Conan at Harvard 2000: Embrace failure


It's graduation time, and our thoughts turn to the commencement ceremony. Three weeks ago I was at my cousin's high school graduation, where we listened to the superintendent urge the graduates to register to vote and elect legislators who would shovel more money into the schools. 17 years ago, at my college graduation, we all sat in heavy rain for an hour while we listened to the World's Most Boring Commencement Speaker (William R. Hewlett) read, in monotone, a speech that he was apparently seeing for the first time as he stood at the podium. It was a litany of his company's engineering achievements, recited in excruciating technical detail. I have a photo of me, looking like a drowned rat, taking my diploma from Paul Gray, MIT's last good president, and not coincidentally, its last alumnus to serve as president. Gray's charge to the class (continued on this page) was actually pretty good, although we were all too wet to notice. Gray delivered the only funny line of the day, which came from a parent:

"After the soaking I've take from this place for the past four years, what's a little rain?"

Here is a much shorter, much funnier, and much more inspirational commencement speech. It's three years old, but I just came across it, thanks to a link today from Jonah Goldberg on The Corner. Conan O'Brien addressed the Harvard class of 2000, on the 15th anniversary of his own graduation from the red brick schoolhouse up Chuck River from MIT. In an inspirational speech, he prepared the students for a lifetime failure and ridicule:

So what can you expect out there in the real world? Let me tell you. As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain: Everyone out there is going to hate you. Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard. In most situations the correct response to where did you go to school is, "School? Why, I never had much in the way of book larnin' and such." Then, get in your BMW and get the hell out of there.

You see, you're in for a lifetime of "And you went to Harvard?" Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it's, "And you went to Harvard?" Ask the guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and hear, "And you went to Harvard?" Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants and it's "and you went to Harvard." Get your head stuck in your niece's dollhouse because you wanted to see what it was like to be a giant and it's "Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard!?"

He went on to tell the story of his post-Harvard career, marked by low-paying jobs and bad career moves, like leaving SNL to write a sitcom that never made it to air. Even taking the Late Night post looked like a bad move at first, as he suffered a barrage of negative reviews. He winds up by telling the graduates not to fear failure:

Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive. And it hurt like you wouldn't believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success and I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good and I've looked bad. I've been praised and I've been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. Except for Wilson's House of Suede and Leather. That was just stupid.

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, 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. And remember that the story is never over.

That's a gem -- buried in the laugh lines, something these graduates really needed to hear. If you've gone to a school like Harvard or MIT, you either succeed big or you never get over the sense that you could have done more with your opportunities. And a fear of big failure can keep you from taking the risks that could lead to big success, so you settle instead for middling security.

Conan and I started college the same year. I could have been his classmate, as I had an offer from Harvard, but declined it for MIT's offer because I figured an engineering degree would give me a better chance at a job after graduation. (Yes, there is a difference between being smart and being savvy.) Some night, when I'm feeling especially rueful, I'll tell the story of what went into that decision. Don't get me wrong -- I made wonderful friends at MIT, I got a solid education, and I have many happy memories. And MIT is a great choice if you are in love with science or engineering. I chose MIT because it promised a career that would provide a secure future in comfortable surroundings, not necessarily a career that I would love.

Looking at my job history and Conan's circa 1990, my choice of MIT and engineering looked pretty sound -- I had been continuously employed, my salary had gone up every year, and I had received job offers from competing companies. Since 1990, I've stayed on a linear track. Conan took risks, was doing something he loved, and after a slow and bumpy start his rise was exponential. Of course, his career track may just as easily have followed a spectacular downward curve, but at least he'd be failing while doing something he loved.

The Bible reminds us that neither earthly success or earthly failure are permanent:

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

In light of this reality:

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

My advice to my graduating cousin? Understand and delight in your God-given abilities and inclinations. Find a job you will love. Use college to help you get there. Don't play it safe.

UPDATE: Steve Young has written a graduation address with a similar theme, which begins, "THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR TO SUCCESS IS FAILURE!" Citing the examples of Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Walter Cronkite, Young writes:

All these people share one thing in common. They ignored the "experts." They refused to let hardships stop them on the road to victory. They learned that every triumphant discovery resulted from many unsuccessful experiments; that every home run has been tempered by a multitude of missed swings; that every great script was built on the back of endless rewrites; that every top performer has been humiliated by more than one performance; that failure is part of the process that breeds success.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 18, 2003 12:01 PM.

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