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What Oprah’s success can teach us about setting achievable goals…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You should set better goals this year!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Oprah Winfrey dreamed of becoming “famous” when she was in junior high. Almost six decades later, Oprah is considered one of the most powerful celebrities by Forbes and one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.

How did she do it?

Did she create her own luck, as Ed Sheeran’s story shows us? Yes—and no. Oprah did something else: She worked towards her goals one small step at a time over the course of her six decade-long career (so far!).

Here’s what you should know about Oprah’s timeline:

Today, Oprah—known as the “Queen of All Media”—still runs a successful empire, including a digital Oprah Daily magazine and the Oprah Winfrey television network, all part of her multimedia company, Harpo Productions. Her 55 awards and 93 nominations include the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering if you’ll ever achieve your goals, remember Oprah—who took it one step at a time and created a legacy well worth the wait.

Oprah Winfrey in 2023 during promotion for The Color Purple. Image via WWD.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Reaching your goals is about incremental progress, not overnight perfection.

Want to reach your goals like Oprah? Try this:

(1) Ask yourself: “What does the pinnacle of career success look like to me?”

  • E.g., “I want to receive the Academy Award for best director.”

(2) Ask yourself: “What are 10 people who’ve accomplished this goal over the last decade… and how long did they take to reach this same goal?”

(3) Ask yourself, “What micro steps did each of these role models take each year to get closer to their bigger goal?”

  • E.g., “Jane Campion graduated from art school in 1981… produced her first short film in 1982… produced her second short film in 1983… produced her third short film in 1984… etc.”

(4) Ask yourself, “ Which of these steps have I taken… and which ones do I still have to take?”

  • E.g., “I didn’t go to film school… but neither did Christopher Nolan… but I have released a short film. But I’ve only done one short film, so my next step should be to produce another one. And maybe go to some more socials where I can rub shoulders with important people as the director of Barbie did.”

Just because you have a good plan doesn’t mean your plan will go as planned. Success might find you sooner… later… or never. Like Oprah, we all have good days and bad days… good months and bad months, and even good years and bad years!

But, as the cliché goes, the months are long but the years are short. Instead of sticking to one absolute timeline (or somebody else’s timeline!), measure your success against your own progress. A series of slow steps towards your goal is still progress.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: My book, The Unspoken Rules, didn’t start out as a book project. It was an independent project during my MBA. But sentences became paragraphs… and paragraphs became chapters. And, before I knew it, I was an author!

Strive for progress, not perfection!


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