There’s always a new commencement speaker becoming popular every other day, and while many are great, my personal favorite is Conan O’Brien’s 2011 speech at Dartmouth College. That particular year was very scary and exciting for him career-wise.
Conan has always been my favorite late-night talk show host. His comedy is right up to my alley, while I find Letterman to be a bit too weird, Kimmel too much like he’s high all the time, and Fallon giggles too much (and Jay Leno just isn’t funny). O’Brien is funny because he knows how to make fun of himself, but he also isn’t afraid to act immaturely. I think what I have always liked about O’Brien though, is that despite his awesome career accomplishments, he always seems like the underdog. And in my opinion, underdogs are some of the most passionate and hardest working people out there – which makes them perfect team players.
O’Brien doesn’t fit the typical mold of an underdog since he attended Harvard. While there, he wrote for the well-known Harvard Lampoon and met his future NBC boss Jeff Zucker, who was Editor-in-chief of The Harvard Crimson. After Graduating Magna Cum Laude in 1987, he landed a job writing for the comedic institution “Saturday Night Live”. He also worked the improv comedy circuit.
After five years of being at one of the most demanding jobs in showbiz, Conando started to feel burnt out. To add to that, his engagement was called off and a TV pilot he wrote wasn’t picked up. Not such an awesome time for him. He left SNL with no real plan.
“I told Lorne Michaels I couldn’t come back to work and I just needed to do something else,” O’Brien said. “I had no plan whatsoever. I was literally in this big transition phase in my life where I decided, I’ll just walk around New York City, and an idea will come to me.” This wasn’t the first time O’Brien would feel a little lost in his career.
After a shaky start, he finally found solid ground when he landed a writing job for The Simpsons. He worked there from 1991 to 1993 and did very well for himself; however, we hadn’t seen anything yet. When David Letterman announced his departure from Late Night, it was up to producer Lorne Michaels to find a replacement host. After Michaels put O’Brien in a producer role for the show, his agent said that he was more interested in performing than producing. However, after auditioning, O’Brien landed the gig and changed his life forever.
O’Brien got the comedian’s dream gig, but it was harder than he thought. Late Night with Conan O’Brien received terrible ratings and critical reviews. His team had to fight tooth and nail to keep the show on the air as network executives made constant threats. It seemed like everything was working against him – even his height!
“There were so many doubters the first year,” says Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Universal. “They said Conan jumped around too much in front of the camera, that he was too smart, too East Coast, too sophisticated, too young, and even too tall to be successful. But Conan proved everybody wrong. We learned that you underestimate Conan at your peril.”
But he struck gold when his comedy began resonating with young men–a demographic that is any television network’s dream. In October 2005, Late Night with Conan O’Brien boasted eleven years of loyal viewers averaging about 2.5 million per show. His jokes became famous, the guests were recognizable, and O’Brien himself turned into a household name on par with Letterman and Leno. So it was no surprise when in 2004 it was announced that O’Brien would take over The Tonight Show when Jay Leno retired in 2009; one of the most coveted jobs in all of the show business.
In 2009, O’Brien took over The Tonight Show and things looked promising; even though Leno still had his show at the time. However, when Leno’s ratings began to drop and in turn impacted O’Brien’s viewership numbers as well, a plan was formulated to move The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien back half an hour so that Leno could return to his original 11:30 pm airtime. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with O’Brien who released a statement saying he wasn’t happy about the change. To make a long story short, he ended up leaving the show and was banned from ever working for NBC again.
You can watch Conan O’Brien’s unraveling in the documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.” During this time, he took to Twitter and went on a comedy tour called “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” It was tough for him, but also an exhilarating experience.
O’Brien gave an amazing commencement speech to the Dartmouth College graduating class of 2011, in which he spoke about a really scary time in his life–the doggiest moment of his underdog life. Even though he had “failed,” it was a freeing experience in his career. Here’s an excerpt from his speech:
“A little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment. 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: Except for 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.”
Failure is often seen as a bad thing when it’s an opportunity to grow and learn. billionaire Spanx founder Sara Blakely says that “failing” was what helped her find success in her career.
“I feel that failure is life’s way of nudging you and letting you know you’re off course,” she said at the Women in the World Summit. And in his Harvard commencement speech from 2000, O’Brien also encouraged failure: “Fall. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.”
It might not seem like it, but getting lost after a failure can oftentimes be the best thing to happen to you. It may be difficult at the moment, but if you remember this the next time you’re wallowing and eating ice cream in your pajamas at 11 AM, things will start looking up soon enough. Allow yourself to accept failure and learn from it. O’Brien did just that, and now he’s one of my biggest inspirations.
How do you embrace failure? Tell us in the comments!
Ask Hala Moddelmog, President of Arby’s Restaurant Group, on how to bounce back from a failure!