It’s been the most buzz-worthy commencement address of 2012. Everyone from Donny Deutsch on The Today Show, to Soledad O’Brien on CNN, and Brian Williams on MSNBC has weighed in on English teacher David McCullough Jr.’s speech to the graduating class of Wellesley High School, in which he told them that they are “not special.” He shared the empirical truth that despite the graduation parties, gifts, and accolades, millions graduate from U.S. high schools each year and thousands hold the honor of class valedictorian. I believe it was the single most valuable message those students could have heard before most will leave the comforts of their hometowns and families for college.
The fact is that while the pundits have offered up all sorts of sound bites on McCullough’s remarks, I still don’t feel enough people really understand the message or have actually viewed it in its entirety. It resonated with me so much that I scheduled a time for it to be shared with our summer interns. Here’s why.
Today’s work environment, particularly in agencies, is filled with Gen Y-ers who have been taught that everyone wins the proverbial trophy–that everyone will get promoted and receive constant positive reinforcement without having to really find what they are passionate about or what truly makes them special. Unfortunately, this sort of omnipresent praise from parents and teachers has done this generation a great disservice. It’s uninspiring and misleading. It creates a sort of lethargy as these kids are lulled into thinking they have already reached some level of achievement simply for showing up.
It’s confusing in that when everyone is great at everything, what are each person’s individual strengths? This is important to know when choosing a life direction or career. The younger members of the workforce are more interested in self-promotion and a perceived level of success than delivering their authentic best to the workplace and truly enjoying the ride along the way. It’s very hard to change habits mid-career, so the earlier you can deliver that message the better.
The pendulum has swung too far the other way. Yes, our kids are special. They all are. McCullough admits it. That’s how he ends his speech. But special is not enough. Hard work, accountability, striving to succeed, and the ability to overcome failure are the specific character traits that will make our children’s lives well-lived. Just as a drill sergeant will try and break down the spirit of incoming troops in order to get them on track to rely on one another, to learn what they need to know, and to listen up because their future survival depends on it, we need to talk tough with this next generation.
So, why shouldn’t McCullough enlighten the high school graduates on what he sees as a burgeoning problem? Why not tell them now, when they are headed to four more years of education at a college, which is going to cost someone–them, mom and dad, or the government–a ton of money? Why not see if they can make the most of it? Why not try to get to them early on about what matters as they go forward?
Kids love authenticity in brands. They can tell what’s real, and what’s put on. They need to recognize their authentic best in themselves and admire it in others. To that end, we’ve started a rewards program, and every quarter, our people vote on who they think most deserves to be rewarded for their service. Eight people are then rewarded with trips, and experiences that matter to them. We believe this peer-to-peer acknowledgement puts the focus on truly deserving employees. Additionally, the experiences they are afforded as a result of our rewards program will enrich their lives and ultimately make them better employees.
For me, McCullough was simply saying what Robert J. Hastings said a bit differently in an excerpt below from his 1980 essay “The Station.” It’s what I hope to impart to all my employees so that their work at our agency is meaningful for them and not because of its potential for praise.
But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day, we will pull into the station. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there, our dreams will come true and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. Restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes–waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.
“Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!” we promise ourselves. “When we’re eighteen…win that promotion…put the last kid through college…buy that 450SL Mercedes-Benz…have a nest egg for retirement!” From that day on we will all live happily ever after.
Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly
place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion–it
constantly outdistances us.
[Image: Flickr user Max Elman]