Last night I watched a video of Conan O’Brien delivering the commencement address to Dartmouth’s graduating class of 2011. First of all, I highly recommend watching it. My boyfriend came out of his office to tell me that he hadn’t heard me laugh like that since I accidentally slipped while brushing my teeth, falling into the bathtub.
Anyway, you may wonder why Conan is germane to my parentless subject matter. Well, unfortunately, Conan is not my Number Three. In fact, he hails from the Brady Bunch of Irish Catholic families, the third of six children born to Thomas and Ruth O’Brien.
What makes dear Coco relevant to my parentless existence is the second half of his speech. He said two things that so dramatically resonated, I still feel the reverberation of the chord he so perfectly struck in me.
The first: “Adult acne lasts longer than you think.”
The second: “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”
He was talking about his dismissal from The Tonight Show a little over a year ago, and he referred to it as “a profound and very public disappointment.” But the moving part of this admission was what came next. After he left the network, unsure of what to do and where to go, “something spectacular happened.”
He said that he started experimenting. After my mom died, I did too. Conan started playing guitar and dove into the world of social media. I started playing tennis, and I signed up for drawing classes. He made a documentary and wore a skin-tight blue leather suit. I built a personal website and purchased an overpriced, unflattering, slinky jumpsuit. He recorded an album. I applied to get my MFA. He started tweeting his comedy. I started writing about my world.
He said that during this particular year of nontraditional, impulsive decisions and re-creations, he “never had more fun, been more challenged—and this is important—had more conviction”.
Now I’m sure the $45 million he received upon exiting The Tonight Show offered a nice safety net while he explored new ways to recreate himself, but the sentiment is analogous to personal hardship. Trauma can be liberating too – not always, but it can be.
After my mom died, I had my life back. I didn’t have to miss business school costume parties for nights in the emergency room. I could spontaneously go on a trip. Or plan a trip for the future. Or make a dinner reservation for the following weekend. My mom’s disease no longer managed my schedule. And I was immediately aware of this type of liberation: A week after she died, I decided to hop up to NYC to celebrate a special someone’s birthday.
The type of liberation I wasn’t prepared for was the type that Conan described. Now, reflecting upon my year of reinventions – taking up new hobbies, considering other advanced degrees, and making poor fashion choices – I feel happy. I loved trying new things, and I think Conan is right: The conviction that drove these decisions felt great. If true conviction can be an outcome of disappointment and hardship, then I am grateful for being able to identify with more than just stubborn adult acne.