Make It New Grads

According to Oprah Winfrey, these are the 4 things you need to know to be successful

Oprah Winfrey, here giving a graduation speech at Agnes Scott College
Getty Images | Marcus Ingram
Oprah Winfrey, here giving a graduation speech at Agnes Scott College

In honor of graduation season, CNBC Make It is rolling out the speeches and pieces of advice that America's leaders are most excited to share with the Class of 2017. Follow along using the hashtag #MakeItNewGrads.

When Oprah Winfrey was growing up, she had big dreams. She would tell her father, "I am going to live in a house on a hill," or, "I am going to have a million dollars." But Winfrey quickly learned, "the dream I had for myself couldn't compare to the dream that life had for me.

"So I figured out how to lean into life and allow that flow that was designed for me to follow," Winfrey says, speaking to the Skidmore class of 2017 on Sunday.

How do you find your own flow? Here are the four things you need to know to make the right decisions and be successful in work and life, according to Winfrey.

"Every decision I've ever made that led me to the right space and place in my life, I got there because I relied on that inner voice." -Oprah Winfrey, founder, Oprah Winfrey Network

1. What is your inner voice telling you?

"Everybody has what I call this instinct, this inner voice," says Winfrey at Skidmore. "Every decision I've ever made that led me to the right space and place in my life, I got there because I relied on that inner voice."

When Winfrey was 30 years old, her intuition was telling her to quit her stable job in Baltimore and move to Chicago. Everyone around her was telling her to stay — her family, her bosses, her friends (with the exception of her best friend, Gayle King; "That's why she's my best friend," says Winfrey). They all thought it would be a mistake.

But Winfrey knew it was time to move on, whether or not she got the job she was up for in Chicago. (Spoiler alert: She did.)

Once she was in Chicago, everybody told her she should just take a salary at her new TV show, it's too risky to own equity. What if it failed? But Winfrey listened to her inner voice, and it told her to bet on herself. She went all in and launched a little program called "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"Every decision I've ever made, I've come back to that space," says Winfrey.

2. What is your intention?

In 1989, after Winfrey had been doing her show for a few years, she read a book called "The Seat of the Soul" by Gary Zukav. In it, Zukav explains that intention precedes every thought and action and determines outcomes.

The principal of intention changed her life. "I started to make my decisions on what I intended," she says. "What do I really intend to happen from the outcome of this decision or this choice?"

Winfrey used intention at work. "I said to my producers, 'Do not bring me a show or an idea unless you have a clear intention about why we're doing it,'" she explains.

Oprah Winfrey opens the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2008.
Getty Images | Philip Ramey Photography, LLC
Oprah Winfrey opens the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2008.

"And changing the paradigm from just doing a television show, from just being on TV, to actually intending to be of service to the viewers changed the trajectory of the show," she says. According to Winfrey, it was that shift that caused her to win her first Emmy.

"The reason we were number one for 25 solid years is because we intended to be," she says.

3. What are you grateful for?

"I practice being grateful," says Winfrey, and she knows what you're thinking. "And a lot of people say, 'Oh Oprah, that's easy for you 'cause you got everything!'"

No, says Winfrey: "I got everything because I practiced being grateful."

Winfrey says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently told her it was gratitude that helped her get through the 2015 death of her husband, David Goldberg. Sandberg started writing down three things she was grateful for every day. At first, she didn't even believe what she was writing. But eventually something shifted.

Winfrey, who has been keeping gratitude journals for years, is not surprised. Sometimes, "I'm just waiting on somebody to hold the door and see if that makes the list," says Winfrey. "Some days you only have, 'I'm still breathing.' Because life gets in the way."

But when you wake up in the morning looking for ways to be grateful, says Winfrey, "you have a different outlook on life."

4. What is your truth? 

In 1998, Winfrey was sued for defamation by a group of cattle ranchers to the tune of $10.3 million for "saying something bad about a burger." (Google it, she says.)

She spent days on the witness stand being grilled by the opposing attorney. "I was confused, I was a wreck, I forgot about intention," she says. Then, he flat out called Winfrey a liar. "I knew in that moment, 'Well now, that is not my truth," says Winfrey. "I got to see and figure out who I really was in the face of being called a liar.

"Everybody goes through trials — I just happened to be in an actual trial," says Winfrey. "There's going to be a trial in your life," she tells the Skidmore graduates. "It may be disease, it may be jobs, it may be any number of crises that stand outside yourself to try to tell you who you are.

"And it is your job to know the truth" of who you are, says Winfrey. "And let that truth set you free."

Look for more exclusive pieces of advice from icons like Melinda Gates, Dave Ramsey and others over the next few weeks. Follow along using the hashtag #MakeItNewGrads.

See also:

Tony Robbins: For a better quality of life, answer these 3 questions

Billionaire investors Chris Sacca's best advice to grads is the same advice he gives himself

WWE billionaire McMahon: This is the most important thing people are never prepared for