Everyone has something that they reach to for inspiration and encouragement. It could be a person, a poem, a book, a speech, a place. You cannot predict where inspiration will come from and when it will strike. I am always seeking magical positive energy and awe-inspiring ideas. Here’s one of my “go-to” pieces of inspiration. It’s Conan O’Brien’s commencement address to the Dartmouth College class of 2011 (reproduced here courtesy of teamcoco.com via YouTube). I have lost count of how many times I have watched this speech.
Besides being side-splitting funny, Conan O’Brien is intelligent and insightful. This speech is inspiring not only because of Conan’s sensible and wise advice to the youngsters, but more importantly because of his genuine depiction of life’s uncertainties. He steers clear of the “reach for the stars” and “the world is your oyster” clichés. With an unpretentious quality, Conan convinces the audience of how dreams can change and how living through that experience can be liberating rather than devastating. I want to pause here to commend Dartmouth on their excellent choice for a commencement address speaker. It’s not just about picking a successful person, but it also matters at what stage that person is in his/her own life.
A quick recap of where Conan was in his career/life at this point could be useful here. Conan O’Brien started hosting the The Tonight Show on NBC in 2009. As he recalls in the speech, hosting The Tonight Show is every comedian’s ultimate dream. But in early 2010, NBC decided to move Jay Leno to the 11.35pm spot and push Conan back to midnight. Conan did not appreciate this move. He felt devalued and finally quit NBC and is now hosting his own show called Conan on TBS. Now at first glance, this doesn’t seem like a very tragic story. And it’s not. It’s not like Conan was left destitute with nowhere to go. Skeptics might ask what’s inspirational about a man who got millions of dollars in settlement. True as that may be, one cannot deny how hard he worked to be where he is. There are thousands of comedians out there and only one Tonight Show. It’s a highly coveted job! Monetary considerations aside, we cannot discount how hard it must have been to let go of a dream that took more than two decades to realize, how hard it must have been to leave a national network to work for cable television. Technically it was a move down, not a move up. But Conan stood up for himself, his staff, and his values. We need role models who are ambitious but not sellouts. We need to believe that we can be successful without compromising our values and disrespecting ourselves and others.
Graduating college is one of the most daunting times of our life. We work hard, party harder, grow up, make and break relationships, and then one fine day suddenly find ourselves faced with endless possibilities as to what the future could look like in the real world. It is exciting yet intimidating at the same time. It is important to be ambitious, self-assured and confident, but that ambition should be healthy, and we must learn to discern the difference between being self-assured and confident, and being cocky and overconfident. We ought to know that we need to be grounded, that failure will come, that this is not the only time we’ll have to face unnerving uncertainties, that we’ve worked hard but now we need to work harder, that it is challenging to follow a dream but even more challenging to not get crushed in case that dream doesn’t come true. We need to be reminded that driven as we are, our ambition and our work does not define us. Sometimes while chasing dreams, we ignore the need to build strong relationships, nurture hobbies, and pursue passions that make us not just successful, but well-rounded people. And this message needs to be communicated in a way that is not didactic and preachy, as that can make the young mind resistant. The point is not to scare the youngsters or be negative about the world. The point is to be encouraging and positive while striking a balance with rationality and mindfulness. Enter, Conan O’ Brien.
In this speech, Conan makes you laugh till your stomach hurts but about 17 minutes in, without warning he gets real, and the last few minutes turn into a life lesson these young minds will/should never forget. Conan assures the students that “one’s dream is constantly evolving” and that “it is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique”. And the clincher: “Your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention… Through disappointment, you can gain clarity and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.” I get goosebumps every time I hear those lines. It’s a tough lesson, one that takes years to learn, but we become better human beings for it. I know there are countless inspirational speeches out there that carry the same or different messages. But this one’s my favorite! It helps me keep my chin up when the going gets tough. In the end, as Conan says in this speech and as he also said on his final Tonight Show, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”