You’re Not That Special…Or Are You?


This week, there is a viral YouTube video circulating the country featuring High School English teacher David McCullough Jr. giving the commencement address at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts.  In it, he flaunts the conventional graduation speech that wishes students well, instead delivering a diatribe about the way they’ve been made to think of themselves.

Of course, most of the speech was released in the media as sound bites and the crux of the speech was not necessarily negative, but reaction to the video has been swift with praise coming from folks in my generation and older and bitter resentment from the parents of kids of high school age.

I feel strongly both ways.  Here are my thoughts:

You’re Not That Special:

If you’ve been raised thinking that you can indeed do anything you want and the world will simply hand it to you, then absolutely, you’re not that special.

This is the fault of well-meaning parents who didn’t want their kid being the one who didn’t get a trophy or got picked last for the kickball team.  Perhaps they were the kids who never fit in and were bullied.  Parents go out of their way to flood them with positive messages telling them they’re unique and special.  Sadly for kids, “unique” is often poked fun at while those who follow convention and the accepted norms are among those deemed to be the “special” ones.  Witness youths with hoodies, skater shoes, flat-billed ball caps turned at an angle making fun of the “nerds.”  Attractive cheerleader-types feed their own image by staring down their nose at girls who don’t have the supermodel looks or figures.  If you’re seen as “special” by fitting in with others, you’ll indeed be disappointed by what awaits you in the adult world.

You Are That Special:

Truthfully, anyone can accomplish anything they want by simply putting in the effort.  The three keys to success are part of a model I teach to my manager groups: The Three-Legged Stool of Great Performance™

Malcolm's famous "3-Legged Stool of Great Performance"

Skill:  I know what I’m supposed to do and am competent at it.

Will: I want to do my best work and will put in the effort

Focus:  I’m learning (and am willing to learn) all the secret and difficult keys to success taught to me by a mentor or coach

The beauty of this model is that if you work and developing in these three areas, you’ll have the foundation that leads to success.  Most youths I talk to are supremely confident, being pumped up that way by well-meaning parents.  In reality, that’s a faux version of the Will leg – they want to do their best work (except they have no idea how hard it will be!) and no tangible skills or any hint of how to find somebody to lend Focus.

So Who is Actually That Special?

Here is my list of what I think makes somebody “that” special:

  1. Nose-to-the-grindstone hard work ethic
  2. Creative thinker
  3. Tenacity
  4. Curiosity
  5. Respectfully challenging the status quo
  6. Willingness to listen
  7. Acceptance of the idea that the best ideas come from unlikely sources
  8. Willingness to share ideas
  9. Assertiveness
  10. Voracious reading habit
  11. Confidence without arrogance
  12. Lifelong learners

Just my opinion.

I’m curious where you weigh in on the speech and my thoughts.  Feel free to comment below.  Add in any other qualities you think make someone “special” too!

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  1. Richard Baer says:

    I hope that parents find their kids to be special and I also hope that the kids reciprocate that feeling to their parents and siblings. That is love and prideand it is well placed in the realm of the family.
    Being all “that special” is a curious goal or status and most days just feeling good about yourself and what you do means that it was a day well lived.
    I like your list of attributes as I believe they can lead the serious practitioner to a satisfying life.
    I do not believe that anyone can achieve anything they want. There are a lot of potholes along the road and many vehicles fall short of the destination for a number of reasons including those that are self-inflicted.
    I do believe that, employing the attributes you have listed or others that could be added, people will find great things, maybe the things they thought they wanted or, more likely, things that are equally rewarding or satisfying that they never sought nor expected at the outset..
    Let’s not be too hard on Mr. McCullough or his message. It has sparked a lot of good thought and probably some needed reflection.
    TTFN Coach

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