The ‘Aha’ Moment That Changed Oprah’s Career

October 21, 2015

Earlier this month, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner sat down with Oprah Winfrey and asked her if she had an “aha moment” that changed her career. She said yes – a time when she interviewed the KKK.

The moment happened in the late 1980s, approximately two years after she started The Oprah Winfrey Show. She was interviewing members of the organization, hoping to “change the way they thought about black people,” when she realized something: regardless of what she said or how she framed the interview, the publicity they were getting would likely just help them recruit.

“They were using me,” Winfrey said. “They understood it was a platform more than I realized it was a platform.”

Up until that point, Winfrey saw her career the way most of us see our career: the goal was to get promoted, make more money, reach an artificial sense of “success”. But when she realized what the KKK was doing, and how they were going to use her show – despite her best intentions – to get more people into their ranks, she rethought things.

Making her career about more than just herself

She realized in that moment that having her own TV show that reached millions of people had real impact on the world. And, from then on, she decided to stop making her career about getting promoted or getting higher ratings, and instead about making her show “a force for good.”

“The number one principal that rules my life is intention,” Winfrey told Weiner. Explaining, she told him that a little bit after airing the KKK show, she gathered all her producers together and gave them a new mandate.

“I told them we are now going to become an intentional television show,” Winfrey said. “We are only going to do shows that come from a motivation to show people the best in themselves.”

From that point on, Winfrey would ask every producer what their intention was when they pitched a show idea to her. And if it was “this would be popular” or “this will draw ratings” or anything other than this is an idea that will serve as a force for good, Winfrey would reject it.

Ironically, once she made that change, the show was more successful than ever, the ratings exploded and Winfrey became one of the most influential people in the world. But it was because she wasn’t thinking about any of those things that it happened, and instead had a completely new goal: increase the level of human happiness through the platform of her show.

Making sense of Oprah’s message

Winfrey began the interview with Weiner talking about the goals earlier in her career. Getting a network TV job. Becoming the backup anchor for Good Morning America. Making a million dollars so she could buy her dad a house.

Those are the exact same sort of goals most of us have in our careers. We want to make a bit more money. We want a higher title. We want a stable job.

But think about where Winfrey would be if she didn’t change her thinking. She would have spent her days as a TV host fretting over ratings, over sponsorships, over landing the best interview.

While I’m sure the talk show would have still been successful, it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact it wound up having.

Instead, because she changed her focus from the daily grind to asking herself what she really wanted to do, she made a real impact in the world. Yes, the money and prestige came as well, but that was a byproduct of her real goal.

I’ll end with a challenge: what do you really want to do? Sure, you want to fill your reqs, meet your quotas and help your company win. But what do you really want in your life, what do you hope to leave behind?

Truth is, I can’t answer that question myself. But I’ve at least started thinking about it.

Watch the interview here: