Commencement (3 of 3)

Joe Maloy Uncategorized

#2:  David McCullough, Jr., Wellesley High School, 2012

The McCullough family must have a gift for these things, because this speech is pure gold.  David McCullough, Jr., tops his dad (#5 on my list of great commencement speeches) with this past summer’s speech that went viral online after he told students they “weren’t special.”  

My favorite line of this speech is the final one (listed below in bold).  It has a poetic quality with the pause between “…special.” and “Because…” which leaves room for interpretation.  I see the pause as an indictment of society’s need to classify people as either above or below one another–as more or less special.    

There are some parallels between the two McCullough speeches on this list, and it’s clear David, Jr. has been strongly influenced by his father.  Both father and son urge their audiences to read and relentlessly pursue education.  Yet, David, Jr. one-ups his father with the “shock-value” of delivering this address to a group of students from one of the most privileged Boston suburbs.  This clearly is a man who cares more about communicating his message than he does about keeping his job! This speech comes right out and challenges a culture that is so maniacally focused on being “special” that it has forgotten to highlight the importance of being perfectly oneself.


  • “A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East.  The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.” 
  • “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.” 
  • “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality—we have of 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’re 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 mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s ‘So what does this get me?'” 
  • “If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.” 
  • “Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.” 
  • “You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—quite an active verb, “pursuit”—which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on YouTube.”
  •  “Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.”
  •  “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

            Because everyone is.”

#1 steve jobs, Stanford University, 2005
As was the case with so many of his creations, this speech is different from all the others on this list.  Read in a certain light, one could argue this speech is an egomaniacal rant.  I do not see it that way.  This speech has the simplicity of an iPhone, and it’s content is unmatched.  Coming from a man who rarely made a public appearance without some hidden agenda, I believe Jobs used this speech as an opportunity to address an audience that extended well beyond Stanford University’s Class of 2005.  Steve’s address reads like a “last lecture,” and the stories he tells are simply brilliant.  
Before I give you the excerpts and links to this speech, I want to introduce it with a story of my own–one that I think is critical to understanding the way this man worked.  This will be familiar to those who have read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. 
In the early 1980s, Apple’s most lucrative and productive computer was the Apple II.  It was a simple yet popular personal computer that, both at the time and for the following decade, was responsible for the majority of Apple’s revenue.  While the company wanted to continue along the lines of the Apple II and ride the revenue stream, Steve broke away and formed a rebel group within the organization.  He handpicked a select team of individuals to work on a project he was determined to see through–the development of the Macintosh.  When the first Mac was finally finished on February 10, 1982, Steve had his “rebel crew” sign the inside of the casing–like artists.  
This act of defiance was indicative of the behavior that led to Steve’s firing from Apple a few years later.  He was not fired for caring too little; he simply cared too much about projects which his bosses deemed “unprofitable.”  (I am aware that this oversimplifies the situation, but I’d argue his unwillingness to compromise was the main factor in the board’s decision to turn against Jobs.)  For an artist who refused to capitalize his name in signatures, I thought it would be a small yet fitting tribute to honor that peculiarity in the heading for the #1 speaker on my list.  Enjoy.
  • “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
  • “I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”
  • “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”
  •  “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
  • “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
  • “It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.”