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The Pursuit of Happiness

By Lisa Burwell | Photography by Gerald Burwell

Hope. It’s a small word, but a word with lots of power. Without it, you can’t do great things, and at times you need it just to make it through the day. Life wasn’t easy even before the “Great Recession”; hurdles and challenges have always been part of the equation. The ups and downs of life have always been guaranteed, but many never suspected that trying times similar to those experienced by our grandparents and great-grandparents would or could plague our nation again. Since 2008, most of us have had to face the music. Things were going to be different—coping skills and tools would be needed. The O You! conference was designed to inspire those looking for ways to make the most of their lives, not just make do in tough times.

Since her triumphant arrival on the television talk scene in 1986, respect and admiration for Oprah Winfrey have been ingrained in my consciousness. She’s Oprah. Who can deny her success? Her power? Her larger-than-life persona? Owning a business that requires me to work ten to twelve hours each day, I was not a faithful devotee of Oprah’s talk show. Clearly, I was in the minority; millions tuned in to watch her daily. On the rare occasion that I stayed home sick, one of my secret pleasures would be to watch The Oprah Winfrey Show.

When she started O, The Oprah Magazine ten years ago, Oprah gave readers the chance to connect with her message in print, thereby expanding her reach to a broader audience, including me. On a monthly basis, I was able to experience Oprah and her panel of experts, authors, and columnists: Dr. Mehmet Oz, Suze Orman, Bob Greene, Nate Berkus, Martha Beck, Peter Walsh, Donna Brazile, Val Monroe, Adam Glassman, and Lisa Ling. They became new voices for a nation seeking knowledge, self-improvement, and fulfillment.

VIE-Magazine, O You, Oprah Winfrey

Don’t get me wrong—my respect for Oprah didn’t mean that I’d hang on her every word. I understand implicitly what the “O Effect” is all about, and I’ve dreamed about what that kind of blessing—a Midas touch—could do for my company. But that wasn’t why I led members of my staff on a trek to attend the daylong O YOU! conference sponsored by O Magazine at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 15, 2011. It was a business trip to get away from the office, a chance to bond with one another, to experience something new—and, hopefully, to be inspired.

When we purchased the tickets, months in advance, we hoped Oprah would be at the conference, but there were no guarantees. A few weeks before the event, we heard there was a good chance she might be there. We heard that it would be the first conference that Oprah would attend since launching the O YOU! conference series in 2008. The possibility of seeing, hearing, or maybe even meeting her was exhilarating. We thought by arriving at the venue at 7:00 a.m. we could beat the crowd for the best seats. Alas, as it turned out, we were some of the last to arrive for a symposium that would not start for another two hours. An estimated 7,500 to 10,000 people (99 percent of whom were women) attended. The line was intimidating as it stretched for what looked like a mile. These hard-core Oprah fans were taking the day seriously. But everyone was courteous, polite, happy, and hopeful in their search for learning, inspiration, or the possibility of meeting Oprah or their favorite “Oprah celebrity.”

Thanks to the efficiency of the event organizers, the line moved quickly and before we knew it we were inside the huge three-story lobby of Building C at the convention center. Standing before us, in the midst of a crowd of politely anxious fans and media, were Gayle King, O Magazine’s editor-at-large, and several of the day’s headliners including Lisa Ling, Suze Orman, and Dr. Oz, graciously signing autographs and posing for photos.

The auditorium doors opened fifteen minutes before the first of the day’s two general assemblies and, again, thanks to well-executed planning, the enormous throng was effortlessly directed to designated seating without delay. The stage decorations consisted of elements that were both simple and dramatic: large elegant shapes, bold colors, and theatrical lighting. An oversized but elegant “O you!” emblem, made up of simple pink letters across a giant “O” with oversized sequins, was positioned high for all to see. Setting the tone for the dynamic day ahead, Gayle King gave energizing opening remarks, described the framework of the day’s individual sessions, and explained how they were intended to help everyone to achieve their “best life.” Additional words of emotion and inspiration were presented by Lisa Ling, Dr. Oz, and Martha Beck. And, if that was not enough, Gayle took the spotlight once again to announce—to an already eager audience—that Oprah herself would indeed be addressing the audience at the close of the conference. In an instant, looks of utter amazement leapt onto the faces around me. The reaction—thunderous applause and joyful sobs from thousands—was an awesome sight and sound.

VIE-Magazine, O You, Oprah Winfrey

As the assembly broke, excitement was in the air. Each person became a small speck in a sea of people as it flowed from one auditorium to the next. The uniquely designed stages at the individual sessions were impressive, the massive “O you!” emblem being a constant theme throughout. With expert keynote speakers delivering custom-tailored and specific messages, each seminar proved to be as moving and self-empowering as the last. The level of cheers and applause from the audience for each of the experts was stirring—a testament to the prestige and power that each possesses.

Some of the loudest cheering was for Dr. Oz; he is a beloved brand within the Oprah family. But one of my favorite speakers of the day was Donna Brazile. Having seen her in her role as a political pundit on numerous news and talk shows over the years, I’ve always found her to be intelligent and personable. Donna’s presentation that day was personally inspiring to me. Her words packed a punch like that of a Gospel preacher—but with a new twist.

Oprah is a well-respected businesswoman who has successfully made waves first in television and now in the magazine industry—two media forums that are tough and fraught with, what else, politics. Lately, that word isn’t the most popular in our cultural mainstream, but it sure is discussed at great length. Politics is a strange business and we all have to “play” politics in life to some degree—in both society and commerce. Connected with that is the constant learning process of how to give and take without really getting all you want. It’s a game of compromise at ever turn. But that’s life. Oprah is one of the most transparent people on the planet. Over the years, she has talked about a wide range of subjects—many of them considered too taboo for conventional media, especially television. She has been both criticized and revered, but I mostly admire her for her unabashed honesty.

At the close of the day, everyone had gathered in the large auditorium for the second and final general assembly. The black backdrop of the stage was punctuated by bright starry lights and, of course, the giant “O you!” It had been a long day. Everyone attending the conference had probably started their day by at least 5:00 a.m., but you would never have known it since everyone was as bright-eyed as when the day started. Once again, Gayle took the stage to introduce the panel of powerhouse speakers who each gave a personal summation and a thank-you to the audience—a farewell that lasted about twenty minutes.

Finally, the keynote speakers exited the stage. It was the big moment everyone was waiting for: the anticipation was palpable. After a jubilant introduction from Gayle, Oprah appeared, and the crowd’s reaction was a unanimous roar of approval. As large as the room was, her persona filled it completely. It was exhilarating to see Oprah in person, even if it was from almost a hundred feet away. I could practically feel the shared disbelief that was emanating from everyone around me. What surprised me most, however, was what was about to be revealed to the crowd. Oprah admitted that she had experienced, for the first time in her life, the feeling of fear.

As you may know, Oprah has embarked on the ambitious enterprise of establishing her own television network, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which launched on January 1, 2011. Part of OWN’s programming is the development of Oprah’s Lifeclass as the world’s largest classroom, which incorporates the Internet and Facebook as instruments to reach around the globe to a new world audience. The inaugural webcast of Oprah’s Lifeclass online this past October had a viewership of more than one million people. It was over this new undertaking that Oprah wrestled with the fear of failure. On May 25, 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show signed off for the last time. After twenty-five seasons and more than 4,500 episodes, it was the highest rated talk show in the nation’s history—Oprah’s brand had been established as a household name. With the undeniable successes of her television and magazine ventures under her belt, I was awestruck that someone like Oprah could have been battling any fear that her network might not make it.

VIE-Magazine, O You, Oprah Winfrey
VIE-Magazine, O You, Oprah Winfrey

What helped her to overcome the fear was remembering and meditating on the words of Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am;” and Acts 17:28—“In him we live and move and have our being.” The auditorium was perfectly silent after she spoke these words. Her words reminded me that anything could be accomplished if only I believed and had faith—you must have faith!

Hearing Oprah’s revelation of trepidation somehow gave me comfort about my own feelings of fear; in light of everything, they seemed normal. Few have been insulated from the financial repercussions of the recent economic downturn. And where there are financial pressures, there are also emotional ones, namely, feelings of fear, failure, uncertainty, regret, and low self-esteem. To adapt and survive the economic dip, everyone has had to regroup to varying degrees—some having to take more drastic measures than others. But it’s all relative in that, on some level, all of our lives have changed.

For over an hour, Oprah spoke powerful words of passion and inspiration with the conviction and energy of a zealous preacher. Recounting her recent experience with fear, Oprah explained that, because she had always had a strong foundation in faith, she did not recognize at first what was bothering her. What helped her to overcome the fear was remembering and meditating on the words of Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am;” and Acts 17:28—“In him we live and move and have our being.” The auditorium was perfectly silent after she spoke these words. Her words reminded me that anything could be accomplished if only I believed and had faith—you must have faith!

VIE-Magazine, O You, Oprah Winfrey

Oprah’s message was simply one of empowerment as she encouraged her audience to “press on.” It felt like Oprah was sharing her deepest thoughts with her closest friends—all ten thousand of us. She said a quote that she continues to live by is “What I know for sure is that what you give comes back to you.” Her words made me realize how good things really are, even though I’d been experiencing one of the hardest years of my life—mainly because I understood that many people in that room may have had it even harder than I. I wanted to reach out to help others. I wanted to start believing in my own dreams again.

At the close of her address, Oprah thanked everyone for attending and said that she knew we all had busy lives. She appreciated the effort made by so many to clear time schedules and to do something for ourselves. It was a genuine and humble statement to make to a room filled with people who paid $125 per ticket, with many traveling to Atlanta from the far corners of the country, and some from around the world.

Oprah is a trailblazer of epic proportions, but her message that day was, and continues to be, that we can and should also be trailblazers in our own sphere of influence. By doing so, the world will be a better place. I think she’s right. Oh, and I did hang on her every word that day!

— V —

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