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Conan O'Brien is a loser |

Sunday Lifestyle

Conan O'Brien is a loser

MANO-A-MANO - Adel Tamano -

Conan O’Brien is a loser. He doesn’t deny it. In 2010, Jay Leno stole the holy grail of late night American television, The Tonight Show, from him. The theft was dramatic, well-publicized and humiliating. In a flash, his highest career ambition and 17 years of hard work were irrevocably lost. He could’ve gone on a bender. He could’ve become permanently embittered. But he chose to do neither. Instead, he reinvented himself, became a pioneer in the use of social media, and regained his comedic mojo. In fact, in a commencement address at Dartmouth College in 2011, he credits his loss of The Tonight Show as perhaps his most liberating and empowering experience:

“…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... Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature and took a job on basic cable with a network most famous for showing reruns, along with sitcoms created by a tall, black man who dresses like an old, black woman. I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and, guess what? It was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life. To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged — and this is important — had more conviction about what I was doing... There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”    

Similar to Conan, I, too, had my worst fear realized. Also in 2010, I ran for public office and lost. It was heartbreaking, particularly because I had wanted it so very much. Sure, I rationalized that it was the will of the electorate and that there was something better in store for me, both of which were unquestionably true, but it stung deeply nonetheless. Aside from my own self-belief that I would have made a dynamic, competent, and honest legislator — nothing wrong with a little self-love — a big part of my running for the Senate was that I wanted to be like my idol: my father. So my inability to become like my dad perhaps was one of the biggest reasons why failing felt so incredibly awful. However, often it is our failure to be like our heroes and our being unable to replicate their exact measure or style of success that may actually be the very best thing that can happen to us. On this point, Conan stated in his commencement speech:

“Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star, easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention... The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

In the past I’ve written that we should not allow our failures to define us; meaning that just because we fail to achieve what we aspire for, we do not therefore become, by virtue of our disappointment, “losers” or persons without worth or substance. Having value and substance shouldn’t be predicated on your achievements or lack thereof. In fact, our true worth, the strength or weakness of our character, is often indicated by how we react to failure. As Conan reminds us, failure can serve a useful and even uplifting purpose: failure can give us freedom. 

After all, once we reach our professional rock bottom, where else can we go but up? And sometimes our ego and self-image have to be shattered first so that from their ruins we can build something new and original. Success — and the constant repetition of the same actions that breed success — is a great killer of creativity and original thought. Keep doing the same thing over and over again and inevitably you become stale and ossified. Disappointment creates great flexibility and forces us to redefine ourselves. And since realizing one’s worst fears will shake you to your very foundations, you rediscover who you are and what you really value. For me, I realized that what I really enjoyed about the political process, which was the reason I took my first political job as the Spokesman for the Opposition in 2007, was the national discourse: the great debates on broad and important national issues and the discussions on public policy matters. I also realized what I hated: I hated the pandering, I hated the campaigning, I detested the use of sound bites to explain and encapsulate — very shallowly and ineffectively — important and often complex points, and what I hated the most was the great amount of hypocrisy and unethical compromises that underlies much of our traditional politics. 

Fortunately, because of my political failure, I have been given the opportunity to embark on a new vocation — in addition to my legal and educational work — as a TV host for a major network where I will be able to do what I so loved about politics in the first place, which is to discuss the great issues that affect our country and the world. Now, I may also fail in this new endeavor. I might totally suck as a host and analyst; but because I’ve faced my worst fear, I’m no longer afraid to fail. Because, as I’ve found out, if I crash and burn, I have the inner fortitude to stand up and try again. Or better yet, try something new and original.   

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@adeltamano: twitter

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