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Last Thanksgiving, I wrote about pride and humility. Today, with yet another graduation speech trending on the Internet, I’m thinking about self-conceit in a different context.  

Earlier this month, Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr., son of the famous author and historian, spoke to the class of 2012, enumerating ways in which the graduates had been pampered, doted upon, tutored, coached, nudged, cajoled, feted and fawned over. “But do not get the idea you’re anything special,” McCullough told the graduates. “Because you’re not.” Oh, what a hornet’s nest that stirred up!

After reading the entire text of the speech, I noticed that McCullough pointed not to the prideful love that parents have for their children, but to the students’ self-indulgence, self-centeredness and self-esteem through comparison with others. “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.” Accolades by comparison is the Great Sin, which C.S. Lewis described in Mere Christianity, pride that leads to every other vice especially greed and selfishness. “It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone,” Lewis wrote.

As a student, teacher, parent and person, I prided myself on being good and hard working, which sometimes meant more deserving of recognition than others because of my “greater” worthiness and effort. What a foolish waste of time, so why do I sometimes fall into that trap? As Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist said: “You must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool,” especially when you place too much faith in the findings of experts. For many of us, the “experts” are usually our friends, family and other people who might tell us how wonderful we are, not necessarily based on fact. With reliable evidence (Feynman), comparison gone (Lewis) and selflessness, we can choose to pursue extraordinary lives for the good of others (McCullough).

“The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special,” McCullough concluded. “Because everyone is.”

What makes you special?

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