"I remember standing backstage listening to Conan give that final send-off … and really, really having to block out what he was saying because it was starting to affect me emotionally," said O'Brien's longtime friend Will Ferrell, who performed "Freebird" in the final moments of the episode. "And I was kind of blown away by what he was saying. I was like, 'Oh, I gotta stop listening, because I'm about to burst into tears.' "
Ferrell wasn't the only one. In the weeks after the show, his words continued to have an impact and those final lines were quoted everywhere. CNN called it "a simple statement that … has become more than just O'Brien's parting words — it's become advice on how to live."
Six years later, O'Brien had no idea his speech would live on the way it did: Once, when a "Conan" staffer was looking at new apartments, he saw one where his boss's inspirational words were written on the wall.
"There wasn't any calculation there, that was just something that came out and it just came out right. And it's exactly what I believe," O'Brien said recently on the set of his show in Los Angeles. "We have a lot of interns, we have younger people that come and want advice. And that is a distillation of what I've told people over the years, which is, you know, talent is less interesting to me than work ethic. Meaning, lots of people have talent to some degree or another. If you had a meter that could read talent and you walked around the world with it, there would be people left and right blowing up your meter with their talent who have never figured it out, how to channel it, figured out the discipline to use it … you can achieve amazing things if you work very hard."
"And the flip side of that too is, it's tough, because I'm not a saint. I'm not a perfect person. I have a temper. I can have all the things that everyone has, [and] be resentful. I just work at trying to be empathetic. And I don't always succeed — but I've tried to be nice to people and do the right thing by them," he continued. "That was just a distillation of something I believe."
O'Brien, a father of two, said he's glad that his final line didn't promise fame and fortune — instead it was simply that amazing things will happen. "At the time of that quote, my kids were really young. The most important thing to me about my kids, next to their health, is that they're nice. You gotta be nice," he said.
"I do believe a lot in that saying, and I've met a lot of people who cite that back to me," he added. "And we always end up, like, hugging."