Failure, Disappointment, Being Wrong and Conan O'Brien

Conan O'Brien talks to Dartmouth class of 2011 about failure and disappointment.

Posted Jun 13, 2011

"You should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it." ~ Conan O'Brien, 2011

In 2011 Conan O'Brien gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth, sharing his "Conan Doctrine" and advising students on how to fail. With the whole world watching over the past year and a half, Conan has become the red-bearded face of resilience. With grace, humor and no shortage of perfectly placed jabs, he knows as well as anybody how to maneuver through life when things don't go quite according to plan.

At Dartmouth, Conan expressed, "In 2000, I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality."

Failure, disappointment, being wrong- distinct in their difference but all too often sharing the end result of feeling bad. How did we get to this time and place where being wrong or failing has such dire consequence? Is it nature or nurture that we end up feeling so emotionally wrecked when we fall short of perfection? Guilt and shame over even the most inconsequential of circumstances. I'm not talking felony crime and punishment, but those everyday/everyman mistakes and failures (and maybe even a misdemeanor here and there).

Several weeks ago I made a mistake. And then I was wrong. Okay, it's probably happened many times since then as well, but here's the short version of what happened:

First, I dropped my key ring outside of our condo building- a key ring that held a set of our building's entry keys. I didn't notice until the next day and by that time I felt it was best to notify the other building tenants that a set of keys were lost and we may have to re-key the locks. That afternoon, after searching for hours, I noticed that some passerby had kindly placed the lost keys on our fence. But it was too late for my overactive imagination. I had already assumed that the other residents would be angry with me, that I would have to pay a lot of money to change the locks, and that they would never ever ever ever again trust me. I doomed myself to guilt, despair and social ostracism. I might just as well have worn a hairshirt and never again left the confounds of my condo. Or something dramatic like that.

But here's how it actually turned out:

I first called the condo association president who essentially responded by saying "No big deal, I don't like carrying around all those keys either." Then I emailed the other building residents and they replied, in a nutshell, "Eh, these things happen. Forget about it."

Wait a minute, I thought. Where's the lashing? I practically invited thievery and vandalism into our building and this is how you treat me? With forgiving kindness? How dare you!

So, I got that one wrong. Time to reassess my assumptions and reactions. My biggest err was to make assumptions about how the neighbors would react to my mistake. But was it so wrong, considering how our culture teaches us how to respond to wrongness and failure? We are expected to treat ourselves rather poorly when we fail, aren't we? And if we don't do it to ourselves, we expect the go-sit-in-a-corner-and-think-about-what-you've-done treatment from our onlookers.

Big examples of being wrong have featured prominently in recent news stories from Harold Camping's unfounded doomsday prediction to the Anthony Weiner debacle. We see with big bold headlines what happens to those who fail and those who are wrong. We ourselves don't want to be a headline. We don't want to be shamed for our failures or sued for our mistakes. The headlines don't prevent our own mistakes from happening, they just complicate our reactions to them.

The reality is that, like Conan said, disappointment will come. We will continue to be wrong, we will make mistakes and our best intentions may end in failure. So I learned a few lessons from losing my keys and a few lessons from Conan O'Brien. And a few more lessons from Kathryn Schulz, a "wrong-olgoist" and author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. What a beautiful title and what an important study. One of the goals of Schulz's work is to "convince you that it is possible to step outside of that feeling [of being wrong] and that if you can do so it is the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make."

In the 18th century, Alexander Pope wrote "To err is human, to forgive divine." Three hundred years later, psychologist Elliot Aronson stated:

"Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world."

More from Conan O'Brien:
More from Kathryn Schulz:
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