Conan, the Conservative? Conan O’Brien’s Commencement Address

Equal parts funny and poignant, late night talk show host Conan O’Brien did right by the graduates at Dartmouth College yesterday.  The entire speech is fantastic, but other than a great opening line (“Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.”) and a funny nod to Winston Churchill (“Today, I would like to set forth my own policy here at Dartmouth: I call it ‘The Conan Doctrine.’ Under ‘The Conan Doctrine’ … all Bachelor’s degrees will be upgraded to Master’s degrees. All Master’s degrees will be upgraded to PhDs. And all MBA students will be immediately transferred to a white collar prison.”) two particular sentiments jumped out at me. The first:

Of course there are many parents here and I have real advice for them as well. Parents, you should write this down:

  • Many of your children, you haven’t seen in four years. Well, now you are about to see them every day when they come out of the basement to tell you the wi-fi isn’t working.
  • If your child majored in fine arts or philosophy, you have good reason to be worried. The only place where they are now really qualified to get a job is ancient Greece. Good luck with that degree.
  • The traffic today on East Wheelock is going to be murder, so once they start handing out diplomas, you should slip out in the middle of the K’s.

And, I have to tell you this:

  • You will spend more money framing your child’s diploma than they will earn in the next six months. It’s tough out there, so be patient. The only people hiring right now are Panera Bread and Mexican drug cartels.

There’s something to be said about the reality of a situation when the exact same messages is being mentioned in jest by a late night talk show host, as well as in an Internet video by the candidate most pundits feel is the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination.  Mitt Romney released a great video about unemployment in America in advance of last night’s debate, and stayed as true to the “jobs” message as the moderator allowed during the debate itself.

We need to put people back to work, and in order to do that, we need to incentivize appropriately.  More on that later.  In the meantime, the second sentiment:

Eleven years ago I gave an address to a graduating class at Harvard. I have not spoken at a graduation since because I thought I had nothing left to say. But then 2010 came. And now I’m here, three thousand miles from my home, because I learned a hard but profound lesson last year and I’d like to share it with you. In 2000, I told graduates “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it. Nietzsche famously said “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you. Disappointment stings and, for driven, successful people like yourselves it is disorienting. What Nietzsche should have said is “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.”

Now, 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. 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. I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.

But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things. I grew a strange, cinnamon beard. I dove into the world of social media. I started tweeting my comedy. I threw together a national tour. I played the guitar. I did stand-up, wore a skin-tight blue leather suit, recorded an album, made a documentary, and frightened my friends and family. Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature and took a job on basic cable with a network most famous for showing reruns, along with sitcoms created by a tall, black man who dresses like an old, black woman. I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and guess what: with the exception of the blue leather suit, it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life. To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged—and this is important—had more conviction about what I was doing.

How could this be true? Well, it’s simple: There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going. At Harvard, five different guys in my class told me that they would one day be President of the United States. Four of them were later killed in motel shoot-outs. The other one briefly hosted Blues Clues, before dying senselessly in yet another motel shoot-out. Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course. This happens in every job, but because I have worked in comedy for twenty-five years, I can probably speak best about my own profession.

Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star, easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. 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 become a catalyst for profound re-invention.

From failure comes re-invention.  I think it’s fair to say that most of those students likely went four years without hearing such an inherently conservative statement, and I think it’s probably correct that it was probably the most conservative statement ever made by a red-haired late-night talk show host during a commencement address at Dartmouth College.  Think about it for a moment.

During the debate last night, Mitt Romney touched upon his fantastic op-ed piece from November 2008–which has been recounted here at America’s Right on numerous occasions–when he advised that the auto companies should have been allowed to fail, to enter into bankruptcy, and to emerge stronger.  (For the record, CNN’s John King misstated Romney’s position and tried to trap him by stating that he had written that the car companies, if bailed out, would cease to be — Mitt reminded King that he had indeed written as much, but stated that he also had written that the companies should enter bankruptcy … in essence, had the companies did what Romney suggested, the cost of the auto bailout could have been avoided, and with the same result.)

Back to Conan — that’s what fiscal conservatism and the free market is all about.  Businesses that face failure have two options: (1) re-invent and get better, or (2) languish in obscurity and eventually wind down operations.  And, much in the same way, that’s the reality facing graduates from Dartmouth and beyond.  Can’t find a job right out of school?  Reassess your strengths, put in hard work, adapt, and emerge a winner when the time is right … or spend eternity in your parent’s basement.

It rings true in my own life, in a way.  Right now, while I have passed the Bar Exam, I still have a few things to take care of (and another exam to pass) before I can be licensed to practice.  Back in 2006 when I first started law school, recent graduates were getting hired right away, and were making six-figure salaries across the country.  Now, recent law grads are hard-pressed to find a job.  On my end, I’ve been forced to take a much lower-paying position in hopes that by working extremely hard (hence the slower pace here at AR) I will be ready to finally make the money we need once the opportunity presents itself.

Failure is an essential part of success.  Even the best major-league batter fails to get a hit seven out of every ten at-bats.  Even Michael Jordan missed free throws.  And those baseball and basketball players that aren’t Tony Gwynn or Michael Jordan either worked at their craft and got better, or languished on stinky buses in the minor leagues.

A great message from Conan O’Brien.  And a funny one, too.  Who knows … maybe he’ll be at the next GOP debate.



  1. Daniel B. says:

    Great post, Jeff. And keep up the hard work. It pays off. Eventually.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I loved this. What America is all about. Opportunity driven by ones ambitions and God given talents. Bailouts, the antithesis, suck.

  3. Jeff:

    I agree with both your blog and Conan O’Brien’s speech: evolving from failure is the pathway to success. Opening my own law practice was based on failure (I’d been let go from two different law firms my first two years of practice and didn’t want to take yet another associate position that didn’t seem like a good fit). From this failure, I learned what type of law practice I wanted to develop and how to develop it but this process was slow–and for a few years dispiriting. It’s what led me to write this blog:

    Now, after almost 18 years, while I still love practicing family law, I sometimes worry that success has made me stale and one dimensional. The problem with success is that there is little impetus to change and therefore to grow. I presume there is a “next phase” of my life before retirement but hope that it doesn’t take a crisis to move me there.

    If we want an economy of small risk-taking entrepreneurs (which I agree would make our economy more dynamic), doesn’t that suggest we want to move away from an employer provided health insurance system to one with greater public options? Doesn’t it also suggest that a lowered tax burden on the middle class (so that small entrepreneurs can keep more of their money) rather than the “trickle down economics” of tax cuts for the wealth (so that their capital can fund investment) make more sense? I don’t see either American political party doing much to drive economic development: if the Democrats are too wedded to entitlement, Republicans policies benefit big business more than they benefit young risk takers.

    On the issue of the Chrysler and GM bailouts, my understanding is that if they had simply gone into bankruptcy, the public would have been “on the hook” for much of their underfunded pension plans. Is this correct? If so, it mitigates against many of the conservative comments that bankruptcy would have been a taxpayer-cost-free option and we could have had the same result allowing the car companies to file bankruptcy.

Speak Your Mind