This post is part 2 of 9 in the series Oprah's 25 years of lessons learned.

On her final show, Oprah shared her greatest lessons and hopes for her viewers. In this series of posts, Paul highlights ten lessons Oprah learned, along with his related and unre­lated thoughts and stories.

“Time and time again, the theme that kept showing itself in our early years on this show was people making bad choices. People were making bad choices and then blaming everybody but themselves for the state of their lives. We started to learn by watching others how self-destructive that really was.

“Here’s what I learned from all of that, besides not to do that anymore: Nobody but you is responsible for your life. It doesn’t matter what your mama did; it doesn’t matter what your daddy didn’t do. You are responsible for your life…. You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.

“One of the best examples of this was Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who was on the show talking about the book My Stroke of Insight. She was a 37-year-old, Harvard-educated brain scientist who suffered a massive stroke in the left part of her brain. She couldn’t speak or remember her own mother, but when doctors and nurses walked into her room, she knew from the right brain who was on her side. She could feel their energy.

“Dr. Taylor sent me a sign that I have hanging in my makeup room. It says, ‘Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.’ And I ask the same thing in my home and at my companies. All life is energy and we are transmitting it at every moment. We are all little beaming little signals like radio frequencies, and the world is responding in kind.” — Oprah Winfrey, May 25, 2011

Read the complete Oprah Show finale transcript →

Rewriting my story about my mom

At graduate school, I studied Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It’s a process that helps me ask “what’s working around here?” Using AI, groups and individuals focus on what gives life to human systems when they function at their best. From the best of what is and has been, the group creates the possible future — “what could be.”

One of the AI guest faculty members shared about the 40 years of her telling negative stories about her dad. One day with her therapist, she was sharing a story and realized how long she had been telling the same negative stories over and over. Then and there she decided it was time to change to positive stories. She said that one shift changed her relationship with her dad for the better.

For my learning log that quarter, I set about rewriting my negative stories about my mom. I worked to separate what happened (the facts) from what was my story about those facts. What I learned from that experience is that I could reframe her behavior (facts) from negative interpretations to positive ones. Read my new story →

Seven years later, when I think of my mother, I think about the gifts she gave me. I rarely think about those old negative stories. I dream about my parents at least once a week — good dreams, not nightmares.

I’m beginning to accept that there are negative and positive ways to look at any situation, i.e. there is no right or wrong. I’ve unraveled many, many negative stories. I’ve looked at my part in creating these negative situations. Most I could reframe successfully. Some are more difficult; I’m still working through them. These theories, assumptions and questions have been very helpful:

  • What I think is not “the way it is,” it’s the way I believe it is. Others will see the situation differently. How do they see it?
  • I create what I imagine, what I know. If I imagine my mother as negative, I’ll interpret her behavior as negative before I’d consider her behavior as positive. What is my role in the stories I’ve created?
  • Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have. As Jean McLendon of Satir family systems explains, “All parents did the best they could. If they had known differently, if they’d had a different kind of contact with their resources, if they had a different kind of support in their lives, they could have done it. Or we could — with a different kind of awareness and support, we can do it.”
  • From Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey: What is my commitment behind my complaint?

    “Pay attention to complaints because they contain seeds of passion. For every statement of what a person can’t stand, there is an underlying reason or statement about what they stand for.

    “Where there is passion there is possibility for transformation. There is energy and there is commitment. People do not complain about what they don’t care about. So underneath the complaint, there is a river of committed passion and a source of energy to be discovered and harnessed… if we look for it and ask about it!”

    What commitments or convictions do I hold that are implied in my complaint? What value do I hold that is not being honored? What commitment do I have that is not being fully recognized by this situation?

  • It’s not about forgetting what I know, it’s about making a choice about what I choose. What am I choosing today?

When I blame others, I think I let myself off the hook. Instead I just stew in the negative stories about others; creating lots of negative energy around myself. I end up not doing any of the internal work that would help me prevent the situation from happening again. I walk away from the chance to bring positive energy to myself and my relationships. I loose the opportunity to be responsible.


Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Satir, Virginia (1988). The new peoplemaking. Mountain View, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Questions to move from blame to accountability →