Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I applied to Harvard as a senior in high school and, come to think of it, five years later when I decided to go to law school. I got rejected both times. Truthfully, I was totally OK with each of those thin envelopes with the Harvard seal and my name on it.

My colleague, mentor, and friend, Mark is a double Harvard alumn, having received two acceptance letters to my two rejections. Last Tuesday at lunch, Mark mentioned that he had an extra ticket to the afternoon portion of that Thursday's Harvard commencement at which Oprah Winfrey would deliver the keynote address. I nearly jumped out of my seat and yelped something like, Yes, pick me, pick me!!! Mark, playfully stunned at my enthusiasm, asked, So you want to go?

Ah, YE-SSSS!!??!!! I exclaimed. And so I went to Harvard, not as a student or as an alumn, but as a very dedicated fan of Ms. Oprah Gail Winfrey.

* * *

When Oprah ended her show two years ago, I, like millions of others, lost one of my main sources of information, inspiration, and entertainment. I threw a party so that I could watch the very last episode with some of my favorite people (five guests count as a "party," right?!?). Brian mocked me by taping a number 25 to his back, but I didn't mind because I know that deep down, he loves Oprah, too.

Brian, almost exactly two years ago.
Brianne, Seamus, Rena, Elise (Brianne's younger sister), and my Mom were all good sports about my emotional gathering despite that their level of Oprah-love varied greatly. Rena even came dressed in costume and threw out little toy cars from the big padded boobs inside her dress while exclaiming, You get a car! You get a car! For Brianne and Seamus, the last Oprah episode was their first and, for the most part, they kept their criticisms to themselves. Everyone left with a party favor – a CD of all of my favorite songs associated with Oprah. Onto the discs I burned Tina Turner’s The Best (remember the 50th birthday bash?), along with Lady GaGa’s You and I (performed for Oprah atop a giant high heel shoe), and ... I digress.

Last Thursday, with the help of some very generous friends, I was able to secure two seats in the third row on the jam-packed Harvard Yard (my Mom, another huge fan, ended up rearranging her work schedule at the last minute and taking Mark's fourth ticket that had freed up). I guarded our seats for two solid hours and when I spotted Oprah for the first time, I couldn't believe she was actually a real-life human being, even though I had always loved her so much because that's just what I thought she was.

I think I caught Oprah looking at me. (I wish!)
My husband would willingly attest to the fact that my unconditional love for someone does not necessarily spare him or her from my honest feedback or constructive criticism. And so, while you may expect me to write about how Oprah made my inner light shine, I have a much different critique of her Harvard commencement speech.

Oprah’s speech was, above all, safe. I interpreted her main messages to the 2013 Harvard graduates as follows:

1. Everyone will fail at some point. Learn from those failures.

2. Follow your inner spirit and do whatever makes you feel alive.

3. Give to others and you will significantly enrich your life.

4. Know that all human beings are connected by our common need for validation.

Aside from #4, I thought the other three themes were quite ordinary and a bit overdone in the world of commencement speeches. Oprah could have rescued these messages from their mundaneness had she fleshed them out with great stories, but most of Oprah's stories were, in my mind, mediocre.

Oprah opened with an anecdote about receiving President Faust’s invitation to speak via a telephone call one year ago. The call came at a time when Oprah’s newborn network was failing. Oprah admitted that she was upset about this failure, even “embarrassed.” She wondered why President Faust would ever have asked her to speak to Harvard graduates at a time when she was clearly not successful.

Nevertheless, Oprah accepted President Faust’s invitation and vowed to turn the network around by the time she came to Cambridge to speak. According to Oprah, she did just that, although the academic in me wanted a footnote of data for proof. The crowd applauded this success story and since my right hand was occupied by video taping her on my iPhone, I clapped my left hand against my leg. But my heart wasn’t so much feeling it.

I liked the theme of following your inner passion, but again, I thought that the personal details were a bit lacking. The "giving back" details were better, and no one can (or should) deny Oprah’s goodwill.

Oprah depicted her "need for validation" point by explaining that in the 35,000 interviews that she has conducted in her career, she found that when the cameras shut off, every interviewee (even Beyonce, who, by the way, was sitting just yards away from me) always asked the same thing—“Was that OK?”

I agree that all people need validation—to feel accepted, valued, appreciated. I figure that’s why there’s no “Dislike” button on Facebook—we all just want to be “Liked” and to receive a comment of great praise—Your kids are so cute! You look so beautiful! Love that sarcastic quote about motherhood! I wish I had that plate of food in front of meI understand this as much as anyone, and I can't deny that I crave the comments that people post in response to one of my blogs. Everyone wants to be seen and heard.

Just yesterday, however, as I distracted Mark from work, we both arrived at a realization about an irony in Oprah's commencement messages. She had clearly defined her own success based on her ratings. She (deservedly) bragged the fact that the Oprah show held the number one position in its time slot for 23 straight years. Oprah decided not to share what failure or success at the Oprah Winfrey Network really meant, although she implied that ratings told all. But I wanted more. I don't care about ratings. In my opinion, some of the very best shows never "succeeded" (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip?!?), and despite Two and a Half Men's popularity, I don't consider it successful.

Since then, I've thought a lot about the meaning of failure and of success; of mistakes and of what makes me feel alive. As Mark and I talked yesterday, we realized that while Oprah preached to graduates to follow their inner light, she implicitly (or even explicitly) explained that at least in the past few years, she measured much of her success by TV audiences' acceptance or rejection of her work. Perhaps she is so rich because part of her does care about those literal measures of success.

But part of me thinks a much more interesting message would be that in a way, ratings don't always matter. Yes, we all need validation, but does it always matter how many "Likes" we get? Perhaps the young man with homophobic friends who posts words of acceptance doesn't get a single "Like." But his post is so much more meaningful than any "well-liked" blog I may write and distribute to my accepting friends.

I think a more interesting speech would involve Oprah asking the audience to think about the meaning of failure and of success. Does one "succeed" merely because he or she earned a degree from Harvard? Not to downplay the accomplishment, but I don't necessarily think so. Are the graduates who cross the stage more successful than the janitor who mops it or the facilities people who fold it up? Depends a heck of a lot on where each of them started, and with what level of honesty and integrity he or she walks, mops, or folds, now, doesn't it? Does one fail because few people like what they do? Is this blog a success because I write it? Because you are reading it? If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound? (Joking on that last one, although I admit, I do have internal debates about this question.)

When I worked as an attorney in a humungous corporate law firm, I often grappled with the meaning of success. Was I successful if I billed 2,400 hours in a year? Was the actual work behind each hour what mattered? If I didn't meet my prescribed "target" but I got home to sing a song to my kids every night before they want to bed, was I a failure? Was an hour at lunch with friends in the cafeteria time "wasted"? I never thought so, but often, I felt like the culture wanted me to.

In the world of cancer, these concepts take on a whole new meaning. Does one "win" because he or she beats cancer? Have I "lost" if I don't? What if my treatment can never actually "checkmate" my cancer? If Herceptin fails me, is it still an unquestionable success? I'll answer that last one -- Yes, or, as my Dad often asks playfully to such obvious questions, Does a bear shit in the woods?!

Yesterday, as Mark reflected on his own experience battling HIV decades ago when there were few drugs to treat it, I told him about something I have been grappling with -- Is acceptance of my cancer a surrender to it? Can one accept something and fight it at the same time? 

Mark told me that years ago, he had these same questions. In the end, he felt that his disease would run its course, whatever that course may be, and his goal was simply to "stay in possession of himself" along the way. Stay in possession of myself. I love that.

In fact, I'd like to have heard Oprah talk a bit more about the turbulent parts of her journey. Sure, we all applauded at her statement that she turned her network around. But I'm far more interested in how and why.

I'll always love Oprah, no matter how I may critique this or any other commencement address. I believe that she is deeply good and honest and sincere. She made a career out of telling people's stories and shedding light on topics and angles of reality that few others had ever uncovered. She built homes and schools and inspired generations. She put thousands of men and women through college and made others believe that that path was possible. She broke down barriers of gender, race, body image, and personal relationships. She gave people hope, and even if she's not your cup of tea, you've got to give her credit for that.

After almost a week of Oprah reflection, however, I've come to an unexpected realization. Most often, our greatest teachers are not the ones that draw audiences by the thousands (see below). I don't need to sit for two hours to save a seat to hear my greatest teachers speak to me. I just have to call my parents, talk to my husband, or visit the office next door. Finally, I've realized that yes, Mark has two degrees from Harvard. But in my mind, those are the smallest of his many significant life successes.

Harvard Yard -- May 30, 2013


  1. What a wonderfully thoughtful post, Tara. As a a high school teacher and a Harvard alum, I couldn't agree with you more. I never tell my students where I went to school, but inevitably they find out from someone, who told someone, who told someone else. What is the first thing they say when they find out???? "You graduated from Harvard and you're a teacher???" I always snicker and ask in return, "Yeah. Why? Is that weird to you?" The conversation always finds its way to a student making a comment about why I would become a teacher when I could do anything with that degree. I explain that one paper does not define me, nor how successful I am in life. "Is being a teacher not worthy of a Harvard degree?" I ask. "No," they reply usually with a little shame for how silly they may have been in thinking otherwise or that they may have offended me. Success, I tell them, is whether or not YOU have been fulfilled, not whether other's believe you are. Validation is the need to compromise for a lack of self-confidence. If I told my students about my degree it would be in an attempt to seem better in their eyes than just a school teacher, when in reality, I couldn't image doing anything else with my life.

    1. I love this...And your students are so lucky to have you as a teacher. I can't believe it took me so long to realize what you've said here...that success is whether or not I feel fulfilled.

  2. I love your discussion of defining "success" - because I don't have any career achievements to point to that I am excited about and most (all) of my college friends do... But, I feel successful, anyway, because I'm really happy with my life as a mom & spouse, love my home and close circle of friends, am fulfilled by my daily bike rides or runs, and generally am happy and content. Sometimes I do find myself to get caught up in the "ratings" and doubt myself, but I'm always reassured to think about happiness as a measure of success instead.

    1. Such an honest comment. Thank you! I'm so glad you've found happiness and I absolutely agree that one doesn't need a career to get there!