In case you didn’t catch it, Conan O’Brien gave the commencement address at my undergrad, Dartmouth College. It was a hilarious speech, which threw a few good-natured barbs at the administration, Dartmouth life, and the Ivy League (“Brown, of course, is your lesbian sister who never leaves her room”). What was particularly remarkable, though, is that under the humor, he had a message that hit really close to home for me. While this has gotten a significant amount of coverage in various media outlets (or, at least, the ones I read), I felt the need to talk about it a little here.
Conan’s Tonight Show fallout is a story that many people know. He said, “By definition, Commencement speakers at an Ivy League college are considered successful. But a little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment.” What he did with that disappointment, though is something that makes him very different than a lot of people faced with tough times.
It’s easy enough for a graduation speaker to go up there and say, “Don’t be afraid to fail!” This is something we hear over and over again, but you know what? Failure is scary. Failure has consequences. Failure isn’t simply just going “oh well” and moving on. For some people, including me, failure is one of those things that can deeply define you.
Talking this last week with someone, they pointed out to me that the way I talk about myself seems to have two stories: success is fleeting, failure is eternal. If I succeed, it’s due to some outside chance, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. But failure lasts forever. I can still remember specific failures – wrong notes I played, tests I failed, stupid things I’ve said, and social obligations I’ve fucked up. I remember each one of those, and I relive a whole ton of those over and over depending on the circumstances. Listening to the wrong bit of music can remind me of the time I got a bad grade in German in college and how I should have studied harder and how my GPA wasn’t good and blah blah blah.
Seriously, that’s a little bit of insight into my mental spirals. It’s like a crazy straw of self-loathing.
I wrap myself in these failures, and when I sum them up, I see myself as a failure. Conan said something, though, that really made me look at all of it in somewhat of a new light.
“There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”
At the end of my senior year, I had one of my biggest and most profound failures – I didn’t get honors on my senior thesis. For a variety of reasons, this one really messed up for in the long term; I defined myself by that failure for years, and to this day, it’s still an incredible part of me. At the time, it was my world crashing down on me – everything was a mess, and this was the end to any possible career that I could ever want or have. I was done.
“But the point is this: 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 catalyst for profound re-invention.”
I didn’t achieve my ideal. I could never achieve my ideal, because my ideal self is so far away that I even if I had the drive, the will, the time, and everything going for me, I couldn’t ever quite make it. But there’s this – that’s what makes me unique. That’s me. I do fail – everyone does. But it’s those failures that lead us to better things.
I didn’t get honors on my senior thesis, but it was then I realized that I wanted to go into music education. I don’t know that I ever would have gotten to that point if I hadn’t had that failure. I changed myself from that moment, and things are better now than they ever could have been under my old path. This is more than just saying “don’t be afraid to fail” – it’s saying that with failure can come profound, important change.
But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.
I wrap myself in these failures without using them to gain that clarity. I wallow, hate myself, sit around, and complain that the world has screwed me over, or that I didn’t deserve it in the first place. Now, though through this prism, I can see that there are benefits to these disappointments – the gained clarity and conviction can make you stronger, but only if you can see the failures for what they are and leverage them to your advantage. It isn’t about wrapping myself up in these failures and holding on to them forever; it’s about using them as learning experiences to new successes, or to different successes that I’d never considered.
It shouldn’t take a enormous red-headed man to make me realize these things, but the clarity of his words, mixed in with his humor, gave me a new insight into what I’m doing. My successes should last longer; but my failures should give me the clarity and conviction to move forward and do what I love. They aren’t show stoppers, career enders, or anything else. They’re part of life, and with them, I can shape my reality to something more of my liking, instead of just being the sum of everything I’ve ever screwed up.
At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen. “ Today, receiving this honor and speaking to the Dartmouth Class of 2011 from behind a tree-trunk, I have never believed that more.