The Best of Conan O'Brien's Bleak Wisdom for Graduates

A look back at the brainy late night host's commencement speeches

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Conan O'Brien's graduation speech Saturday at Dartmouth College arrived too late to be considered in The Atlantic Wire's 2011 Commencie award voting, but had it been eligible, there's little doubt that O'Brien's speech, would have been recognized as this year's most sobering depiction of the real world. A look back at two other O'Brien commencement speeches--one delivered at New York City's Stuyvesant High School and the other at Harvard--show that while O'Brien the talk show may have called on viewers to reject cynicism when he left NBC, Conan the commencement speaker has a more jaundiced world view.

Dartmouth (2011)

  • "My first job as your commencement speaker is to illustrate that life is not fair. For example, you have worked tirelessly for four years to earn the diploma you’ll be receiving this weekend, and Dartmouth is giving me the same degree for interviewing the fourth lead in Twilight.  Deal with it."
  • "Another example that life is not fair: if it does rain, the powerful rich people on stage get the tent. Deal with it."
  • "You parents must be patient because it is indeed a grim job market out there. And one of the reasons that it’s so tough finding work is that aging baby boomers refuse to leave their jobs...Trust me on this."
  • "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. '"

Stuyvesant High School (2006)

  • "It’s a proven fact that as you get older, your brain shrinks and you get dumber. This is why you have to explain to your parents how a TiVo works and they have to explain to your grandparents how a cat works. Even I’ve gotten a lot dumber. I graduated from Harvard 20 years ago, and I am currently reading at the 6th grade level. If anyone here spoils the ending of Charlotte’s Web, I am so going to freak."
  • "Believe it or not, I actually do have some real advice for you. I don’t want to freak you guys out, but twenty five years ago, I could have been any one of you. I went to a public high school, and I was a bright, ambitious, hard working kid who wanted more than anything to go to a good college. The only problem is, I was much more interested in succeeding than in really learning."
  • "[L]ife and the choices I made have changed me in a thousand ways. None of it would have happened if I had rigidly kept my eyes on the prize and decided with great determination to follow my dream, because I didn’t have the slightest idea what my dream was when I was 18. It had to find me."
  • "What I’m asking you to consider is that the next four years don’t have to be just a stepping stone. You are very bright, impressive young people..[A]ll I’m asking you to do in college is to take a moment every now and then, breathe, look around you. If something intrigues you, take a small chance....It could be bio-physics, it could be medicine, could be puppetry, could be ultimate fighting, beekeeping, government, or whatever the hell it is Ryan Seacrest does."

Harvard  (2000)

  • "As you leave these gates and reenter society, one thing is certain: everyone out there is going to hate you."
  • "I took a lot of criticism [when Late Night debuted in 1993] some of it deserved, some of it excessive. And it hurt like you wouldn't believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success and I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good and I've looked bad. I've been praised and I've been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. Except for Wilson's House of Suede and Leather. That was just stupid."
  • "I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed."
  • "[S]uccess is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way. I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good."
  • "Let me leave you with one last thought: If you can laugh at yourself loud and hard every time you fall, people will think you're drunk."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.