You’re Not Special

I have excerpted the following paragraphs from a commencement address I read on It is outstanding. If you want to read the whole thing and it is a great read, click on the Swellesley Report link.

After graduation from Colgate, I lived with Laurie and her family in Swellesley for the summer of 1987. It is a lovely town and we had a really great summer. It is a privileged place full of privileged people and I fear for a generation of privileged kids that they feel that success is their due. That they should get the trophy just for showing up and I’m talking about my kids just as I am any kid in Wellesley or Evanston or Shaker Heights or Lake Oswego or Darien.

Hope you enjoy as much as I did!  Thank you to David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High English teacher.

Have a great weekend.

Wellesley High grads told: “You’re not special”

By bbrown | Published: June 5, 2012

new Wellesley High logo

            “But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… 

           ….I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

            As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.  Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

            The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. 

….Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

            Because everyone is.

         -David McCullough

11 thoughts on “You’re Not Special

  1. Holy everything I can think of! I’m in love with this man. I don’t know who he is but if he lives the words he has written then he is someone I would love to have as a friend and mentor. Yes, yes, yes! And why have so many of us all over the world forgotten the true meaning of life?

    Thanks Maggie. Your post has been truly uplifting.

  2. i so agree with the speech, but i don’t know if it was delivered correctly. all he had to do was say “you’re not special – YET.”

  3. nicolajames

    “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

    These are the lines I like best. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you have no choice to do something because it’s the only way you’ll be admired or worse, doing something that your heart isn’t in, simply because it’s prestigious. Be a doctor or a scientist by all means but do it because that’s what you want, not because those graduate jobs are the admired ones or because it’ll make you a success in the eyes of others. Success is something that you decide, you get to define the parameters.

    David McCullogh never said “You’re not special and never will be”. Quite the opposite, he was saying that the world doesn’t owe them anything and in that, he’s absolutely right. But he was encouraging those students to chase their dreams for all they’re worth, and to be sure to chase them for the right reasons. “Special” should never be the end goal.

    Personally, I think this speech is worth more than a thousand of those “generic” graduation speeches combined.

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