Graduations are ceremonial occasions that combine the moment when degrees are conferred with an inspirational and congratulatory commencement address. Years later, most people don’t remember who the speaker was or what he or she said. Wellesley High School English teacher and commencement speaker David McCullough Jr. recently delivered an address that will be the exception. He broke the rules when he quite pointedly told students that, while they are the pride and joy of the community, “You are not special.”

“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh 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.”


The address was controversial – some might say even hostile to the audience – and, yet interest in his remarks is extraordinary; as of this writing, his recorded talk has had over 1.5 million hits on YouTube. Why has McCullough’s commencement address gathered so much attention? It’s a surprising message that the students and their parents would rather not have heard, particularly in the affluent community of Wellesley where students have so much going for them. Parents and grandparents expected to be lauded and not chastised.

Several authors who are experts in parenting would agree with McCullough’s point of view, including Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, who have written about the culture of narcissism that plagues today’s parenting.

“Feeling special is narcissism – not self-esteem, not self-confidence, and not something we should build in our children,” Twenge and Campbell wrote. “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.”

McCullough (son of the famed historian of the same name) actually went on television to defend his message. The Christian Science Monitor saw his comments going well beyond high school students:

“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.”

Clearly, McCullough took a risk when he had the podium and told the truth as he saw it, but we have examples of other commencement speakers who also have challenged students to move beyond conformity and compliance, and to make contributions to a better world. Steve Jobs told students at Stanford not to live out someone else’s dreams:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

 In his 2007 speech at Harvard, Bill Gates exhorted students to address the inequities in the world:

“If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. … I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy.”

In her 2008 commencement address at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame prepared students for the inevitability of real world disappointments, suggesting they would learn and mature from moving through failures and despondency:

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

McCullough suggests that paradoxically the best thing you can do for yourself is be selfless, which is bound to make one think. Beyond one’s ability to turn a phrase and have a provocative main point, giving a dynamic commencement address requires the speaker to engage in soul-searching  and a quest for the unique narrative that will resonate with your audience. Think about your point and ask yourself:

  • Would you challenge the assumptions parents and graduates are making about the value of education in today’s turbulent economy? How far would you go in shaking people up? Could you handle a negative reaction: disappointment or anger?
  • What personal anecdotes would you share that were turning points in your life? Who inspired you? What quotes might you include?

It’s not easy to bend someone’s mind, particularly if the graduates are melting under the hot sun in gowns and caps. Commencement is a high stakes feel-good event. People expect something uplifting from a commencement speaker and they want to connect in a personal way. Guess what people remembered when Terry Gross (Fresh Air’s executive producer and host) canceled a 2007 Vassar College commencement address at the last moment and sent the disappointed graduates a taped address in her stead. Whatever you do, it’s important to show up.

At the close of his talk, McCullough restates his message:

“…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.”

It’s not too early to begin preparing your advice for a commencement address, should anyone think to ask you. I’m serious: it’s a great exercise. The preparation process will force you to think about the “lessons learned” from life that are worth sharing, and you can then quickly reformat the key ideas to deliver a toast at a bris or birthday party, a retirement celebration, or memorial. To prepare a great speech, learn from the experts. For inspiration, peruse this eclectic menu of thirty-eight extraordinary speeches. And if you actually do deliver a commencement address, the audience will quickly let you know how special you were by tweeting about your remarks, no doubt about it.

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