Continuing with our “Best of the Graduation Speeches” series, today, we feature television comedian Conan O’Brien’s words of wisdom to the Dartmouth College Class of 2011. Avoiding all of the “reach for the stars” cliches, O’Brien touches on everything from the value of a college education to changing sexual orientations and tree-stump podiums—all of which will keep you laughing for half an hour. Be sure to hang around for the last seven minutes, though, for a serious—and surprisingly profound—conclusion about how life’s disappointments lead to clarity and new opportunities to define who we are.
I did not get what I wanted, and I left a system that had nurtured and helped define me for the better part of 17 years. I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.
But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things. I grew a strange, cinnamon beard. I dove into the world of social media. I started tweeting my comedy. I threw together a national tour. I played the guitar. I did stand-up, wore a skin-tight blue leather suit, recorded an album, made a documentary, and frightened my friends and family. Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature and took a job on basic cable with a network most famous for showing reruns, along with sitcoms created by a tall, black man who dresses like an old, black woman. I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and guess what: with the exception of the blue leather suit, it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life. To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged–and this is important–had more conviction about what I was doing. How could this be true? Well, it’s simple: There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.
For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host ‘The Tonight Show.’ It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000—in 2000—I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.