Across more than two decades, Oprah held a number one spot on television. She inspired us, cried with us, challenged us, laughed with us and demonstrated compassion each year as her fame and fortune grew. As her brand has grown to include a magazine, radio station and now an entire network, Oprah has transparently taken us on a journey through her struggles and celebrations while posing the hard questions that many of us grapple with in our own lives. She has called us to “live our best life” in our relationships, career, and spiritual journey. Oprah has reminded us that we are all human; we will make mistakes. She has pushed us to prioritize our response to obstacles versus dwelling on the obstacle itself.
When Oprah was asked to speak at Harvard’s commencement ceremony in the Spring of 2013, she provided some great insights on success and failure in the same style that we all have grown accustomed to from watching her through the years. For me, the thesis of her address was that all humans share a “common denominator in our human experience” regardless of race, gender, economic status or education level. We all seek to be validated.
“We want to be understood,” taught Oprah. “I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, and inevitably in their own way, everyone asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush, I heard it from President Obama, I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyonce in all her Beyonce-ness … They all want to know: ‘Was that okay? Did you hear me? Did you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?’”
I have been drawn to Oprah’s teaching about our human desire to be validated ever since I read her speech. I have seen this yearning for validation play out in corporate board rooms, inner-city classrooms, community-based collaborations, and in my own head. From the executive to the child living in poverty, we all want to know that what we do and say matters. We want to feel valued.
There are times when we escalate games over priorities and ego over impact. We play political games when we seek validation and are struggling to feel connected to people, to our work, and to our communities. By over-analyzing the words spoken to us, the tone of someone’s voice, and the actions that unfold around us, our minds can spotlight an illusion that breeds insecurity. We question our abilities, our talent, and our purpose. We then overcompensate in our quest to matter that we put others down, highlighting their faults and passing blame. The irony of our actions is that in an effort to be validated we deprive someone else of the joy that blossoms when we feel heard, welcomed, and valued.
The Golden Rule calls us to treat others as we want to be treated. In our human experience, we must acknowledge that this behavior does not always flow naturally. We must check ourselves and invite others to call us out when our selfishness trumps compassion. To be validated, one must embrace their voice with confidence and share themselves with the world while acknowledging and seeking to learn from the stories that others share through their words and actions.
Listen more and seek to understand what is not being said. Look for opportunities to authentically and genuinely embrace the diversity of thought, feeling and experience that someone brings into your life. Be open to learning from others. Stand proudly and live out loud, elevating your voice and talents in a purpose-driven life. Validation strokes the fire in our bellies and gives light to our passion. It is our “common denominator.”