When it comes to cynicism, “I’m with Coco”

I'm With CoCo“Here’s what all of you have done. You’ve made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. So, to all the people watching, I can never, ever thank you enough for the kindness to me. I’ll think about it for the rest of my life.

And all I ask is one thing. And this is… I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch. 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.”

Conan O’Brien
The Tonight Show
22 January 2010

This is the way “Coco” departed from The Tonight Show – choked up, humble, vulnerable and a class act all the way. I very much appreciated his final farewell, but I must admit that at the same time, I was baffled and slightly annoyed at the admonishment to “don’t be cynical”. Baffled, because I wasn’t quite sure where that came from, and annoyed because I’d had my run-ins with the word before.

There were a few years during my tenure at the firm when the IT organization (barely) survived a failed outsourcing agreement. More than half of the IT professionals in the firm were outsourced but continued in their positions, while the rest of us “managed” to the terms of the agreement. Almost immediately, 20% of those outsourced were cut by their new employer, but in typical fashion, no one bothered to cut 20% of the work. The agreement was supposed to span Y years for $X billion dollars. It soon became obvious that this was a clash of the titans and a failure of epic proportions. Their marching orders were to do as little as possible for $X billion dollars over Y years and bill us for the balance. Our marching orders were to “manage” them into doing as MUCH as possible for $X billion dollars over Y years and never let them bill us a penny extra. Battle lines were drawn. Long-standing workplace relationships strained and sometimes fell apart. Some good talent left us simply because they felt neglected, cast out and betrayed.

Competition for the internal positions was fierce, and a forced ranking methodology was introduced, accompanied by “360 degree reviews”. This meant you could review each other according to a prescribed format. One of the questions in the 360 review was, “On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being Not At All and 5 being All The Time – how cynical is SoAndSo?”. I ask you – what the HELL does cynicism have to do with my ability to execute? If I’m hitting all my targets and delivering what I said I’d deliver and then some, why should anyone care if I’m intelligent enough to see the way things are and call them as I see them?


I refused to participate in the process. Among my colleagues, I am famous for a few pithy little sayings, but one of the most famous is, “Don’t ever give me a free form text box. Ever.” The 360 review format had free-form text boxes, and I wrote in them – yes all of them – that 360 degree reviews amounted to permission to assassinate one another and I refused to participate. I also told them what I thought of their little outsourcing agreement. I must not have been alone. A few other little insurrections were about to occur. I’ll only tell you about the most famous one.

At the end of two years, a committee from both sides got together to develop a presentation for executive management, all about issues and outcomes and accomplishments and all that stuff. By unanimous consensus, they had the balls to leave the “Accomplishments” slide completely and utterly blank. Management got the message. 360 degree reviews were discontinued, and the outsourcing agreement was dissolved. Everyone was brought back into the firm and given their old titles back without interruption in years of service.

Although executive management eventually acknowledged and corrected their mistakes, there was some serious damage done. We did lose talent, and we did lose cohesiveness. Many fell prey to burnout. Some folks had actually been thriving at the outsourced company. Loyalties had been completely transferred, and these people were really pissed off to be brought back over to the place that had robbed them of their control over their own careers, dumping them unceremoniously. And the final point of impact? The definition of “cynical” had been warped and twisted and used as a weapon, an aversive stimulus. Recognizing and telling an unpleasant truth was bad, it was wrong, it was “cynical”.

It’s difficult to refrain from sinking into the cynical abyss when life gives you so much good material for it. Wretched realities often overshadow their counterparts in this world. The current state of the world economy serves as a prime example. Bad choices made by greedy, bottom line-driven entities for whom the word “enough” has no meaning have resulted in crisis, recession, off-shoring and layoffs, joblessness, homelessness, and financial ruin. Catastrophic “acts of God” cause destruction, devastation, disease and death. How can we prevent these harsh life conditions from eroding our spirits, when our livelihoods, our homes, the very earth we stand on threatens to crumble away? How do we resist the call of the cynic, who says, “See, I told you so!” when it’s so patently obvious that he’s right?

How could it be bad? Cynicism is a by-product of intelligent discernment. It’s a refusal to drink the kool aid. Cynicism has fueled revolutions and helped to overturn oppressive empires. Cynicism has prevented many a snake oil salesman from making off with the family fortune. Cynicism may very well be a Darwinian response, necessary for the survival of the species.


The original Cynics were Greek philosophers. The basis of cynicism at that time was a belief in virtue and nature, and in the rejection of money and power as sources of happiness. Over time, cynicism became known much more for what it rejected than what it embraced. Modern definitions of the word tell us that today’s cynics have very little belief in the existence of virtue, and almost always focus instead on their conviction that all human motivation is selfish. It is tempting to conclude that cynics don’t believe in anyone or anything, but that is not true. Modern cynicism is not the absence of belief; it is a belief in failure, the failure of humans to rise above and reject their baser instincts in favor of virtue.

I wish to point out to Executive Management that there is a vast difference between believing in failure and simply recognizing it.

Clearly, the heartfelt speech delivered by “Coco” at the end of his Tonight Show run indicates that he still strongly believes in the good of man, despite the horrible way he’d just been treated by a bunch of them. You gotta hand it to a man who has been in television this long and still rejects cynicism. Although I’ve read an interview where he claimed to be purely as Irish Catholic as his ancestors who stepped off the boat in pre-Civil War Boston, I have the feeling that “Coco” is actually Greek for “I’m a believer!”.

I think the key to successful cynicism must be balance – go ahead and call ’em as you see ’em, but see BOTH the good and the bad. Extremism is never a good thing. See too much good, they’ll call you a Pollyanna. See too much bad, and you’re a misanthrope. See both and you’re… Conan O’Brien 😉

Image: A poster created by Mike Mitchell during the Tonight Show controversy of 2010 displaying his “Coco” nickname.

3 thoughts on “When it comes to cynicism, “I’m with Coco””

  1. Hey Erin –

    Thanks for the comment on my blog, which led me to yours…and I’m happy I came. I’m also glad I’m not the only one who, when I heard Conan’s departing speech, came away wiht mixed feelings about it.

    I’m often blasted for cynicism, when in fact, I think it’s a useful tool. Many times, the relentless positivity cult in the U.S. causes us to keep on playin’ while Rome burns.

    Good post!

  2. Thanks, Michele. I’m all for putting positive stuff into the world, but there comes a point when it’s just time to call a spade a spade.

  3. I saw Conan on tour last week and it was very entertaining. I can’t wait for his new show to come to TBS. It will be the beginning of a new chapter in late night TV.

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