There seems to be quite a bit of discussion lately about what makes us special. This started when the YouTube video of the high school commencement speech went viral. “You’re not special,” was the speaker’s theme that day and I think he got it right, especially when he made the point that we frequently value accolades over achievement. Our love of self-esteem started back in the 80’s in grade schools everywhere when each child was recognized just for showing up. Failure was a dirty word and all the kids were wonderful little achievers, each in their own special way. Now, if we wind the clock ahead 30 years we get a younger generation so steeped in positive reinforcement and accolades that they still haven’t experienced real failure. I’m not talking about not getting promoted, or not having a big enough wedding ring or not yet driving a BMW. I’m talking about having your face rubbed in it, the failure that makes you hurt for days and makes you question yourself. The kind that makes you try harder the next time because you never want to feel that way again.
Dealing with failure is the most important part of achievement. Accolades aren’t even worth hanging on the wall. The people who changed the course of history and helped raise all of mankind out of the Dark Ages always failed first and frequently in conspicuously ugly fashion. If we could have been around Menlo Park when Thomas Edison was there, does anybody believe he would have shown us his awards? No, he would have told us about his next big idea and how many things had already gone wrong. Or how about Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes and was the greatest female scientist of all time. What if she had stopped working after the first Nobel Prize? We might not have X-Rays if she had taken the easy way out. She worked with radium for so many years it eventually took her life. Do you think either one of these special people cared about accolades? They worked for decades and never gave up in spite of numerous setbacks.
If we want to be special we have to try harder every day to make a difference for others. Being special is something we have to earn and no amount of parental reinforcement will ever circumvent the process. The self-satisfaction that comes with real achievement cannot be bought, inherited or awarded. Marie Curie took all the money from her Nobel Prizes and spent it on her research. She recognized the value of her work and the life-changing discoveries that she was making. Nobody ever talked about the car she drove. How many lives have been saved by X-Rays? How many people have been saved by all the two carat diamond rings ever produced? If we want to be special then we must do something special, there is no other way to get there.
I can’t count all the stupid mistakes I have made in my life but each one taught me something and gave me the motivation to try again. For that, I count my perseverance as a blessing. I failed often but I never gave up. Each mistake was just one less obstacle I had to overcome before I got to the goal. I never won any awards for my achievements. I never expected any and nothing would have made me feel any better than I already did. Self-satisfaction is the most powerful sensation we can ever experience. I got a D+ in English for my final grade in high school and that still stands as my greatest scholarly accomplishment because Everett Rees gave it to me. I never heard him say the word “special” in reference to any of his students but every kid who ever survived his class with still say he was a very special teacher. He challenged us, chided us for our foolishness and never cut us any slack but he taught us everything there was to know about the English language. Forty years later and his best work lives on in this blog. I only hope I’m living up to the standard he set for me.
All of this personal reflection was achieved on Father’s Day last Sunday. I had only one kid to drive home but she was really something. She had “special needs” according to my paperwork but I still don’t know what they were. As we walked to the car she held my hand and measured her steps perfectly with mine. When I smiled at her she smiled back. When I laughed she laughed. When I sang “King of the Road” she fell asleep in the back seat. As she dozed off with her head nestled against her stuffed animal she had a look of contentment that was pure magic. I took it as a sign that she really liked my singing. From my perspective, the only need she had was to make me feel special and that makes this Father’s Day one I will never forget.
©Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.