In it, O'Brien recounted lessons learned during his final days on NBC's "Tonight Show," his subsequent comedy tour and his eventual return to late-night television on TBS. In reviewing his own career, he urged students not to fear failure--but to prepare for career disappointment.
"Eleven years ago I gave an address to a graduating class at Harvard," O'Brien said. "I have not spoken at a graduation since because I thought I had nothing left to say. But then 2010 came."
"In 2000, I told graduates 'Don't be afraid to fail,'" he continued. "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.'"
O'Brien, a graduate of Harvard's class of 1985, said he experienced "a profound and very public disappointment" in losing his dream job as host of "The Tonight Show."
"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. "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," O'Brien continued. "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.
"For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host 'The Tonight Show,'" O'Brien said. "It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000—in 2000—I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. 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."
You can click here for the full transcript of O'Brien's speech.
(Jason R. Henske/AP)
- the Holy Grail