David McCullough defends 'you’re not special' speech; we agree

David McCullough defends the ‘you’re not special' speech he gave at Wellesley High School last week. The English teacher addresses the current ‘everyone is special’ plague that is not helping students, parents or employers.

Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun/AP
David McCullough defends his ‘you’re not special' graduation speech, a refreshing, honest look at the ‘everyone is special’ plague. Here, Tarah Thesenvitz looks for her family from backstage before she and fellow South Kitsap High School graduates walk during their commencement ceremony at the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Wash., on June 8, 2012.

Last week, we wrote about an English teacher named David McCullough who gave an unusual commencement speech for students graduating from his Wellesley, Mass., high school. It has become known on the Internet as the “you’re not special” speech because that’s one of the main tips McCullough passed along to the class of 2012.

“And now you’ve conquered high school,” he said, “and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building... But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

Yesterday, McCullough (son of the famed historian of the same name) went on television to defend his message.

“My intention was a little hyperbolic drollness to get their attention so they would be paying attention by the end when I told them what I really wanted,” McCullough told CBS news.

Indeed, check out some of McCullough’s closing words:

“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.”

I admit to being a bit surprised that McCullough felt he needed a defense at all. His words were refreshing, honest and beautiful.  (Except for a few unnecessary digs at my Baltimore Orioles.)

And they were timely.

Because, as the overwhelmingly positive reaction to McCullough’s speech shows, we are in the midst of an “everyone is special” plague; one that is not doing any favors for kids, their parents or their future employers.

(Note to the graduate here:  At your first job interview, don’t tell the boss that you’d like to be in her shoes in three years.  Or that you’re not the ‘office kind of person.’ Really.)

In their book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell have a chapter entitled “Seven Billion Kinds of Special.”  (This book, I will add, is one of the best parenting reads out there. Even if it’s not really a parenting book.) They take aim at the same phenomena that McCullough discussed in his speech and argue that our cultural habit of telling every child that she is special does quite a lot to lower achievement and lessen empathy.  (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue a similar line in their popular book, “NurtureShock.”)

“Feeling special is narcissim – not self-esteem, not self-confidence, and not something we should build in our children,” Twenge and Campbell write. “You can tell your child she is good at math, or that she will be good at math if she works hard, without telling her she is 'special.' Feeling special may give people a grandiosity-tinged sense of comfort, but in a real world of collaborating with others, waiting in lines, and getting cut off on the freeway, it just leads to frustration. And it is unlikely to lead to respect for others.”

They note that teens who feel too special – those who really do see themselves as different and special compared to their peers – tend to have more depression and struggle more academically.

Twenge and Campbell make clear that they’re not telling parents to withhold love and affection from their kids.  Quite the contrary.  And sure, your child is special to you. But the overall Lake-Wobegon “everyone above average” approach to raising kids? Not so helpful.

They also explore how counter-cultural the “you’re not special” message can be.

“We are a nation fixated on the idea of being the exception to the rule, standing out, and being better than others – in other words, on being special and narcissistic – and we’re so surrounded by this ethos that we find it shocking that anyone would question it,” they write. “Fish don’t realize they’re in water.”

Which is perhaps why McCullough’s speech has gone viral.

Because much of his talk, to me, at least, seems to be calling out some obvious truths:

“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement."

And that goes well beyond high school students.

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