Conan O'Brien and the Perils of Cynicism

Conan O'Brien's speech still provides powerful inspiration for us all.

Posted Dec 05, 2011

Conan O'Brien came to New York last month.  A week of his hit show was broadcast from the Beacon Theater, with lines of ticket holders and hopefuls wrapping around the block. 

Walking by one morning, I was reminded of a quote from his final night on The Tonight Show, just before being ushered out after a brief, seven month stint at the helm:

"All I ask is one thing, particularly of young people. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record it's my least favorite quality. It doesn't lead anywhere. 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. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen"

I was so moved by his words. And impressed that he put his money where his mouth is. Refusing to allow cynicism to stop him, he took actions that put him back at the top of the late show game after a hard blow.  

An amazing thing, indeed...   

Not everyone was impressed, however. In media blogs and Facebook postings, a common suggestion was that $40 million in the bank would make anyone positive; that were we too, famous, rich, and successful, we'd shirk all negativity and run off into the 'happiness sunset'.

In my experience, this isn't the case.

Cynicism is a mindset, and—like happiness—it's generally not specifically situational. I've worked with many wealthy, famous people riddled with cynicism, as well as foster kids in the Bronx who inspire me with their determination to suck the marrow out of life.

The perception of opportunity is just that, a perception. The reality of our human condition—wherever we come from—is largely the result of the choices we make every day, and in every moment.

One blogger suggested that choices and optimism weren't going to get her 40 million dollars or a gig playing piano on Broadway. Let her first put all of her energy into creating a product or idea of terrific value, practicing incessantly, moving to New York, and banging on every door along the Great White Way. Then and only then can she say whether or not these things seem impossible.

It is cynicism and 'realistic thinking'—rather than reality—that get in the way of the majority of our dreams. Certainly in my own life, it has been my fears and mindset, rather than any 'facts on the ground', that have hindered what I shouted to the world to be my goals.

What's more, when we relinquish fear and cynicism (along with its buddy pride), even if we don't attain exactly what we're yearning for, the process itself becomes a dream. The journey is only a hellish letdown when it's a battleground for insecurity and ego, rather than an opportunity to learn, grow, and experience new things.

What does Conan O'Brien have that any of us don't? Not today, but inside... What did he have when he was 5, 10, or 15 that any of us didn't have at the same ages?  The universe wasn't determined to give him any success that it isn't still offering to the rest of us. It's up to us to know and fight for what we want... our choice whether we allow life to happen to us, or will it to move through us.

Congratulations Conan on your journey back to the top.  And thank you for the continued inspiration.