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Opinion | Reconsidering what being truly special means

By Benjamin Meacham
On January 14, 2013

Come May, there are always those commencement speeches that go viral on the Internet and get publicized by the media. The speeches usually are those that are given by past or current United States presidents, celebrities or the owners of successful corporations. However, there was one commencement speech last year that garnered widespread media attention. The speech was given by David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Boston, Mass. The reason that his speech was put in the limelight was because of its simple message that no one is truly special. He claimed, "We have to 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 are 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 mantle piece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole."

Listening to his words, you realize that there is some legitimacy to his argument. Yes, you and I are, according to the United States Census Bureau, just one of the 7.058 billion on the planet, one of the 315 million living in the United States, and, if you are an undergraduate, one of probably hundreds of thousands pursuing a bachelor's degree in your chosen field. That being said, we naturally try to set ourselves apart by involving ourselves in different organizations, getting involved in research, writing, developing our skill in a sport, playing music and pursuing many other endeavors all while trying to maintain a high level of scholarship. In the end, the objective is to have a great number of "accolades" that shine brightly on our résumés, CVs and transcripts. These are the things that we want the job recruiters and the graduate schools to see, and they are the things that make us competitive.

At the end of our educational careers, we will look at all of our achievements and think that we did it right, we set ourselves apart, and we are truly "special" as we are sitting in that new office or grasping that graduate school admittance letter with all the pride in the world. So, how can Mr. McCullough think we are not special? Is he ignorant to all these things that make us stand apart? He said in his speech, "If everyone is special, then no one is." It seems hard to believe that his words are accurate when we think about all the achievements we individually procure. In an introductory psychology course last year, I learned from my professor that it is healthy to feel like you are individually special. Knowing that you are unique is beneficial to your psychological wellness. So, why is it that Mr. McCullough's words were held in such high regard? Could it be that they stimulate our drive to reach our full potential through striving to be different? Could it be that we are fascinated by such a contrasting point of view? Could it be that we actually believe him?

No matter what perspective you take, it is hard to simply disregard Mr. McCullough's words. What I think the whole argument comes down to is the difference between statistics and context. If we view ourselves in terms of statistics, I think Mr. McCullough's words carry a much higher level of validity. Yes, I probably am quite similar on paper to someone sitting three rows behind me in my 100-person lecture hall. Yes, I probably am just another premedical student staring at the cover of an MCAT prep book thinking that I must have more drive to get a good score than someone sitting around me. However, when I think of myself contextually, I begin thinking about those little deeds that impacted people and made them smile for just a little while. I think about what I have done to make others feel good, the fun times I have spent with the people I love, and all the other things that you won't find on a résumé.

When I listen to Mr. McCullough's words, I absolutely do not think of them as being accurate. However, I do think of them as a reminder describing the difference between what sets us apart on paper and what sets us apart as people. So, thinking less about statistics and competition, ask yourself if you think you're truly special. My guess is that the answer will be very clear.

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