What I Know For Sure Essay

This collection of bits of wisdom begins with Oprah Winfrey recalling a 1998 interview during which the late, great film critic Gene Siskel asked her, “[W]hat do you know for sure?” “Now, this was not my first rodeo,” Oprah writes. “I’ve asked and been asked an awful lot of questions over the years . . . but I have to say, the man managed to stop me in my tracks.”

In the years following that interview, Oprah took up writing monthly columns called “What I Know for Sure” in her eponymous magazine. “But just when I’m ready to raise the white flag and yell, ‘That’s it! I’m tapped out! I’ve got nothing!’ ” Oprah confesses in the book’s intro,
“I’ll find myself walking the dogs or brewing a cup of chai or soaking in the tub, when, out of nowhere, a little moment of crystal clarity will bring me back to something . . . I absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

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The 14 years during which this book’s contents were written were eventful ones for “The Queen of All Media.” She closed “The Oprah Winfrey Show,’’ which ran from 1986 to 2011 and remains the highest-rated talk show in history. She launched her OWN television network, became America’s only black billionaire, and a major philanthropist. She received an honorary degree from Harvard University and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

The events and the span of those years lend a sense of evolving consciousness to the dozens of one- to three-page updated essays compiled in this ribbon-markered, clothbound bible of a book.

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If you’ve read, heard, watched, prayed to, or memorialized the gospel according to Oprah, there will be much to delight you here, and few surprises.

The miracle and the mundanity of the web that Oprah has woven around her millions of devotees is its consistent, unassailable message: Be your best self; live your best life. Who doesn’t need more encouragement to do that?

A couple of samples:

“I’m working on not letting people with dark energy consume any of my minutes on this earth. . . . What I know for sure is that how you spend your time defines who you are.”

“I know for sure that I don’t want to live a shut-down life — desensitized to feeling and seeing. I want every day to be a fresh start on expanding what is possible.”

For some of us, worshiping at the seductive shrine of Oprah is problematic. If we’re really to be our best selves, live our best lives, shouldn’t we be able to do that without humming Oprah’s pop psychology mantras to ourselves in the mirror each morning? If we’re to reach into ourselves and find the things we authentically know for sure, shouldn’t we do that in self-reflective silence, without Oprah’s familiar voice ringing in our ears?

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As is her wont, Oprah offers guidance on these questions, too.

“As you read about all the lessons I’ve struggled with . . . my hope is that you’ll begin to ask yourself the very same question Gene Siskel asked me all those years ago. I know what you’ll find along the way will be fantastic, because what you’ll find will be yourself.”

What I know for sure: With all Oprah Winfrey has done and been and given to the world, despite the unavoidable truisms scattered among this book’s truths, she and her book deserve the epic readership, rapt attention, and grateful fan mail they’ll surely amass.


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Meredith Maran is the author of many books of nonfiction and the novel “A Theory of Small Earthquakes.” Her next book, “Why We Write About Ourselves,” will be out from Plume in 2015. She’s on Twitter @meredithmaran.

You can learn something from everyone who crosses your path. Some people will show you what not to do and others pass along a bit of wisdom that improves your life. Not too long ago, I was at the art studio of painter Jonas Gerard who told me you have to silence your inner critic to create. "Too much thought will mess up what you are creating," he said. Back in college, my favorite journalism professor and National Geographic photographer, Yva Momatiuk, taught me never to regret painful experiences because it means you are truly alive.

When Oprah was signing off from her longtime show, she shared many of her greatest life lessons and then put them all in a book called What I Know for Sure.

I decided to put together my list of 48 things I know for sure. Some things I learned from the school of hard knocks, and some I collected from wise souls. Not everything has to be learned by getting beat up in the arena. We can arrive at happiness a little faster when we are open to learning from others.

48 Things I Know for Sure

1. Fix yourself first.
2. Wisely choose who you spend your time with because they will influence you.
3. "When people show you who they are, believe them." - Maya Angelou
4. If the person you are in a relationship with is really into you, it won't be a mystery.
5. There's a difference between feeling better and getting better.
6. Always be reading a book you don't want to put down.
7. Continually work to reduce the things that irritate you. Scale down that irritation list.
8. If you have a job you dread, find another job and quit the one you dread. You should wake up with joy, not a knot in your stomach.
9. Every decision you make, no matter how small, shapes how you feel about yourself.
10. Don't do tension. Create a tension-free home. If your house is full of tension, your kids feel it too.
11. Life only stays the same if you do.
12. Live with the awareness that a single decision can change everything.
13. Your strengths are your guideposts to your purpose.
14. If you were taught that life is difficult and has to be endured, reject the notion. Life is about thriving.
15. Don't date someone you want to fix or rescue.
16. Don't get in a relationship with someone who doesn't show signs of empathy.
17. Ask yourself if you are in denial about anything. Then do what most won't do: Run toward it. Expose it to light. Fix it.
18. Decide what kind of life you want and then construct your life according to that vision.
19. Learn from the success of others so you don't waste time.
20. If you are in the right relationship, life improves. Period.
21. Be more interested in what other people have to say than what you have to say.
22. Marry your best friend.
23. Face the darkness, stare it down and own it.
24. You can learn something from everyone.
25. Don't be a victim.
26. Design your own day and fill it with lots of tiny things that make you happy.
27. Set boundaries with the people in your life.
28. Shatter your external mirrors. Don't let other people determine how you should feel about you.
29. Don't neglect your needs for the sake of other people.
30. Share your imperfections, it connects us to each other on a real level.
31. Don't try and fix your parents for what they did or didn't do. Just claim responsibility for fixing yourself.
32. You teach people how to treat you.
33. Do at least one thing every day you love.
34. Always be honest, it lightens your load.
35. If you are broken, you will choose someone who is broken.
36. Never emotionally react to something right after it happens. Think first.
37. Leave something unsaid every day.
38. What people say and do has a lot more to do with them than it does you.
39. If it has to be a secret, don't do it.
40. You are stronger than you think you are.
41. Smile and say Hello to strangers.
42. Never hold your fork with a fist. Basic manners speak volumes.
43. Learn how to comfort yourself.
44. Lots of problems could be solved if people just talked openly about things.
45. Anticipation is a big part of happiness. Plan things you can look forward to that will make you happy.
46. Living with gratitude is the pathway to joy.
47. "Nothing works until you do." Maya Angelou
48. You already know the answer.

What do you know for sure?

Follow Sandra Bienkowski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SandyBienkowski

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