In 2000, Conan O’Brien spoke to the graduates of his alma mater, Harvard University, about not fearing failure. At the time, he had his own successful television show, NBC’s Late Night, and failure didn’t appear to be something he had experienced much of. It’s his 2011 commencement address to the graduates of Dartmouth College, however, that is among the most watched, and the advice he had handed out 11 years earlier was even more poignant as he had recently lost his job as host of the Tonight Show.
“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,” he said. “But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things.”
O’Brien took his comedy to social media, went on a national tour, recorded an album, and made a documentary. He abandoned all of his preconceived perceptions of his career path and “never had more fun, been more challenged, and this is important–had more conviction about what I was doing,” he says.
There are few things more liberating in life than having your worst fear realized, O’Brien says: “But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”