Conan O’Brien is a Harvard graduate (and the architect of one of education’s best commencement speeches). He’s written for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, and he's been a successful host of late night television since 1993.
CNN released snippets of Piers Morgan’s interview with O’Brien airing on Monday. A few tidbits for the college-bound:
On his high school years:
"I was always a very hard-working student and wanted to go to a good school and worked really hard to go to a good school.”
On finding comedy in college:
“Comedy was something that I stumbled into when I was in college. Getting into comedy was a very beautiful accident, because I worked very hard at everything, and I tried really hard. It was like falling off a log and discovering what it is that I was meant to do. I loved it. I absolutely loved it."
(Note: While at Harvard, O’Brien was elected as president of the revered parody magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, twice.)
What the transcript doesn’t reveal is that O’Brien also majored in history, wrote a thesis arguing that the weary, prematurely aged children in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor were actually metaphors for both the South’s poverty and its defeat in the Civil War, and graduated magna cum laude.
I notice several themes in O’Brien’s biography typical of many successful people, none of which involve attending a prestigious college:
1. O’Brien worked hard while he was in high school. Whether or not your hard work earns you an acceptance to a prestigious college is less important than whether you care enough about your education and your future to work hard in the first place.
2. Conan didn’t ease off once he was in college. He kept working just as hard in and out of class. College isn’t a finish line, especially in today’s job market. You’re going to need to carve out a remarkable college career wherever you go.
3. He didn’t have a career goal when he entered college; he discovered what he loved to do while he was there. If you already have a career goal and are choosing colleges based on their ability to prepare you for that career, that’s fine. But if not, remember that plenty of successful people can’t draw a straight line from their career today back to their college major.
4. Conan took advantage of the opportunities his college offered him. Writing for the Harvard Lampoon, serving as its president, developing his critical thinking in his history classes--he channeled his work ethic into those opportunities. He didn’t coast for four years, wave a Harvard degree at the world, and wait for a job to role in.
So, did Harvard make Conan O’Brien successful? Sure, it played a role (it is the Harvard Lampoon, after all).
But, like most successful people, O’Brien—not his college—deserves most of the credit for his success. What he did while he was in college was more important than where he did it.