High School graduation speeches are supposed to be inspirational. Last year Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr, took a different tack. He told the studentsYou are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your u9 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.
It was a quite extraordinary, provocative speech. McCullogh wasn’t saying the students were worthless. Rather, his point was that all 6.8 billion people on the planet matter, that we should lead lives that affirm the value of everyone rather than trying to convince ourselves that we are somehow better than others. He bemoaned a culture which seems obsessed with making us feel that we are exceptional. Instead of doing things because they make us feel affirmed we should do them because they are genuinely worthwhile.
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.
Something about the speech jars with me. I suspect it’s the way it negates relationship. Yes, objectively speaking, my children are no more exceptional than the other 2 billion children on the planet. But subjectively, they are exceptional to me.
Nonetheless I take McCulloch’s point. We do tend to live as if we and our loved ones are exceptional. But imagine the revolution if we dared live as though each and every one of us is special.
What do you think?