‘You’re not special’ graduation speech by David McCullough Jr.

From David McCullough Jr. to graduates of Wellesley High School graduates, class of 2012.

For original article on Yahoo, go to here.

This is a very inspiring speech. It humbles, encourages, and put things in perspective. I think we all needed to be reminded like this once in a while that we are the ones that make our lives special. Here are some recap of the speech from Boston Herald:

“No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid cliches like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

“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.”

“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 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.”

“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.”

“The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”


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About vekin

I'm mostly a scientist, but occasionally a writer and an artist, and most definitely a dreamer.

3 responses to “‘You’re not special’ graduation speech by David McCullough Jr.”

  1. Nic says :

    I was so close to giving into the knee-jerk reaction of “How dare he say such things on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion?!” and I was absolutely convinced that when I actually listened to the speech, it was going to be some embittered, middle-aged teacher ranting and raving about “you expect this” and “you demand that” but “this is what life is like!” and all the rest of it. I’m no fan of the culture of entitlement but I’m certainly no fan of anyone who assumes that every student thinks that the world owes them a living.

    Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. When he said “You’re not special”, he didn’t mean “You’re worthless”. He wasn’t trying to crush whatever self-esteem those students had managed to build up. He was simply saying that the world doesn’t owe them a thing, that there was still hard work ahead.

    And the thing I liked most about it was that he was saying that “special” shouldn’t be the end goal, that “special” should be a by-product. There’s so much in that speech about having the right reasons for what you do in life:

    “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.”

    In other words, chase your dreams because they’re your dreams and you believe in them. Become a doctor or an engineer if that’s what you want, if that’s what’s right for you, don’t do it because those are the graduate jobs that will make people nod approvingly and say “Yes, that’s worthwhile”. Work in politics or as a journalist because that’s what’s right for you, not because it’s what your father did and his father before him etc. Volunteer with a charity because you believe in the work they do, not just because it’ll look good on your CV.

    I can definitely get behind that message. Of course, there’s an element of self-interest in pretty much everything we do, we could hardly exist without it, but I think there’s a massive difference between wanting to be the best you can possibly be and wanting others to think you’re the best.

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