Today, everyone knows a book recommendation from Oprah Winfrey can shoot a title to the top of every best-seller list. But before she was a literary Midas, before she started Oprah's Book Club, back in 1989, just a few years after "The Oprah Winfrey Show" started, Winfrey read a book that changed her life and success as an entrepreneur.
The book was " 'The Seat of the Soul' by Gary Zukav," says Winfrey in a recent speech at Skidmore College.
"In it, [Zukav] talks about how every action is followed by a reaction, which we all know is the third law of motion in physics," explains Winfrey. "But he also said, before there's even a thought or an action, there is an intention.
"Something struck me about that," says Winfrey. "That an intention precedes every thought and every action, and the outcome of your experiences is determined by the intention."
Winfrey said that at the time she first read the book, she was a people pleaser – "the kind of woman who wanted to do everything people wanted me to do."
Winfrey had started making some money by that point, and suddenly she had lots of "cousins" and "school friends" who needed things coming out of the woodwork. "I had problems saying no," she explains.
"So this principle of intention is literally what saved and changed the trajectory of my living," says Winfrey.
"I started to make my decisions on what I intended, not just on what someone else wanted me to do or what I thought would please them," she continues. She would ask, "But what do I really intend to happen from the outcome of this decision or this choice?
"And so I started to apply this intentional living and intentional thinking to everything in my life," including her business. "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." Winfrey wanted her staff to first be clear on what they wanted to tell the world with the show what they wanted the outcome to be.
The rule was absolute: "Do not bring me an idea that I cannot find my thread of truth in." unless I can find the thread of truth so I can sit in the seat and ask the question with the intention of accomplishing something bigger than the interview.
It affected the show in ways both big and small.
"That's why I stopped cooking [segments]," says Winfrey. "Because I couldn't pretend to like the food.
Before reading the book, "We had a famous cooking contest on and somebody won a million dollars, and I don't know how they did," says Winfrey. "The truth is when I tasted it, my face said everything.
"So that was the end of cooking," she says.
Other changes were profound.
Winfrey recalls the first time she used the principle of intention for a show. Her guest was a mother whose 16-year-old daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend. Winfrey went into the green room before taping and asked the mother why she agreed to come on the show.
The woman told Winfrey that she wanted people to know that her daughter's life was bigger than her death. That she had been a good student, a cheerleader, popular, not just a victim. Everyone wanted to talk to the mother about how her daughter died, and why she didn't know about the domestic violence. The mother wanted people to know that her daughter was loved and she had a life that was bigger than her murder.
According to Winfrey, "I said, 'Good. I can do that. … And here's my intention: I want everybody to hear your daughter's story to be able to see their friend, to see themselves, and to know that to remain silent can be a killer.'
"That's the first show I won an Emmy for," says Winfrey.
"The reason ['The Oprah Winfrey Show' was] No. 1 for 25 solid years is because we intended to be."