as though we were a hard worker, but often we are very attached to one story or another about ourselves. Which are you more comfortable in? Can you find proof of the other?
Oprah’s speech taps into this by showing us that from a very young age, as a child sitting on the linoleum, she was destined to be the first black woman to receive the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award.
For you: Take a moment and think back to a time when you realized there was more potential for you in life than you previously thought, and write that down. Use Oprah’s format of “In [year], I was [describe life stage and where] and [life-changing moment].”
. . . there are some little girls watching . . .
Oprah lets us know very early on in the speech who her audience is – little girls like the little girl she was in 1964. We understand that even though they may not understand everything she is saying about the besieged press and the Civil Rights movement, it will be important for them in the future, and she is saying all of this for them. She is saying this for girls who are the future of our country.
When you know your audience, down to the specific person, you can present a clear message. If Oprah was writing a speech to a broad, generic audience, no one would understand. A speech to inspire and empower little girls sounds very different than a speech directed to the Iranian protesters or to the women who held Fox News accountable, though it could include the same content.
For you: Decide who your audience is. Who inspires you to do your work? When you have your hardest days, who is the person you are working for who makes it worth it. Below what you wrote above, write, “I know [ideal audience] is watching.”
. . . we all know the press is under siege these days . . . . She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men.
Oprah calls out her enemy. She points out that our culture has been broken and silenced by “brutally powerful men.” We know that she is referring to the Trump administration when she speaks of the press being under siege and the women who have been willing to speak out against abuse.
We don’t need to be arrogant, rude, or vindictive in order to identify our specific enemy. Our nemesis is whatever is the polar opposite of the work we want to do.
For you: Who is your enemy? Who stands on the polar opposite side of the work you want to do in the world.
Their time is up. . . . So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say "Me too" again.
Oprah lets us know what she wants to do – what her action plan is. She wants to develop a group of magnificent men and women who will lead the girls to a new day. On that new day, there will be no more harassment and assault of women. She wants her enemy to know his time is up, and this new day with her team of magnificent leaders is coming.
When I was first applying for jobs after law school, I was not willing to be specific about the type of law I wanted to practice – I was worried that if I was specific, I would not get a job. What I ended up realizing was that, first, I was not being genuine in my interviews, and second, no one knew how to orient themselves to me. When I ended up getting my ideal job, it was after an interview where I said my dream was to argue gender discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. Now, my dream has changed and evolved, but because I was willing to be specific, the interviewers knew who I was.
Most marketing experts agree that one of the main reasons Donald Trump won the 2016 election was that he had a clear message about what he wanted to do with America, and he repeated it over and over again. His clear plan spoke to his clear audience – a white man in his 40s working in a coal mine in West Virginia. If our country is going to recover from him, it takes people like you and me being at least as specific as he is about who our audience is and what we want to do for them.
Oprah’s message aligns with her audience. She wants to build a team of leaders who will show little girls a new day where they won’t have to fear violence directed at them just because they are girls.
For you: What does your audience want and how will you get it for them? What is their dream come true?
And there's someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. . . . her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice.
Last, but certainly not least, one of the most beautiful parts of Oprah’s speech is when she tells us about Recy Taylor and how she and Rosa Parks fought for exactly the new day Oprah wants. I, and I think many others, had never heard of Recy Taylor, though we should have. But, we all know who Rosa Parks is and the tremendous stance she took on behalf of Civil Rights.
When I work individually with clients to help them develop career defense plans, one of the important steps is to identify allies. Who is standing with you, even if they (like Recy Taylor) are not living, in the work you were meant to do in this world? Oprah’s allies remind us that there is much work to do, but if we are determined, like Rosa Parks, and willing to do hard things, we can make incredible progress.
For you: Who stands with you in the work you are doing?
Your Career Mission Statement
Put each of these components together to make your career mission statement:
What was a disadvantage you’ve faced and overcome?
What was a life-changing moment that inspired you?
Who inspires you? To whom do you dedicate your work?
Who is your nemesis? Who represents the opposite of your work?
What do you want to do for your audience?
Who are your allies in doing that?
Create a full statement using the answers to those questions. Are you inspired by your mission statement? If so, amazing! If not, what would your answers be in an ideal world?
Oprah for President?
If she doesn’t run, maybe you will.
Confused about your results? Click here to jump on a confidential consultation call to find out how I help my clients defend their careers from harassment and advance in fulfilling work.