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‘You’re Not Special’ Graduation Speech Applies to the Work World, Too

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business man with halo

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

Think back to your own high school or college graduation ceremonies. How would you feel if the keynote speaker took all the air out of the room by saying, quite plainly, there’s nothing remarkable about you?

I imagine graduating seniors at Wellesley High in Massachusetts were stunned last week when their English teacher David McCullough Jr. landed blow after blow to their precious egos.

“Think about this,” he said. “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.”

McCullough’s speech exposes a hard truth for this year’s grads, not to mention Millennials everywhere. We are not great just because someone says we are, and when it comes to the work world, the truly special employees consider themselves anything but.

Take, for instance, social media. Every photo that catches us in the right light, every award we receive and every big project we complete must instantly be blasted out to 847 of our closest Facebook “friends.” Then we sit by the computer and wait for the “likes” and glowing comments to pile up.

Same goes for our jobs. It’s easy to fall into a routine of doing good work to get a pat on the head from management or a shout-out on the company blog.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being complimented. It shows you’re effective at what you do and you’re helping the bottom line.

But here’s the real bottom line: working hard to get noticed is far too common these days, and with the advent of social media, it’s so easy to brag. As McCullough said, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

Ready for the irony? Special is to receive an honor and refrain from telling the world. Special means getting a compliment from your boss, remaining humble and using it as fuel to work harder. Special involves recognizing that self-satisfaction is more meaningful than outside praise.

With so many ways to give out personal information these days, it’s almost like society demands we over-share. But fancy, new technologies can never do away with this age-old truth:

The best employees say little, do a lot and do it well. 

And when it’s time for bonus season or a promotion, your boss will scan the cubicles and zero in on you.

Why?

Because you let your work do the talking, rather than seek adoration of those around you.

And that will leave your boss with just one thing to say:

“You know… that guy sure is special.”

Danny Rubin is a national news consultant for media research firm Frank N Magid Associates. He is a former television news reporter, lives in Washington, D.C. and tweets as @dannyhrubin.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://twitter.com/VocusCareers Vocus Careers

    Interesting post! We’ll share it with our followers. We recently posted job search tips for recent grads that might interest your readers as well. They can check it out at http://bit.ly/La9eSD. We’re a software company with headquarters in Beltsville, MD and we’re hiring! Check out our blog and visit our job opportunities page for a list of current openings.

  • http://www.girlsjustwannahaveufunds.com/ Ginger-GirlsJustWannaHaveFunds

    I disagree because I am of the opinion that all employees are special and it takes great leadership to bring out those qualities. There’s been much written about how “special” this newly minted generation of workers seem to think they are when in reality they are because their parents, teachers and family have told them so. So now that they’ve graduated and looking for work with the entitlement bestowed upon them by their boomer parents, the same generation now tells them that they aren’t special and not to expect anything. Spare me the hypocrisy.

    Without this generation having the confidence in themselves to create startups and reinvent themselves in a struggling economy, then they’d be called lazy and unambitious. This generation can’t seem to win and I reckon it is because the boomers who initiated this school of thought (that gen x/y think they are special) never received the same positive reinforcement and recognition for doing things well.

    I’d go as far as saying this is what makes this generation special: http://www.businessmanagementdaily.com/8420/10-ways-generation-y-will-change-the-workplace

    • Danny Rubin

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t mean to suggest that older workers should strip Millennials of their confidence in the workplace.

      Yes, Millennials are a cocksure generation. OK, great. Prove you have what it takes by delivering great work and letting the end product speak for you.

      If we produce great stuff, the praise will come.

      • http://www.girlsjustwannahaveufunds.com/ Ginger-GirlsJustWannaHaveFunds

        The praise is already there. They’ve already started and have been successful at reinventing themselves in a downward economy.

  • http://www.skillstoachieve.com/s2aacademy/ Corey Harlock

    Great article, love it! I am a big fan of being direct and telling the truth about eh situation.

    Yes, this is a different generation.
    Yes it is the managers job to manage and motivate individuals
    Yes if everyone is “special” then no one is special.

    There is a job or niche that everyone excels in but not everyone can excel in every job or niche. Perhaps the key is in finding what it is you are good at and focusing on that.

    I don’t believe that these students or any job seeker or person in the workforce is at the mercy of the economy or their boss, but all to often this is what we are told or this is the overtone of the communication.

    The truth is each person is empowered and needs to exercise their right to love what they do and be happy at work.

  • http://youhavemorethanyouthink.org/ Shawanda

    Even if you’re truly remarkable, I think it’s important to be self promotional. You don’t have to be cocky about it, but you shouldn’t toil away in the darkness. Your boss may not be aware of all the great work you do. Sometimes you have to explicitly and tactfully point out how amazing you are.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003559773549 Christina Wood

    Love this! Fav quote. “Special involves recognizing that self-satisfaction is more meaningful than outside praise.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1270505051 Amandah Blackwell

    “Because you let your work do the talking, rather than seek adoration of those around you.” Is a great reminder to NOT rely on others to approve of you. If you constantly seek approval from others, you’ll be miserable because you may not receive it all of the time. I also liked, “Special is to receive an honor and refrain from telling the world.” Most people ‘toot’ their own horns on social media over and over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your accomplishments, but the people around you also want to be acknowledged too. Give praise and you’ll receive it too, but don’t depend on it to feel good.

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