Friday, August 31, 2007

Discovering the market for yourself

Conan O'Brien at the Stuyvesant H.S. commencement (via Greg Mankiw):
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. When you’re a smart kid in a competitive school, it’s an easy trap to fall into. So I did a lot of things in high school not because I enjoyed them but because I thought they look good on an application. I think you know what I’m talking about. I was on a debate team — hated it. I ran track — I was terrible, I got so bored running the two mile that I tried to talk with my opponents during the race. “what are you gonna do later, I mean you gonna be doing something later?” I joined school government — hated it. Of course, like many of you I worried obsessively about my GPA and my SAT scores. And of course, it worked. I got into the college of my choice and to this day I’m proud of the work I did in high school.

But old habits die hard. Once I got into college, I had every intention of joylessly grinding away again. I was gonna turn college into just another step on the road to being successful, whatever that meant. I told people my plan was to go to graduate school in law or government, just because I thought that’s what smart people were supposed to do. And then something really weird happened. My roommate — by the way, he was the weird roommate — my roommate was going to an orientation meeting at the Harvard Lampoon, the school humor magazine, and I decided for some reason to tag along. I wrote one piece, then I wrote another piece, then another. Before long, I was running the place. The only difference was, I was joyously happy. I was succeeding at something because I loved the process, not because I was trying to get anywhere. I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I honestly didn’t care where it took me or what it paid.

So when I graduated form college in 1985 I told my parents “thanks for the amazing Ivy League education, now I want to be a comedian.” Later, in the emergency room after they woke up, they said they were fine with my decision, and I was on my way. I’ve had a lot of highs, I’ve had my share of lows, but if I hadn’t allowed myself to experiment and risk doing something without a clear career payoff, I might have missed out on so much. I never would have written for Saturday Night Live. I wouldn’t have preformed in stage in Chicago in a diaper in 1988. I never would have spent hours crafting the Homer Simpson line, “the bee bit my bottom and now my bottom is big.” I never would have jumped out of a window in the South Park movie. I never would have danced with the masturbating bear or been pooped on by Triumph the insult Comic Dog. I never would have swam naked in Arctic water with the Finnish Ministry of Defense. Yes, it’s been a wasted life. But I honestly believe that I found the best use for Conan O’ Brien. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked extremely hard at being an ass, and yes I’ve made some sweet, sweet coin. I do very well. (applause)

The point is, at this moment, many of you have ideas of what you want to do with your life, but for many of you those ideas will change. And that’s because you think you know who you are right now, but you really don’t. Trust me, when I look back at 18 year old Conan it’s a ridiculous sight — six feet four inches of pale skin and bone, scared of girls, squeaky voice — I’m sorry, that’s 43 year old Conan. But life 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. So enjoy the next phase of your life, make sure you enjoy today as well. You’ve all achieved something pretty remarkable today and you should be infinitely proud.

With some of my spiritual colleagues, we call this calling.

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