Before talk show host Conan O’Brien gave his heralded graduation speech to the Dartmouth class of 2011, I used to tell clients—rather anyone who would listen—to read his speech to the Harvard Class of 2000. Speaking before his own alma mater, Conan told students about his own career. About the struggles to become a television writer, about his first panned reviews, and about the hurt, the pain, and the hard work and resiliency required to succeed in a competitive business.
That speech was funny, touching, and painfully true, especially when he told the class,
…Every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that’s what I wish for all of you—the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.
That was 11 years ago, and now Conan – no surname required– is a household word. He had achieved amazing successes, but then he went through what he calls “a profound and very public disappointment.” Still, and this is why I love the guy, and why I feel every day I can learn from him, he transformed and lived his life. He made his own version of success. He tried new things. And it liberated him. So now, the story is still never over, when he said in front of the graduating class in Hanover, New Hampshire,
There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized…It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a profound catalyst for reinvention.
So when you think about your life, and why you want to go to Harvard Business School, or why you want this job, or why you need to have this success, right here, right now, think about failure. Think about what resiliency teaches you. And then go write those essays. Tell the truth about what happened. And then tell the truth about what you learned. Or are still learning.
As Conan says, “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
Yep. What he said.