You are not special
Making the rounds on the internet is this commencement speech by Wellesley High School Teacher David McCullough, Jr. So, I thought I would make a few comments.
While watching the YoutTube video of the speech and seeing the kids in the background and hearing the laughter I got the idea that the kids, at least at the beginning of the speech, “didn’t get it”. David McCullough was telling these kids that they were not special. Yet, I think that those kids, laughing at his remark, really did think they were special and David was making some sort of joke. But it was no joke.
As the speech progressed, and David made the point with a few statistics, then I think they started to see the truth of what he was saying. And the bottom line was this…
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….
Denying Reality when we realize we are not special
It’s fascinating to watch individuals try to gain significance when they come to their own personal realization that they are nothing special. There are many possible paths. One is to work harder, get a better education, make commitments, set measurable goals, and have the work ethic, tenacity, and disciple to achieve them.
But there is another way… by false achievements.
There is a posting on this site about status anxiety. If you read that posting (linked below) you will see the reference to the popular 1950’s sitcom The Honeymooners. Specifically, reference to the Raccoon Lodge. What role does this Lodge play in the lives of two of the key characters in the Honeymooners – Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton?
In the sitcom which takes place in New York, by day Ralph is a bus driver and Ed works in the sewer. But by evening, at the Raccoon Lodge, bus drivers, and sewer workers “climb the social totem pole” to ”Grand High Exhalted Mystic Ruler” (Morris Fink), Presidents, Vice Presidents, Directors, and other executive titles. But what is really going on?
Ralph and Ed are in a curious way, denying reality. The bus company does not entrust Ralph with any organizational decisions – he only performs the task of driving a bus. The city of New York does not entrust Ed with any organizational decisions – he is knee deep in the NY sewer.
But both have found a place (really, created a place for themselves – The Lodge) where they can have significance and take on titles. But what purpose does the Lodge fulfill other than a venue of self-importance for its members… ? When Ralph becomes President of the bus company and Ed becomes mayor of New York – then they will be on he road to being special.
To believe in such false achievements, is as McCullough points out, a detriment to America – and to ourselves. Such false achievements do not bring value to others.
It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the mid-level curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition – by definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
Another theme from McCullough is this idea that people are doing things simply to “show off” – so the world can see them. Another symptom of the personal realization of being “nothing special”.
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.
The purpose of education
As regards McCullough’s take on the purpose of an education – keeping in mind he’s an English teacher I can agree to a point. Sure, education as an end in itself. I can believe in that. I attended a University where “to be educated” was the primary goal. That goal – education as an end in itself – certainly did not include any requirement that this education would necessarily result in a job. But the reality is, and many with degrees in “Fine Arts” ( or English Lit) can attest, practical circumstances dictate that one needs to be employable.
So, set you priorities, or at least have parallel paths. The great advantage of material wealth is that you have time to pursue your interests. In a sense, your wealth is your freedom. Work hard and play hard. You truly will be “nothing special” if you don’t give it your all. If you have to spend the majority of your time in “subsistence living” you will never have time for much of anything else. Wealth is freedom.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. Second is ice cream… just a – just an fyi. 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. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. 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 roller skate on Youtube.
The message I got was this… You are nothing special unless you make yourself special. And making yourself special is not gained by false achievements, denying reality, lowering standards, embracing complacently, or by finding empty substitutes. You are special by your accomplishments that benefit other people – not by accomplishments that benefit only yourself. Time is clicking away – seize the day. Read and learn as much as you can. Play hard only when you work hard. You are not special by an entitlement – you have to earn it.
My addition would be to remind eveyone that wealth is the ultimate freedom to pursue any desire you like. Wealth, in a sense, is your absolute freedom to pursue your interests to as far as your vision, curiosity, and intellect can take you. So, education as an end initself is an excellent abmition but ensure that you learn a marketable skill. Subsistence living will rob you of your time and freedom. Don’t be average. Be exceptional. Be remarkable.
Good for you David McCullough, Jr…. and I hope those kids from Wellesley High School got the message