Over the weekend, a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts gave a rather controversial commencement speech to the graduating class of 2012. Slammed for repeatedly reminding the students “you are not special,” it’s fair to say McCullough’s speech was a bit of an audience-shocker and media stir stick. At the very least, it certainly was not the warm, fuzzy, possibility-filled, metaphor-laden tune we’ve become accustomed to enduring at such events. And while I’m not sure I would have been prepared to digest his message at the tender, wide-eyed age of 17, at 30, I am able distance myself from the shock factor to find some sage insight within. “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, we have of late, 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?
I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about. The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.
The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.”
This is a message for every business and brand. I speak on behalf of every marketer who has ever wanted to tell you this. Your brand isn’t special just because it is exists. You are not remarkable just because you ran an online promotion and garnered 10,000 new Facebook likes or gained a couple thousand twitter fans. You are not exceptional because of your clever advertisements, memorable commercials or the awards lining your lobby shelves and walls. These things are simply the qualifiers of a “what does this get me?” mentality. And “what does this get me?” is the question a client asks right before they doom themselves to fail.
Good, honest, real marketing shouldn’t be centered around what you gain as a brand, it should celebrate how you play the game, and how you learn and grow (or help other people learn and grow). It should be about how much you enjoy doing what you do. These things are real and genuine and true. The alternative is choosing to keep your eyes fixed on the scoreboard while the game is happening on the field.
Herein lies the truth: Your brand is special because of your passion. You are special because of the mission and cause you believe in. You are special because of the conviction that energizes you and gets you out of bed each day. You special because of the mark you want to make. The people you want to help. That thing you want to do. Your best imaginable day. You are special because of the thing (and people) you love, and your belief in their importance.
Success, much like the fulfilling life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap. As McCullough says, the point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. Focus on genuine achievement, realizing that accolades will follow. Trophies tend to get packed away over the years, but a love letter never tarnishes. The scenic route is rarely the quickest route, but is often the road we remember.
Good, honest, real marketing won’t ever tell you what you want to hear. It won’t tell you that you’re special just to make you smile. Good, honest, real marketing helps you recognize and accept that everyone is special…and then gives you the tools, reveals the path and opens the door to becoming something truly exceptional.