You’re Not Special or Are You?

I have a tiny bone to pick with Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough’s assessment, “You’re not special.”

You’ve probably heard about McCullough’s “You’re Not Special” commencement speech. Delivered on June 1, the speech quickly went viral.

king of the world?

king of the world?

It’s not hard to understand why this speech appeals to folks. Much of what we teach our children and how we treat them hinges on overprotection. We work very hard to prevent bad things from happening to them. We do all we can to ensure their success. We treat them as if they are, well, special.

They may get the idea they are entitled to a life of ease without frustration. But the real world doesn’t work that way.

If you’ve ever struggled to earn a paycheck, overcome a hardship, or climb out of a dysfunction, you know life can be tough. The world is no respecter of persons when it comes to fairness. The sun rises and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, the special and the ordinary.

As an occasional helicopter parent, I agree with the gist of McCullough’s speech. But it troubles me for another reason.

I cringe because the speech’s implication is as dangerous as what it argues against.

“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is,” said McCullough. In order to be special, we must do something special. Our worth depends on our performance.

And if no one is special, then is every one replaceable? Disposable even? If only those who perform and do something special—if only those have worth—who’s to say what’s to become of the rest of us?

Our children, including the young adults graduating from Wellesley High School this year, are special to their families. Or at least they should be. They’re special to their country as our best natural resource. Or at least they should be.

Most assuredly, they’re special to God. So are you and I.

With God, your worth doesn’t depend on what you do or don’t do. He created you, so you have intrinsic value. He loves you, so you have worth. He died and rose to save your life, so your life is beyond price.

all hands on deck

all hands on deck

Maybe it’s semantics. I wish McCullough would have said, “You’re not entitled.” Of course that doesn’t sound nearly as provocative as, “You’re not special.”

And I suppose he’s right. Performance is our measure in this world’s economy.

Thank God it’s not our measure in His eyes.

God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

Stars by Switchfoot, the acoustic version because that’s how we roll.

What do you think? Are we special or not?

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16 Comments

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16 Responses to You’re Not Special or Are You?

  1. I’m with you, it would have been *much* better if he had used “entitled” instead of “special”. I think each of us is special in some way, and we should cherish our uniqueness while at the same time recognizing it doesn’t make us better than others.

  2. aprilintexas

    Beautiful Aimee! Well said!

  3. Great post, Aimee! I totally agree. Unfortunately, it is true that high school and college kids have extremely high expectations to “succeed”—get a high-paying job, be able to afford a house in a year or two, etc. However, those expectations as well as McCullough’s speech are based on that belief in worldly success. Andrew and I are learning this lesson right now. The antidote to those expectations isn’t believing that you’re not special anymore, it’s putting your hope in God and living in thankfulness for what you have. Which is much more difficult.

    • Thanks, Ariel. You’re right & wise beyond your 20s. It can be so much more difficult NOT to measure your life by success in things you can see. I struggle with it, too. But God is faithful to provide all I need and keep leading me despite my doubt and failings. It strikes me that He truly is the Perfect Father.

  4. I think the original problem is in terminology, i.e. “special”. The better term would be “valued”. God values all. “Special” will continue to be defined by the world. Some will make it a term reserved for the few based on the subjective opinion of the day. Others will give the title to all, making the term meaningless. As always, God defines things better and what he “values” means more.

    • I like your term “valued.” Can you imagine if McCullough had said, “You are not valued” instead?! Good point that “God defines things better and what He ‘values’ means more.” Thanks for the comment!

  5. Christel

    Great post!

  6. I haven’t seen the original speech, so I can’t really opine on that, but I do think that the word “special” has become overused, and came to have a negative connotation (just think of calling what’s nowadays called “special needs” kids just “special”). It has also become a politically correct way of teachers to praise children instead of something that could make others feel lesser – but this also made all children be “special”. I prefer the term “unique” myself, even “different” in some cases. I don’t know about further east, but here around California, “special” has even become kind of an insult (“well, aren’t you just special”), in kind of a notion to show how it’s the endearing term for people who really aren’t anything especially great – just completely average.
    Now, mind you, being average is not a bad thing in my vocabulary. To be honest, most of us just fall into that category. But it doesn’t mean you’re not a unique individual – all it means there are people out there who do better than you in something, and there are people who do worse.
    A classic Monty Python bit on the topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXcGF2qv2CY We are all individuals.

    • “Special” can have a derogative connotation. I like your explanation “there are people out there who do better than you in something, and there are people who do worse.” Good, normalizing perspective. We each have our strengths and weaknesses.

      PS: My husband thanks you for the Monty Python link.

  7. As I raise my children, I have encouraged them to seek God’s special purpose in their lives. This does not mean that they will be the head of a huge company or win gold in the summer Olympics or preach the word of God to millions (although it could). It means (and I tell them this) understanding why God made you (unique and amazing) and performing that task to the best of your God given ability. He is the potter and we are the clay.
    If anything, we (adults and children) should be humbled by this very fact and in our humility accomplish Gods will for our lives, not the small things conceived in the minds of men.
    Someone once said to me when I was a kid “God does not make junk”.

    • “God does not make junk.” Excellent perspective, Brian. Exactly what I was trying to get at in this post. I appreciate the example of how you communicate this to your kids. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  8. Perhaps he should have said, you are not privileged. The truth is, these college graduates are special. They have worked very hard to get into this privileged college and to graduate. However, they should have a realistic view of themselves and realize that they have nothing that God did not give them.

    • Thank you for your wonderful comment, Ann. There is nothing we have that God did not give us. Wow! And I agree with you that high school and college graduates are special because they have earned the title “graduate.” We take for granted how rare that still is in many places and how much work is required to get there.