It’s gone down as one of the biggest off-screen battles in the history of television: In 2009, Jay Leno left The Tonight Show to launch his own prime-time variety show. Conan O’Brien succeeded him in what was O’Brien’s dream job. “Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” he has said.
The dream didn’t last. Within seven months, Leno’s new show had tanked and NBC wanted to move it to late night, which would bump The Tonight Show to a midnight time slot. Reports have said that O’Brien was given no warning of the move and was offered a sudden choice: Move to midnight, or leave NBC. He chose the latter.
Spectacle (and speculation) ensued. Public opinion was wildly in Conan’s favor—Leno and NBC were the heavies and everyone else was "with Team CoCo." But that’s all backstage drama and hearsay. The capper to the whole affair came on Jan. 22, 2010, when Conan said his piece during his final Tonight Show broadcast.
First, he could have dumped on those who dumped him. He didn’t: “Tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: Between my time at Saturday Night Live, The Late Night Show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over 20 years…. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible.”
Second, he verbalized what is in my experience one of the biggest secrets to success: Avoiding cynicism and maintaining a sincere belief in what you do. “All I ask of you is one thing,” Conan said to his viewers. “And I’m asking particularly of young people that watch: Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism—it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
I’ve interviewed hundreds of what I call hyper-successful people in my career, some of them household names, others operating at the tops of their fields. All of them have one connecting trait: a total lack of cynicism. And you know what? It’s the most tempting reaction to default to because it’s easier. It’s easier to be angry and bitter about what went wrong for you. It’s easier to be vicious and sarcastic when talking about others who have what you dream of achieving. Well, folks, the job is on us. The performance is on us. The choice is on us. And nobody said it better than Conan that night: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
Conan took one in the teeth with class and there he is on TBS, still going. Where will you be when life takes a swing at you?
Watch Conan O'Brien give what some critics deemed "the greatest commencement speech ever," as he details his time of hardship and defeat with honesty, inspiration and hilarity.