Conan O' Brien's Brilliant Commencement Address

Conan O’ Brien gave the commencement address at Dartmouth college, and it is longer than usual, but stick with it for the sheer entertainment value. At about the 18 minute mark, O’Brien gets serious and personal, and the speech goes from enjoyable to sublime. Discussing his professional journey and its disappointments, he says: “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”

You can tell he means it; between quips, he speaks passionately and with conviction and with the sort of reassurance that is born of experience and loss. He has always been funnier and smarter than Letterman, and he proves it when he says:

“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 become a catalyst for profound reinvention. . .no specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you . . . Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity; with clarity comes conviction and true originality. . .whatever you think your dream is now, it will change, and that’s okay.”

Watch it all.

In the post below, Msgr. Kieran Harrington makes a point of saying, at about 7.5 minutes, “we are not our work; we transcend our work.”

I really appreciated him saying it because, in America, especially, we focus so much of our energy and invest so much of our identity into what we “do” that we forget that the true challenge of life is all about — our being.

Doing can be difficult. But to do is not less of a challenging than to be. I think that’s what O’Brien has figured out.

It’s one of those lessons you can tell but not teach. It can only be learned individually, often in the throes of spiritual and emotional tumult — that’s where wisdom imprints itself on the heart, by the flutterings of our fears and the heavy beats of our grief.

A really great speech. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Instalanch! — thanks, Glenn Reynolds. While Insty readers are here, please nose around. Some might find this discussion of gay “otherliness” interesting

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • GhaleonQ

    While everyone enjoyed the contributions/presence of all on stage (Joel Klein! George Bush! Et cetera.), the crowd really pondered O’Brien’s message afterward. I’m glad that they respected its fundamental seriousness, especially since comedy gets relatively little respect. I’m especially happy to find it posted here. Thanks, Ms Scalia!

    (Up-right, long black hair, 5:08: I adored it.)

  • wpdunn71901

    O’brian is the best example of truth presented in absurdity. Like Penn and Teller’s recent Patriotic Flag Burning trick, Conan makes you think after you have laughed your self silly.

  • Joe

    FYI – the link to the video has a typo. Remove the second “n” in “washingtonn” and it works correctly.

  • Vince

    in America, especially, we focus so much of our energy and invest so much of our identity into what we “do” that we forget that the true challenge of life is all about — our being.

    doing is how we get to being

    [not always = admin]

  • s

    Broken link (text: watch it all).

    Feel free to delete this comment after the fact.

    [thanks for the heads up -admin]

  • Moreta

    I had trouble with the link to the speech – it seems to have a spelling error – should be:

    [Link was fixed earlier and seems to work for me, now. Thanks for headsup -admin]

  • Kris, in New England

    A friend of mine says this: we are a bunch of human do-ings, not human be-ings.

    It is one of the most profound statements in my life. Because it is so true. We feel like we need to define ourselves to fit some version of our life that bears no resemblance to who we are as people.

    We do not need to define nor explain ourselves to anyone.

  • Burgo Fitzgerald

    In an episode of The Simpsons (which Conan O’Brien was a writer on) called “Bart’s Inner Child”, the sham self-help expert, Brad Goodman (voiced by Albert Brooks), in a seminar the whole town attended said:

    “…and soon you’re not a human be-ing; you’re a human do-ing. Then what comes next?”

    to which Bart replies, “A HUMAN GO-ING!” just before he jumps off his chair to leave.

    There has to be a good balance between “doing” and “being”. In fact, “being” involves a great deal of “doing.” If we just focus on the “being”, what we are “doing” is making certain we are “being” fired, evicted, divorced, and the list goes on.

  • Diana Gallemore

    I am a die hard Coco fan, so I wrote him a love song. Enjoy!

  • jane

    I’ve never been a fan of Conan O’Brien’s (and I do wish he’d do something about that curly-cue) but I was very impressed with his address to the Dartmouth grads.

    I loved his taking the mickey out of the podium and a whole lot of other things and, most of all, his comments about what all of us can learn/gain from not getting what we want when we want, which is a meme of this present generation — and a few before it.

    O’Brien seems more mature, sober (as in having gravitas), and “human” after his being shoved aside by Jay Leno. Because he’s been through this trial and come up stronger, freer, and more creative, he actually has something important to share with these young grads.

    I sent the link to one of my daughters who, after always being at the top of her class and, seemingly in control of her life, is going through a time of struggle and doubt about her capabilities and her worth. I hope that in addition to hearing a message relevant to her situation, she gets a lot of laughs too! Both, I hope, will be healing for her.

  • kmk

    I guess we can “transcend” our universities as well. We are about to pull our straight-A daughter out of a Catholic university (it was on the Cardinal Newman Society list!) because we cannot afford to send her there next year, despite her hard work and the financial aid offered. I guess this is her chance to reinvent herself, although it is a very bitter pill to swallow–for all of us. Grrrrr!!!!

    [You're not alone. Buster said he might want to take a semester off, and all I could think was, "great, more time to save up tuition!" But I leave it all in God's hands...that's the best way.admin]

  • Kelso

    I guess O’Brien has changed. I found him repulsive when I watched TV a long time ago. He was pathetic with his masturbating bear. Then “for ratings?” he had his sidekick do one whole show naked.

  • Elm

    Must every university address be filled with “potty” mouth??? Not much impressed, wish he could bring their souls up, rather than grovel to their baseness.

  • andrew

    Well whether you get his humor or not, Conan graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He’s not just a silly comedian, the guy has brains.