A few months ago, at a high school graduation ceremony near Boston, an English teacher by the name of David McCullough, Jr. ignited a small ruckus among the chattering classes in the press. He had the temerity to inform the graduates on that celebratory day that “You are not special.”
Now, Mr. McCullough is not your ordinary English teacher. He is the son of famed historian and author, David McCullough Sr., from whom he quite clearly inherited a formidable wit and an impressive command of the English language.
Let me give you a small taste of what those New England teens heard that bright afternoon.
“You are not special. You are not exceptional.[i]
“Contrary to what your (youth) 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.[ii]
“And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore <pause> you cannot be it.[iii]
If you thought the graduates were shocked, image the looks on the faces of their mothers!
McCullough’s address went viral and he briefly became a topic of debate among pundits and columnists. Detractors howled, “how dare he,” while supporters fumed, “It’s about time!” A small furor ensued, swirling around the philosophical question, “Are we intrinsically special?” I believe the answer depends upon whom you ask.
For example, a biologist or physicist is likely to answer in the affirmative. From the standpoint of their scientific disciplines, you most certainly are unique! Listen to these words from Bill Bryson, a brilliant science writer and chancellor of Durham University.
“…For you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had (to) somehow…assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once."[iv]
What is true at the atomic scale also is true at the molecular level. This world has never seen anyone with your exact DNA profile, and except for the theoretical potential of human cloning, it never will again. Even identical twins don’t have perfectly matching DNA: we now know that environmental effects and diet cause minute point mutations in genes.[v]
But if you pose the same question to a statistician or economist, they are likely to respond in the negative. Like McCullough, they may note that this world has 6.8 billion inhabitants, so even if you are one in a million…there are almost 7,000 other people who also are one in a million.[vi]
Are you special?
Ask a historian, anthropologist or biographer and there’s a good chance they will say, “Certainly! There has never been a culture or global superpower like ours before. And every citizen, from the poorest to the most powerful, has a story that is unique to them.”
Ask an IRS auditor, or a cop who stops you for speeding, if you are special, and the best you may hope for is a cold stare.
We could kick this question back and forth like a soccer ball all afternoon. And I am sure most of us appreciate that too much focus on one’s own uniqueness can give rise to complacency, a sense of entitlement, or even vanity.
A better question to ask on this day, as you are about to take your new credentials into the world, is “how do I make my life special.”
Many of those who argued most vigorously over McCullough’s graduation speech seemed to have overlooked the fact that he also provided excellent advice on how to rise above mediocrity and narcissism. I’d like to share some of McCullough’s wisdom with you:
“Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages.[vii]
“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.[viii]
“Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.[ix]
“Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.[x]
“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. [xi]
“Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.[xii]
“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.”[xiii]
[i] B. Brown. (June 5, 2012). The Swellesley Report. “Wellesley High grads told: ‘You’re not special.’” http://www.theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/
[iv] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003. Broadway Books, Random House Inc. New York. N.Y.
[v] O’Connor, Anahad. (March 11, 2008). New York Times. “The Claim: Identical Twins have Identical DNA.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/health/11real.html
[vi] B. Brown. (June 5, 2012). The Swellesley Report. “Wellesley High grads told: ‘You’re not special.’” http://www.theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/
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