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.

-David McCullough Jr.  Wellesley High School 2012 Commencement Speech

The Speaker: David McCullough Jr.

Explaining Slackers-  “If Everyone Is Special, Then No One Is”

As soon as I recognized I was not special, I had to get busy.  I had to begin to work for what I wanted in life.  I had to live by standards that stretched me.  Comfort was not an option.

If I am already special, what have I left to do in life?  What is there to work for? These thoughts may be why we have so many 20 something adult males still living at home with their parents, under-employed, and playing Xbox.

This belief that we are owed something because we are all special may be the impetus of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  “I deserve a job.  I deserve high wages.  I deserve as much as other people.  I deserve these things because I was always told I was special and everyone else should treat me that way.”

Explaining Fakes-  “Americans Love Accolades More Than Genuine Achievement”

Awards for everything have become ubiquitous.  Can the entertainment industry really make up another award show to pat themselves on the backs?

In interviews, people are surprised when I question the actions they took to earn awards at work.  When I dig in, they often have little or no explanation for how they got them.

When I ask, I often find out that the top 30% received the award.  Being in the top 1/3 is nice…not remarkable or special.  Yet without digging, they would lead me to believe these awards defined them as remarkable or special.

Plus, I have seen too many people lie and cheat to win awards.  Whether in business or coaching youth sports, having something on the mantel became more important to people than the means they used to achieve it.

Explaining Egoists-  “So What Does This Get Me”

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1

When Jesus discussed the hypocrisy of the religious elite, he saw people who were only doing good things to get noticed and gain a positive reputation.  In other words, who we are can best be described by our motives not by our actions.

We have a society full of celebrities who give time and money to charitable causes.  Their motivations are between them and God.  But press conferences, self-named buildings and income tax breaks may tell us all we need to know.

The good works that we do in order to get something in return are hollow.  I am nothing special if I believe I am owed something because I did something for someone else.

The Bottom Line:

To begin changing our society’s attitudes towards ourselves, we must start with out kids.  We must discuss what truly makes someone special.  David McCullough stepped out and said what needed to be said in order to begin the discussion with these seniors.

Selflessness is a special trait in America in this era.  If we want to be special or truly raise special kids, focusing on selflessness is a great place to start.

See the entire transcript here from the Boston Globe.


What is something you or your kids can do this week that is totally selfless?