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Your'e Not Special
A high school graduation commencement speech by David McCullough, Jr. went viral because his central, provocative message was, “You are not special.”
McCullough said the following to hundreds of hopeful, high school graduates:
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your [under-nine] soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word ‘special’ is an adjective that means “distinguished or different from what is ordinary or usual.”
From this definition, you can easily understand why some people took offense to his message. I, for one, believe we all possess a distinct set of characteristics that set us apart from one another; that we’re all individuals possessing unique qualities that render us valuable. Many a teacher, preacher, daytime talk show host, and purple dinosaur have told us as much.
If you watch the entire speech, you will come to understand that McCullough didn’t technically mean “special.” What he really meant was ‘you are not entitled.’ Telling a bunch of high school seniors that may only cause a snicker of collusion amongst the parents in the audience, but telling them, “you are not SPECIAL,” raises eyebrows, and gets you into Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
I saw it at least three times in my Facebook and Twitter streams.
Let’s put his speech into context, shall we? McCullough was speaking to roughly 300 of the most privileged high school graduates on the planet. These students were graduating from what US News ranks the #260 best high school in the nation. Eighty-seven percent of the school’s population is white, and only 4% qualify as economically disadvantaged.
So, yeah, a few of them might actually benefit from being told they are not special.
His message spread far and wide over the interwebs because entitlement is a hot-button political issue by way of moral belief. If I’m honest, I somewhat agree with his underlying sentiment. I believe that people shouldn’t feel entitled to things they haven’t worked to earn because I’m a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of gal.
But I also believe we are all important and uniquely valuable. I’d much rather remind people of their absolute specialness, rather than their ultimate insignificance. Everyday life does a pretty good job of that already, don’t you agree?
In the speech, McCullough goes on to reference a contemporary society that covets people who are famous for nothing, and measures worth by number of Twitter followers and level of self-satisfaction. All things I mostly agree with.
I completely agree with his second to last statement:
“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.”
But the last sentence makes me reticent to endorse his entire message:
“The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.”
I can’t decide if he wrote that just to circle back to his most provocative statement and tie it up with a bow, or if he really meant it? I flatly disagree with his ‘sweetest joys’ statement. From my own experience, my ‘sweetest joys’ in life did not come from the realization that I was not special, but rather from the realization that I am more special than I ever knew.
Another one of life’s sweetest joys comes from the recognition that we are all ONE. Because we are connected to each other as members of the human race, we are all simultaneously special and not special, unique and the same.
If that’s what he meant…well then, I couldn’t agree more.
Shannon Lell is a fallen corporate ladder climber turned writer and stay-at-home mother living near Seattle. She writes introspective pieces on personal and social issues at www.shannonlell.com.