You Are Not Special — David McCullough, Jr.

I just read this incredible commencement speech. Amazing lessons in selflessness, and in seeking accomplishments over accolades. I agreed with so much of it, and learned so much as well. Enjoy!

“So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.

But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, (parents get that) through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

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 clichés 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’re not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing 7th 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.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman. And now you’ve conquered high school… 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.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood N’s. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools.

That’s 37,000 valedictorians… that’s 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching 6,800 ‘yous’ go running by. 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, you cannot be it.[applause] Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although the hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfect! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.

You see, 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 cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin 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 – by definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.

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 a – 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.

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 or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit” – which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots roller skate on Youtube.

The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I – I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it.

Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, ah let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life.

Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, ah 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.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”

Brothers

 

After an awesome gesture today, I was inspired. It made me think about a quote I saw recently — from Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps.

 

With certain people there is a certain connection. It can’t be expressed in emotions or words, but there are people I meet who I gravitate towards. I think it can be best explained as a mutual understanding of appreciation. There is a spiritual link that connects us, perhaps by fate, something greater than ourselves, by God perhaps. In my opinion it is less transparent. It is a connection based upon a shared mindset, a collective identity. Veiled through a smile or kind eyes are the traits of empathy and compassion.

Some of these people I have become very close with. Hospital workers like Yidne and Milkiyas. Men like Yohanes and Mesfin. Others I have shared just a few moments with but I feel a closeness to them. They are the people who make this experience so powerful.

They are the people who turn an often lonely and frustrating existence into a joyful one. Here in Ethiopia, we are constantly battling laziness and entitlement; of our fellow peers and of self. These are the people who lift us up. They are young and old. They are my brothers.

There is Abdu, who I have written and talked about admiringly. Abdu is by all accounts a brilliant kid. At 16, he speaks 5 languages and is the default IT expert now that Dave is gone. He is a Muslim. As a young kid he was selected as one of the brightest students by an Al-Qaeda operative and sent to an Addis Ababa school for would be terrorists. He came back to Bonga to find that his worldview did not line up with theirs. As he said, ‘All my friends are Americans and Christians so why would I hate them?’

Then, a few weeks ago, a construction crew was working on a section of road just outside my house. Jon, (who lives two doors down from me) and I went for a walk at night. We returned when it started to rain. We returned to find one of the construction workers sleeping on our front porch with a tiny straw mat. At a salary of around two dollars a day, he couldn’t afford a meal and a bed. Jon and I brought him a mattress, a blanket and some homemade oatmeal with Nutella. Nutella is the universal language of love.

Another such man was Sisay. I’ve written about him before. He attended the Operation Smile mission in Addis Ababa. He is in his mid 30’s and has a cleft palate. His voice is difficult to understand but he has an incredible disposition. We hit it off. Unlike many of the families and patients who felt entitled to more — even in the face of such selfless giving on behalf of Operation Smile – Sisay was appreciative, helpful and kind. Unfortunately he did not receive surgery due to a complication. That did not stop him from being more grateful than any of the other patients.

A month ago there was another mission in the North. He attended and waited patiently for another week, before he was told he could again not receive treatment. He has watched over 200 people receive life changing surgery and he’s been turned away twice.

I called him a few minutes ago, but he is as happy and as pleasant as any Ethiopian I’ve met. He asks me how my girlfriend is, and if I am doing well. He is more concerned with my well-being. His distorted voice, muffled yet sincere, is more beautiful than anyone with a normal palate.

Today someone knocked at my door. It was the construction worker and he was holding a loaf of bread. He thanked me for helping him, and handed me the bread. He asked where my friend was.

“Our volunteers [do not] go overseas as the salesmen of a particular political theory, or economic system, or religious creed. They go to work with people, not to employ them, use them or advise them. They do what the country they go to wants them to do, not what we think is best. They live among the people, sharing their homes, eating their food, talking their language, living under their laws, not in special compounds with special privileges…

…It is only with this compassion that man can look upon man-through the mask of many colors, through the vestments of many religions, through the dust of poverty, or through the disfigurement of disease — and recognize his brother.”

School Update

Sheta School classes end tomorrow and I have a meeting with my board of advisors this afternoon. We are going to select someone to manage the labor force.

The money that everyone so generously donated is safe in my bank account. We will start buying large quantities of stone, cement, sand and brick. As school is now over, we can start the leveling and excavation. On Saturday, we are buying 18,000 bricks and purchasing several truckloads of foundational rock.

I’m very excited and grateful!