Television talk show host Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech at Dartmouth College (full text here) has gone viral on the Internet, and with good reason: It’s a great speech, finishing with honest, hopeful remarks about seeing your world collapse and then remaking it.
The lesson O’Brien shares is drawn from the personal aftermath of losing his coveted spot as host of The Tonight Show:
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…. 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.
…How could this be true? Well, it’s simple: There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.
Moving forward and taking a plunge
OK, so Conan O’Brien would not have been hungry and homeless had he been unable to retool his career. But through no impropriety on his part, his fall was spectacular and public, and it’s clear he was left reeling in its wake. No doubt he experienced some excruciating private moments of fear, anxiety, sadness, and doubt.
Those moments can be notably acute in the midst of significant midlife setbacks. In the work context, a sudden layoff or termination may be especially difficult. The loss of a livelihood or career due to workplace bullying and abuse can be downright traumatic.
But people can and do recover. In the decade I’ve spent learning, writing, and talking about workplace bullying, I’ve become familiar with many examples of resilience and moving forward. For some, it has been a long process, and many have experienced a rock bottom point before finding the strength to lift themselves up again.
A few of these stories have a note of dramatic triumph to them, while most have represented more quiet victories. The common bond? Every one of these folks summoned deep reserves of courage and resilience — often to their own amazement.
Perhaps Conan O’Brien realized that about himself as he sat down and prepared his graduation remarks.