You’re Not Special: Graduation Speech

You Are Not Special Graduation Speech

David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School, gave this funny and provocative high school graduation speech. It’s one town over from where I live. In fact, I live on the side that borders Wellesley. Except for Wellesley being more homogeneous, our kids are growing up in a very similar way.

My soccer mom friend who runs soccer camps describes the differences between Newton and Wellesley moms:

Wellesley moms call ahead to ask about early drop off and late pick up. If it exists, they pay for it. They may not work outside the home, but they still want early drop off and late pick up.

Newton moms just show up late.

So, when Mr. McMullough says our kids are not special, it includes all of our kids who grow up bubble wrapped, cosseted and made to feel special. Ah, but isn’t this the flip side of helping your child feel self-confident? Can’t we not win for losing? Is nurturing our kids to be successful — carting them around to endless lessons, practices, performances and games — now just the norm? To be scorned even at our own kids’ graduations?

And is the root cause the fact that it’s SO MUCH HARDER to get into college these days then when we were in high school? It’s not like the number of colleges increased to match the number of kids applying.

So what is the answer? You can’t win for losing is my call.

p.s. Here’s another article he wrote after his speech went viral. Like this speech, it’s funny and makes you realize that he struggles with this idea of You’re Not Special as a dad himself. He rocks. I want to read more of his thoughts. I hope he writes a book!


Here are some interesting quotes from his speech:

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

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 are not special. You are not exceptional.

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…

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….

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…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…

You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. 

If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless….

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 midlevel 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 there can be only one best.  You’re it or you’re not.

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. 


What do you think? He’s right, isn’t he? Isn’t that why this went viral?

p.s. Thank you to Rachel Watkins from Twitter (@@rbw_in_ath, goat-cheese-loving voracious-reading lifelong learner) for this link from the New York Times also trying to mull over this speech: Redefining Success and and Celebrating the Ordinary.

Key point: How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?

which is also McCullough’s point:

 “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.”

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. vanita

    i find it kinda harsh to tell kids, but i guess it’s because i’ve got the mom virus where i always want my kids to feel special. doubt there’s many moms who are immune. but wen you think about it, he is right and maybe it’s exactly what high school graduates need to get their butt in gear.
    vanita recently posted…The Busy LifeMy Profile

    • Hi Vanita,
      Maybe it is the perfect send off message as kids start to hit the real world?! It’s true that they are cosseted and bubble wrapped and that every kid gets a trophy or no one does for most sports! In fact, sports might be the only time kids get a sense of winning versus losing. It’s probably a little overboard. I wonder if the real world hits them hard over the head when they emerge from college?

  2. Ann

    Well, they are lucky anyway to go to such a great school (Newton too). Would love to raise my kids there (Newton would be my first choice). Then I could meet Pragmatic Mom for coffee and we could sit and blog at Starbucks! Although I am not sure I could ever get my husband off the Cape now – he loves the golf here. About the speech… It makes me a little sad because I really do believe everyone is special because we are unique. We can all do different things differently and it is interesting. Being special is not about the measurement he used in my opinion.
    Ann recently posted…Rag-doll DressMy Profile

    • Hi Ann,
      I think this would be a bad message for kids who are younger but maybe this is what kids in our neighborhood need to hear after hearing how wonderful they are over and over and over again. It’s not what the real world will be telling them so maybe this is a good way to make them more resilient?

  3. Artchoo

    Probably the best speech ever that graduating high schoolers could hear. I may need to memorize this, or at least keep it around for when my kids get older…. I love the part that you quoted, “I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.” This is the answer, isn’t it?
    Artchoo recently posted…Are there S’mores at Art Camp?My Profile

    • Hi Artchoo,
      As the Wellesley High School English teacher, no doubt he wrote scores of college recommendation letters trying to make each child sound special and unique all the while watching kids get professionally coached how to get into college including how to build their resumes. That process doesn’t exactly emphasize do what you love and what you believe in unless this shows leadership, uniqueness, etc. as a way to stand out as a college applicant.

      I love that message too and if kids actually follow their hearts, they can probably avoid the middle age career crisis that we otherwise have to go through so painfully!

  4. Hi Susan,

    I couldn’t be in more agreement with you and Mr. McCullough Jr. The world is far small for everyone to have a sense of entitlement. With stats of rising education standards in emerging markets, Phd per capita figures rising in Asia, I think treating everyone as if they were “special” will create a generation ill equipped with the tools, mindset and attitude to productively contribute to society, achieve individual goals and overcome the challenges of a global economy.

    Posted by Richard Kim

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Make Vocabulary a Game with These Great Games and BooksMy Profile

  5. I agree with Mr. McCullough, we have raised a generation of people who were made to believe that they were “special”. Could that be contributing to the increase in rude and uncivilized behavior that seems to be on the rise in America? If everyone is special, why should they go out of their way to be nice to others? They don’t have to, they are “special”.

    I told my daughter that there will always be someone prettier, someone less attractive, someone smarter, someone not as smart, someone more athletic, someone not as athletic…etc., etc., as compared to her in this life. However, with everyone being high achievers, what will make a difference? I raised her that integrity and kindness will make a difference.

    I look at a calendar and realize that I’m in the autumn of my life, where I now can go back and reflect on the previous seasons…I lived my life sticking to that philosophy and though it was not easy to accomplish at times, I’m glad I held to it.

    Posted by Susan Miyabe – Sugimoto

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Make Vocabulary a Game with These Great Games and BooksMy Profile

  6. It’s not a P.C. point of view from parents … yet. And yet the idea of making every child feel special does not really set them up for the real world as they graduate from college.

    Still, as a mother, we think all our kids are special. I think McCullough’s point is truly this:

    “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.”

    It’s all about doing what you love and believe in versus resume building and impressing others (including your parents).

    That’s a message I can embrace.
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Make Vocabulary a Game with These Great Games and BooksMy Profile

  7. I really enjoyed his speech. It is what kids need to hear at this day and age. I don’t live in Mass. but rather Portland Oregon. The same kind of high achieving suburbs are out here too. My twin sons play baseball, basketball and soccer. We go over the fact that losing games teaches you how you can be better.
    I remember when my sister was the swim coach for our neighborhood swim team growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. One of the parents bought a trophy for thier daughter so that she could win something that year. This is a prime example of the parent wanting their kid to live in a perfect world where they are coddled. I wonder how that particular girl survived being brought up that way.

    • Hi Kim,
      I think his speech has a universal message to us parents. In some ways, I think we are doing this to get our kids into the college of our dreams since it’s so much harder to get into college these days than when we applied. I guess this is going to backfire as kids get coddled and also forced to resume build regardless of whether their heart is in it. It’s a trap that I think we should all be mindful of but it’s also hard not to worry about getting into college.

      I agree that losing games is a great lesson but kids do learn to lose from sports. Maybe the “trophy for participation” idea is the one idea that can give.

  8. My father, who was a traditional Japanese American man, was horrified at the way I spoke up and said what was on my mind, especially to persons who were my elders. He would scold me and tell me “You don’t need to speak up all the time, people will know what you are capable of by results, brilliance is something that can never be dulled, it always shines through!” Not that I took his advice, but now that I’m older, looking back, life would have been much easier if I did.

    Posted by Susan Miyabe – Sugimoto

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…How To: Teach Kids to Read IndependentlyMy Profile

  9. Hi Susan,
    I can understand that diplomacy is an important skill but I also think that it’s great that you have the courage to speak up. I think Asian Americans are taught not to speak up and that hurts us as a minority race in America.
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…How To: Teach Kids to Read IndependentlyMy Profile

  10. Hi Mia:
    Now that I am out of the large organization world and semi-retired, I see where being more sensitive to the large ego’s of my upper management would have been wise, but it was more fun to be outspoken and watch how the react when someone criticized them instead of agreeing with everything they said.

    Alas, the bamboo ceiling does exists, though I did not want to believe it did, and if I was Caucasian, I would have been considered, “innovative, and ambitious”, instead at the end of my career, I was considered “not a good fit”. (Which was true, because I wanted to make changes in order for us to remain viable as a business unit during a recession, but essentially the senior management as well as my staff that I directed were fearful of any changes)

    What I have discovered along the way, is that people who are capable and good at what they do are happy and excited to work with someone who challenges their thinking, people who are threatened will always look for something to put someone down…by default, it makes them look better.

    What hurts us as a group is that we are generally thought of as people who will “suck it up” and not fight back…I see it in the way we get treated. Think of meetings that you have been to, where managers would openly be critical to a co-worker because that person is Asian. Or like the other day, when someone yelled at my mom because she was moving too slow for their liking. We need to teach our next generation to speak up and don’t be afraid of the consequences. The worse that can happen is that they will laugh at you, say “no”, and you can end up feeling humiliated, but that’s a good thing, not bad. Its worse if you do nothing.

    Posted by Susan Miyabe – Sugimoto

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Avoid Summer Learning Loss: Use a Summer JournalMy Profile

  11. Hi Susan,
    Yes, we can’t win for losing. I am not sure if Asian Americans realize that Corporate America is not a place where we will ever break into the highest ranks. You only have to see stats where there are more Asian American billionaires than Fortune 500 CEOs.

    I don’t see this changing in the next generation because the key to success in Corporate America is getting mentored; it’s not just based on your resume or where you went to college or grad school.

    My advice would be to use Corporate America to gain skills (if you must) and then apply them to start your own business.
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Avoid Summer Learning Loss: Use a Summer JournalMy Profile

  12. Hi Mia,
    Thank you for the interesting article link. I agree 100% with your recommendation. Prime example is my parents generation (Nisei, or second generation in America) that worked hard to send themselves to college and became self made millionaires. Many of the companies that they founded still exists today. (Alas, our Nisei’s are all passing away and many of the Sansei generation (Third) did not want to take over the family businesses)

    At the time when I chose to take the corporate route, I thought that results alone and hard work would merit rewards, I thought I would be immune to all the games that are played as long as I refused to play. I was wrong.

    What is interesting was Asian Americans in corporate settings do not mentor or even back up fellow Asian Americans. They are too busy trying to become part of the “Good old boys” group. In my case other Asian Americans used the fact that they were my “friends” to say negative things to upper management. That was extremely disappointing to me on a personal level.

    Excellent advice that you gave…use Corporate America to learn, and then apply what you learn to run a business. With the increasing demographics of Asians in America, perhaps we will see more Asian American CEO’s.

    Posted by Susan Miyabe – Sugimoto

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Avoid Summer Learning Loss: Use a Summer JournalMy Profile

  13. Hi Susan,
    That is shocking and sad that other Asian Americans in corporate settings did not mentor or back up fellow Asian Americans. I’m not sure if we will see more Asian American CEOs in this generation, the old boy network is hard to penetrate and not even worth the time, in my opinion.
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Avoid Summer Learning Loss: Use a Summer JournalMy Profile

  14. liz padula

    Thanks for the dialogue here. I think many of the kids who were deemed special are now facing a tough reality post college – difficulty finding a job, realizing that it often takes skills which are not measured by trophies or awards – kindness, friendship, integrity, involvement, empathy – in order to get ahead.

    One of my daughters has a friend whose family has a lot materially (vacation homes, luxury cars, country club membership) yet is in crisis with divorce and unhappiness. Even for a nine year old she commented that it doesn’t seem to matter and that she feels badly for her friend who is unhappy. I agreed and took the opportunity to explain it is important not to let what really matters be lost in some meaningless race to success or in this case perceived success.

    • Hi Liz,
      You bring up such great points. Those qualities you mentioned — kindness, integrity, empathy, friendship, involvement are the Social Emotional skills that are the true predictor of success but also if kids learn to focus on doing what they love, success will naturally derive from that deep interest. Not to mention, this will avoid the major mid-life crises that are common when one’s career is not fulfilling. Which is to say that most of us have these career crises periodically.

      I wish there were more emphasis even on the idea of being kinder than is necessary. I am going to try to push that message with my own kids. If we all do it one kid at a time, I guess we can change the world.

  15. Hello and thank you for this conversation. I feel Asian-Americans can indeed succeed in corporate America, and I’d be sad to see our best and brightest assume that they cannot. Yes, due to cultural inclinations, some of the success behaviors can be challenging for Asians to get good at. But some definitely can and do, and with these added skills there can be nice rewards and gratification working in a place with scale. Besides, not every individual is cut out to be an entrepreneur.

    As for mentors and sponsors, many companies have ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) that Asian professionals can participate in. Like many things, ERGs are only as effective as the participants make them but they are a great source of affinity and career learning. I would urge Asian professionals to get behind their ERGs, there’s much to gain from them.

    Posted by Jim Fong

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network
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  16. Hi Jim,
    You bring up good points. I’m glad to know about ERGs and you are right that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, but maybe if Corporate America has a bamboo ceiling, then smaller companies are another alternative. There is no real benefit to Corporate America — the days of secure employment are long gone.
    Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Avoid Summer Learning Loss: Use a Summer JournalMy Profile

  17. es, the days of secure employment with retirement benefits are gone, and in the State of CA, it looks like our dire economy is going to start seeing shifts in their public employees benefits. Professionals today look forward to having many jobs, then next being better than the one before. Unfortunately, ERGs are not mandatory and even though Asians as well as other professionals are invited to attend, Asians tend to participate at a lower % rate.

    I wonder what can be done to help Asian Americans be successful in climbing that corporate ladder?

    Posted by Susan Miyabe – Sugimoto
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