The Burden of Specialness

July 24, 2012 by in category Blogs with 3 and 0
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Did you catch the David McCullough Jr (son of) “You are not special” graduation speech?
In some follow up interviews he speaks about his goals in taking his position that resonated with me:  the burden of specialness.
Watching friends who—perhaps compensating for the lack of desired adulation from their own parents—lavish their offspring with encouragement and praise, and are resentful towards anyone (teachers, employers, friends) who are critical.
Their goal is to inspire and empower their children.  But these aspirational goals, this barrage of belief their progeny’s exceptionalness, is a heavy burden.
It can make every success a failure, because it can never be remarkable enough.  If there ever is something exceptional, then really, it’s just what is expected—nothing remarkable about that!  It makes failure unacceptable, a betrayal of their parent’s faith, something to hide, to be ashamed of.  Not good.
For all those who were dumped on and discouraged in their formative years, rethink your resentments.  If you were strong enough, motivated enough to defy assumptions, to fight for  your own dreams, than every step was a triumph.  The desire to “show” others how wrong they were about you may have lead you to excell in remarkable ways.  Your victories are your own, fought for and won in the teeth of opposition.
Perhaps it is logical to think that it would be easier to achieve success if those barriers were eliminated, but the barriers are what buids and ensures the strength and the motivation to succeed. The challenges we face and overcome in the race to win are the cause of our success. Not what prevents success.
Consider it in physical terms—no one trains successfully to win a race by having their coach move the finish line closer to the start. 
The word “burden” reminds me of Pilgrim’s Progress, read many years ago.  Our burdens can indeed sink us into the Slough of Despond.  And a positive burden can be just as heavy as a negative one.
Let them go and find your own path….
Isabel Swift (somewhat special—in her own special way)


  • Anonymous
    on September 23, 2012

    Marianne, I think some people/personalities are really inspired by challenge–it makes them redouble their efforts and dig in. Others really blossom with encouragement and can be crushed by negativity. And it's not all one way or the other! Some can power through challenge in one area, but need encouragement to succeed in another.

    And Kitty, as an editor, totally agree with the need for starting with a positive. It can help clarify that you are an ally, looking for ways to make something better Vs sitting in judgement…

  • Anonymous
    on August 8, 2012

    Great post! I think there is a balance between praise and criticism, but I learned the best way (to me) to give criticism in my first writer's group – always start with something positive, then give criticisms with ideas on how to improve. Looking back, the best teachers I had in life did this. It really works for me.

  • Marianne H. Donley
    on July 24, 2012

    While my parents never said this, many other people did: Girls can't do math. My response was "Watch me." I went on to get my Master's in mathematics.

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