Well, that went over well.
No, seriously. You might think a commencement address would blow up in the face of a speaker who dares to tell graduates: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
But Boston-area English teacher David McCullough Jr. stirred up nationwide reaction—much of it positive—by telling students they’re not as unique as our self-esteem-obsessed society would have them believe.
“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is,” McCullough said. “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.”
This led us to ask speechwriters why his address resonated in mainstream and social media, where people were tweeting about “the greatest commencement speech ever.”
Bloggers, too, were all over the story, and Gawker, predictably, hurled profanities at what it called “the most depressing commencement speech ever.”
Warren H. “Sandy” Anderson, an executive speechwriter who drafted addresses for Gerald R. Ford, says the speech is drawing buzz because “it’s different. It’s not PC. It’s true. It’s brilliantly crafted with neat metaphors and illustrations that fit the kids.”
Rob Friedman, director of executive communications at Eli Lilly and Co., called McCullough’s speech a “taking-on-the-genre” approach. Whereas speakers generally use graduations to uplift, the Boston teacher says, ‘Naw, you’re all the same,'” Friedman says.
“If you hit it right, it could work,” says Friedman, who wrote a commencement speech for his CEO this year. “But if you blow it, you’re in the position to piss everybody off.
“I’d rather see someone take a risk and have fun rather than be boring. You’d have to really have a good ear.”
The Facebook page of the Gotham Ghostwriters, whose stable includes many speechwriters, offered McCullough a thumbs-up.
“Much as it pains us to be bandwagoneers, this has to be our fave commencement speech of the season so far,” the group stated.
Still, Friedman urges commencement speakers to remember that their audience is not only the students, but also their parents, who worked hard to raise their kids and bring them to this point.
He cites a contrarian commencement speech that author David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace knocked the myth that “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”
Wallace, who would later commit suicide, gave a somewhat darker speech, even alluding to striving not to shoot oneself in the head.
By contrast, McCullough deftly pivots to an optimistic message, urging students to care about others and recognize that achievements, not awards for simply showing up, are what we value in life. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought for the good that they will bring others, he said.
“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is in achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or Mommy ordered it from the caterer,” he said.
McCullough also offered advice that any speechwriter or communicator might second: “Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life.”
Floored by the reaction
He ended his speech: “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 ours, extraordinary lives.”
For his part, McCullough, the son of historian David McCullough, told CBS News he was floored by the reaction. He intended to grab the students’ attention with “a little hyperbolic drollness.”
“These are wonderful kids,” he told CBS. “And one grows very fond of them and proud of them, but that doesn’t mean you should indulge them with things, with platitudes or false encouragement. I wanted to give them a notion that with their privilege comes responsibility.”
Anderson said the approach was a great success for a privileged audience.
“He provides humor as the ‘spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down,'” Anderson said. “Now you have a speech that is powerfully thoughtful, timely, true and entertaining. Hey, what more can you ask for?”
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com