From 1986 to 2011, Oprah Winfrey hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was the highest rated talk show of all-time and familiar to nearly anyone who owned a television set in North America at that time.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the “Queen of All Media” built a brand that stretched far beyond the television screen. She went on to become a billionaire, a well-regarded philanthropist, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And as she was busy working toward these otherworldly accomplishments, Oprah relied on a simple habit: journaling.
Journaling is simply the act of thinking about your life and writing it down. That’s it. Nothing more is needed. But despite its simplicity, the daily journal has played a key role in the careers of many prolific people.
As you might expect, journaling is a favorite habit of many writers. From Mark Twain to Virginia Woolf, Francis Bacon to Joan Didion, John Cheever to Vladimir Nabokov. A journal was rarely far from any of these artists. Susan Sontag once claimed that her journal was where she “created herself.”
Journaling has been utilized by scores of brilliant thinkers and inventors. Charles Darwin. Marie Curie. Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Edison. Albert Einstein. Similarly, leaders and politicians throughout history have kept journals in one form or another. People like George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Marcus Aurelius.In the sporting world, athletes like Katie Ledecky, winner of multiple gold medals, and Eliud Kipchoge, the world record holder in the marathon, rely on journals to reflect on their daily workouts and improve their training.
Why have so many of history's greatest thinkers spent time journaling? What are the benefits?
Nearly anyone can benefit from getting their thoughts out of their head and onto paper. There are more benefits to journaling than I have time to cover here, but allow me to point out a few of my favorites.
Journaling provides the opportunity to learn new lessons from old experiences. When looking back on her previous journal entries, Virginia Woolf remarked that she often “found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
Reading your old journal entries is a bit like reading a great book for a second time. You pick up on new sentences and see the past in a different way. Only this time, you are re-reading the story of your life.
Journaling sharpens your memory. When Cheryl Strayed wrote her hit book, Wild, she relied heavily on her journal. She recalled, “My journal provided the who, what, how, when, and why with a specificity that memory might have blurred, but it also did something more: it offered me a frank and unvarnished portrait of myself at 26 that I couldn't have found anywhere else.”
Time will change your face without you noticing, but it will also change your thoughts without you realizing it. Our beliefs shift slowly as we gain experience and journal entries have the ability to freeze your thoughts in time. Seeing an old picture of yourself can be interesting because it reminds you of what you looked like, but reading an old journal entry can be even more surprising because it reminds you of how you thought.
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