09/28/2012 05:33 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

How Do You Achieve Success? Q&A With Stedman Graham

What are the things that I want to achieve in my life? What do I want to do? How do I structurally lay it out? Are there places that I can visit that are relevant to what I want to do, to whatever will make me happy. I try to be clear on those things that are important in my life as opposed to those things that are not important. And I try to eliminate all those things that have nothing to do with me focusing on things that are relevant to my passion, my purpose, my skills, my development.


Entrepreneur, New York Times best-selling author and educator Stedman Graham was in Quebec this week to give a conference on success at Montreal's International Black Film Festival. Initially the Montreal Haitian Film Festival, the 8-year old event has now grown into way more, thanks to founder Fabienne Colas who's on a mission to empower and inspire festival-goers beyond the silver screen.

As Stedman Graham received the festival's first Career Achievement Award (photo below), I caught up with him to talk about happiness, success, education and the lessons he's learned from his famous life partner, Oprah Winfrey.

What is the advice you give to people who are looking to be happy? How do you get there?

Success to me is about being able to maximize your potential, it's not about money or financial success necessarily. It's about being able to figure out what makes you happy. If you're happy with what you're doing every single day and you're able to self-actualize, to me that's the ultimate feeling of success.

So the advice I would give to people who are looking for happiness is that it's an internal process. You have to look inside yourself. It's not an external process. It's not how other people define you and define your happiness, it's how you define yourself. You have to take control of what makes you feel good, what makes you feel happy, what you're able to create. I think it's based on organizing your natural abilities: organizing what you can do, organizing your passions, organizing your skills, organizing your talents, organizing things that are relevant about things that you care about and love. To me that's how you become happy.

You've traveled the world giving conferences and interacting with people from all walks of life. What do you think is the greatest barrier to success? What's keeping so many of us from achieving our full potential?

The barriers to success are many. One is when you look for success on the outside and you don't cultivate it from the inside. Another barrier is your belief system, you don't believe that you're good enough, you may have low self esteem, you don't have confidence in yourself. Barriers where you're all over the place, you're not clear on who you want to become, what you want to do, so you're not able to practice on something consistently. A barrier is your lack of focus, you don't know what you need to focus on. A barrier is not knowing the value of education and information and knowledge, and how to take that and make it relevant to who you are as a human being. A barrier is buying into the labels, being programmed by the labels, that you can't make it because of the colour of your skin, you can't make it because you're a woman and it's a man's world, you can't make it because of your environment or your background. That's a barrier. A barrier is that it's easy. That success is easy, that it just happens automatically, that's a barrier. A barrier is buying into the illusionary world and not being able to work on yourself every single day in the 24 hours that you have. The barrier is not knowing how to organize your habits. You know, show me your habits and I'll tell you exactly who you are. So there's a lot of barriers. Barriers are the lack of value that you give yourself. If you give yourself no value, nobody else gives you value. If you don't love yourself, nobody else will love you. So you attract exactly that. How you feel and how you think, Whatever you put out and whatever you think, that's what you attract in your life.

Earlier in the press conference, you were talking about your own barriers. You mentioned that you were looking for your identity for most of your life. That race and family circumstances were keeping you from success. That you had that victim mentality. How did you overcome that to grow into the successful Stedman Graham we know today?

I overcame the victim mentality or at least I worked on it enough, not to have it be a design for my life. I worked on my skills and talents and passions and what I love. So I really worked on organizing things that I wanted to do. I try to shape my own future based on writing down everything I love in my life. Everything I care about.

You did a list?

Ya, I put everything I love. That's my vision board. So my vision board is to create things that I love and that I'm passionate about. What are the things that I want to achieve in my life? What do I want to do? How do I structurally lay it out? Are there places that I can visit that are relevant to what I want to do, to whatever will make me happy. I try to be clear on those things that are important in my life as opposed to those things that are not important. And I try to eliminate all those things that have nothing to do with me focusing on things that are relevant to my passion, my purpose, my skills, my development. So I really try to take charge of my own development. I try read the information that's relevant to my development so I can be more of a person, so I can create more value. Then I can help my family, my friends, I can help Oprah, I can help as many people as possible become who they need to become.

I have to talk to you about education.You have a foundation, My Life Is About, to educate kids and help them figure out what they want to do. I watched this incredible TED talk on how schools are killing creativity, you also mentioned earlier that we are taught to memorize, rather than learn. The US is in this political campaign... do you think an educational reform is possible in the United States to change that system?

Well, the challenge is to get people to be learners. How do you learn? You can't learn if you forget the information. So if you memorize and take the test, repeat the information back, label it, and forget it two weeks later, you're not learning. The way I teach people to learn through my 9 steps successs process, is I teach them to change the way the information becomes relevant.

I want them to filter information that's relevant to their empowerment, to their growth, to their development, to what they love, to what they're passionate about. So we change the whole learning system around. When you change the whole learning system around, you're now able to think about who you can become and you're not put into a follower mentality. You take charge of your learning. You understand why you're reading that book. You understand how this information is important. You understand why you're in school in the first place, what is the purpose of education. You become a life-long learner. You become an independent learner. You become a person that takes in charge of their development, based on the understanding that the world is a cluster of unlimited wealth and resources. We often limit our potential by moving in our small circles because we don't know how to really learn. And the challenge is to really change the way we think and feel about ourselves every single day by changing our perspective, by changing what we read, by making the information again relevant to our skill sets or talents or abilities. That's the foundation for growth and development, that's your identity. That's your ability to create and shape your future.

And finally, you have been Oprah's life partner for more than 25 years. She's one of the most successful human beings of our time. What's the most important lesson you have learned from her?

I think the most important thing I've learned about success is you have to change your thinking all the time. You have to make adjustments to your development. You can't stay in one box. You can't think a certain way, you have to be open. And also I think that what I learned most from her is her ability to assimilate and deal with all kinds of people from all backgrounds and all colours and the importance of having your own voice, and the importance of independent thinking. She does that so well.

I think her greatest gift is that she's able to take lemons and make lemonade out of it. She's able to take a bad situation and make it into a good situation. She does that very well. She's come from a tough background. She's come from a background where, you know, she shouldn't survive. And so how did she make it? She made it because she's smart. She made it because she tries to be the best she can be every single day. Everything she does, she puts her 150% into it. That's another great trait of her.

So I just think, to be around a person like that, that's an extraordinary role model, you know, as well as having a partner that puts that out every single day, who helps to empower women all over the world, and still doing it, still building a platform, still trying to figure it out, even though it's tough. She's turn this situation around with OWN, it's going to be a great platform for her and for women empowerment.

And she's doing these university programs, with universities around the world. She's educating these kids in South Africa, these young girls, she has a whole school, she's graduating them and taking them to Standford and Wesley and some of these top colleges in the United States and they came from nothing, and she supports them 150%.

That's an extraordinary human being. So to me, she's not only the most influential person in the world, number one. She's an extraordinary human being who has a lot of humility.

Graham is the author of more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers, You Can Make It Happen: A Nine-Step Plan for Success and Teens Can Make It Happen: Nine Steps to Success.