Sunday, September 9, 2012

‘You’re Not Special’ - The Pursuit of Extraordinary

(Last June, Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough attracted national attention for his commencement address delivered to graduates, in which he told them, “none of you is special.”   Some pundits took his comments out of context, failed to read to the end and missed his point.  His speech seeks to inspire young people, challenges them to continue a lifetime of reading, and puts life itself in full context, where the journey is the reward. Last week he provided a list of top ten reads to Navy Reads; his list appears at the end of the excerpts from his commencement address below. The full text of his address is posted at The Swellesley Report and is on YouTube. --Bill Doughty)

Excerpts from David McCullough’s remarks at Wellesley High School commencement, Wellesley, Mass. June 9, 2012:
David McCullough
You are not special.  You are not exceptional ...
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.
But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.
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… 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 sixty-eight hundred 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 ...
“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  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…
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...  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...  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.
Theodore Roosevelt in 1897, then Asst. Secretary of Navy.
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 rollerskate 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...
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, 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.
-- David McCullough
To Navy Reads from David McCullough: “Here's a list... it's not the list, but a list.  Never, I think, should there be the list.”

1.   “The Odyssey” by Homer
2.   “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare
3.   “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4.   “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
5.   “Zorba the Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis
6.   “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
7.   “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton
8.   “In Our Time” by Ernest Hemingway
9.   “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
10.  And, for fun, anything by PG Wodehouse

(Thank you to David McCullough for a list of top ten reads for high school students. A full text of the commencement address is posted at The Swellesley Report. McCullough is now writing a book based on his provocative insights.  His father is Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough, author of “1776.” --Bill Doughty)

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