On a sunny afternoon in June, high school English teacher David McCullough Jr. delivered the 2012 high school commencement address to the graduating seniors of Wellesley, Massachusetts, a suburb west of Boston.
"You Are Not Special"
McCullough intended his fond farewell to be uplifting words of advice. Much to his surprise, his speech turned into a worldwide social media sensation dubbed, “You Are Not Special”—hardly the sound bite McCullough intended to deliver.
His heartfelt goal was to inspire graduates to believe that they all could make their lives matter if they chose to do something special with their talents and advantages. McCullough explains, “The substance of my remarks came from a growing concern about what I’ve been seeing over the last several years, in my classroom, around school, across the culture, in my own household. Spurred by well meaning but all too often micromanaging parents with resources to expend, teenagers in great numbers are becoming ever more preoccupied with conspicuous achievement—often at the expense of important formative experiences.”
Advice For Teens and Parents
McCullough took a sabbatical in the 2012 - 2013 school year to write a book expanding on the messages in his speech. With You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements, McCullough hopes to reassure families that a fulfilling, productive life is in every teen’s reach and thereby relieve the intense pressure on high school students today to excel.
“You are not special” is indeed his “encouragement” to kids and parents to recognize that while very few students are truly extraordinary, virtually all have the ability to “roll up their sleeves and do something useful with their advantages.” He writes, “Every student needs to be valued for herself or himself, irrespective of the circumstances of upbringing and features of genetics. Or, for that matter, aptitude.”
Life with Teens interviewed David McCullough to gain his perspective on how to best raise well-adjusted, successful teens. McCullough offers insights gained from fathering three teens (and one soon-to-be teen) and from teaching high school students for close to thirty years. “If I can pretend an expertise, it’s on your standard kid. It’s been fulfilling and fun to draw from and make intellectual capital of how I’ve been spending my days these last few decades,” he acknowledges humbly about his credentials for penning this book.
Question: With all the accolades, support, and attention teens receive today, why do you believe many are stressed and harried?
Answer: Because with the accolades, support, and attention come expectations of achievement, of even, excellence, and the opportunities people assume they will bring. Kids feel forever spurred, scrutinized, and judged. The adults invested in their success are keeping a close eye on everything they do. Meanwhile, it’s a statistical inevitability that most of us are average… but in today’s climate to be thought of as average is pretty heavy condemnation. So the arms race is on, for grades, for impressive resumes, for general approbation, for admission to a prestigious college. To protect children, then, and make likelier desirable outcomes, we soften standards, inflate grades, and throw ever more confetti when they succeed.
Q: Why do you believe teens are victims of parents’ good intentions and why are parents afraid to let their children “learn from their mistakes”?
A: Because in everything the stakes always seem so high. One little wobble, we fear, and all the cultural plums will go to someone else. A misstep, an oversight, a mistake, a miscalculation, poor timing, an experiment gone awry, a perfectly human little screw-up…these can pretty quickly look like catastrophe.
Q: How can parents help kids focus on the joy of learning versus treating every assignment or test as a stepping-stone to college admission?
A: By giving them room to handle their responsibilities themselves, and, with a light and dexterous touch, supporting them as they persevere. Quite understandably, kids want to feel they’re in charge of themselves. Their successes will mean all the more to them because they’ll know they’ve earned them themselves. And of course all the benefits of the experience will be theirs as well. More importantly, teenagers… well, all of us, really… need to know they’re appreciated for the qualities of their character and not their list of accomplishments.
Q: Why do you believe cell phones and other electronic media thwart teens’ ability to think and communicate?
A: The impulse to communicate instantly, briefly, and widely leaves little time for reflection and careful articulation. In their electronic communications kids seem willing to sacrifice substance in favor of immediacy and fluency for a kind of shrugging practicality. To be active in social media can feel like, but is not the same thing as, popularity. This tends to promote narcissism… here the “selfie” seems emblematic… and superficiality and neediness of affirmation. Participants can become like birds on a wire chirping.
Q: What perspective can you offer teens on the importance of developing human (vs. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) friendships?
A: People are far too complex and dimensional, and friends too important, to let online interaction suffice in developing friendships.
Q: Why do you encourage teens to read, read, and then read some more?
A: Literature is wisdom with examples artfully rendered, created, often, by very smart people with interesting perspectives and rich experiences from which to draw. Literature is human capital, the repository of all we’ve learned through the ages. Literature allows us to live in other people’s skin, to see what they see, feel what they feel, experience what they experience, and then add all that to our own consciousness. Literature is powerful art that shows us of what the mind is capable. Literature exercises the brain in useful ways. It explains what it means to be human. It expands the experience of being alive.
Q: Given that more students are vying for a relatively static number of seats at high-profile colleges and universities, how do you advise families to relieve the pressure on gaining acceptance at one of these elite institutions?
A: Become educated for the sake of a more satisfying life being educated affords. Learn for the sake of learning. Learn to become a contributing citizen of the planet. Trust that admissions people will make sound and just decisions.
Q: How can we encourage teens not to consider acceptance at certain colleges as a proxy for their value as a student or the determinant of success or failure in life after college?
A: Make learning the point of school, and not compiling a GPA and resume with which to impress. Parents should remind their teen to be who they are, do what they do, and let people think what they will. To trust themselves and their abilities. Also, to find a sensible list of colleges that seem right for them. Work hard for self-respect’s sake. Accept the reality that there are hundreds of truly excellent colleges and universities out there... and remember education is one’s own responsibility anyway.
Q: Instead of grades and accolades, what do you view as the most important characteristics of a teen’s net worth?
A: A warm heart, a sturdy spine, a quick, agile, and powerful head. Humility is important, too, and curiosity. And quiet confidence worn lightly. And empathy. And an ability to laugh. And a spirit of adventure.
Q: Why do you end your book with a chapter about mortality titled, “So Live?”
A: The fact that life is brief and finite gives it urgency and meaning. Childhood is brief and finite, so too are all the other stages of life. We should, then, savor every day, and find ways to be useful, and love what we love and who we love with all our might.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH JR.’S:
Top five pieces of advice for teens
- Think for and believe in yourself, and follow your interests.
- Keep an open mind, a sense of perspective, and a sense of humor.
- Care about and respect others, and do what you can to be helpful to them.
- Make every day matter.
- Clean your room.
Top five pieces of advice for parents:
- Provide your children a happy household.
- Love them, support them, and allow them room to grow.
- Understand their responsibilities are theirs.
- Remember what you do, how you behave, rings far clearer to them than anything you might say.
- Don’t skimp on the ice cream.
Excerpt From McCullough’s Wellesley High School Graduation Speech
"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 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."
This article was originally published in Life with Teens Magazine Summer 2014.