Once, while speaking to a group of college graduates, Oprah said something about her years as an interviewer that struck me. She said, “The common denominator that I found … is we want to be validated. We want to be understood.”
Whether she’s talking to pop stars, Presidents, schoolgirls, scholars—or she’s asking you about your life over a glass of wine in the living room—Oprah has always had that uncanny ability to open us up, to hear beyond our words, and to uncover a higher truth, to be vulnerable with us in a way that allows us to be vulnerable back.
That’s her secret. But what I love most about Oprah is that she has never been content to keep it for herself.
When Oprah connects with something—a person, a book, a song, an idea—she makes sure to shine her light on it. She validates it. She anoints it. People know that when Oprah is involved, there is no pretense, no fluff—whether it’s her work in arts and media or her philanthropic work on health care, food equity, and more.
Every project she touches follows the same pattern, asking us to think critically about our society and how it works, reminding us of our common humanity, and challenging us to take our victories and failures, our pride and vulnerability—and make it all seen.
That’s why no matter where you go, everyone knows her name.
And all of it makes me wonder: maybe her success isn’t rooted in the fact that she found a common denominator that unites us all. Maybe Oprah is our common denominator.
Obama is a lawyer, author, and former First Lady of the United States
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