If you watch or read the news with any regularity, you may have seen snippets of the commencement speech where speaker David McCullough, Jr. tells the graduating class of Wellesley High School that they are not special. Much to-do was made of what some might call mean-spirited exhortations. Most of the clips I’ve seen have been the portion of the speech where he says things like:
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. Now it’s, “So what does this get me?” As a consequence we’ve cheapened worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Boden than the well being of Guatemalans. 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 there can only be one best. You’re it or you’re not.
Even those who whole-heartedly agreed with what Mr. McCullough was telling these young men and women are getting an incomplete understanding of what the man was ultimately trying to get across to them if they did not hear his speech in its entirety, because I believe the most important portion of this speech was left of the news room editing floor:
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying by-product. 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 freewill 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.
If you haven’t seen the entire speech, I invite you to do so now. It is a great reminder for graduates and the rest of us to live our lives not for ourselves, but for others.