“We won’t all be great. Most of us will never be famous for anything, never discover anything, never invent anything useful, never win any awards. We may never achieve our dreams or even meet the goals we set for ourselves. Despite what the advertisers, preachers and politicians promise us, greatness will only be reserved for the few.”
This is my memory of the commencement speech made by the valedictorian of my university on the day that I graduated. That’s some “motivational” speech right? What a send-off into the big, wide world!
How keenly I felt my smallness that day. Even before the speech, just as I had entered the enormous arena filled with thousands of other graduates and their families. Gusts of cold air suddenly swept across me, emptying my body of warmth as the thunderous roar of the crowd rushed into my ears, crashing over me in waves unceasing. I felt so overwhelmed, so vulnerable against the grand scheme and scale abruptly confronting me that my immediate reaction was embarrassingly physical. I clumsily stumbled inside the arena, falling flat on my face for all to see and nearly causing a domino-chain of falling graduates behind me! The residual humiliation was all that warmed me as I sat stiffly in a cold metal chair several minutes later, listening to the smug valedictorian’s speech. We might as well have been dominoes, black and white, hard plastic to the proud, self-satisfied young man standing on the podium, I thought glumly. We were, after all, all dressed alike in black robes and square hats, barely distinguishable from each other.
“We won’t all be great. . . . Greatness will only be reserved for the few.”
That was nearly fifteen(!) years ago and I may have gotten some of the finer details of the speech wrong, which is why I won’t disclose specifics about it, nonetheless, subjectively speaking, this was all I got out if it. I faintly recall the valedictorian concluding “we are all [somehow] important even though we won’t all be great”, an open contradiction he failed to illuminate or reconcile. My overall impression was this supposed genius—the student with the highest grade in my class of thousands—was a self-satisfied, arrogant a**hole! It was a lousy speech that managed to sharpen all my insecurities into blade points as I prepared to leave the familiar institutions of school for those of work and the much bigger, more intimidating “real world”. But I would learn quite often in my adult life that he did not have a rare view of the world.
Many people have expressed this belief to me in subtle and not so subtle ways: The office coworker who always casually reminded me that “we’re just pen-pushers” whenever I was proud of accomplishing a task. The supervisor who was all too happy to declare, “You’re not in charge of anything!” and follow his aimless plea for more productivity with, “You can all be easily replaced!” The friends who kept saying, “We can’t all be as beautiful/thin/perfect as [insert celebrity name here].” I’ve been guilty of it myself, I have told myself so many times, so many ways, “you don’t matter” or “what you do won’t make any difference”.
These statements may seem bold, radical, even alluring at first. They may cast someone as “real”, blunt and down-to-earth but they can be insidiously self-defeating and toxic. Imagine if Einstein, or Darwin, or Rosa Parks, or Gandhi, or anyone who changed the course of history believed that they “didn’t really matter” and stayed silent as a result? Modern life as we know it would not be the same without them.
Whenever I think back to that graduation speech or hear someone saying such things, I immediately question their motivation: Are they in a position of power and trying to secure that power by putting people “in their place”? Or are they accepting of their lack of power and using it as an excuse for not taking any risks or putting in any real effort in life? Either way, the overwhelming message is to accept everything, especially one’s station in life, as it is and societal hierarchies, if not intractable, as more or less reasonable.
In contrast, another popular belief is one that values the individual, one that I have been quite partial to as a creative person. Yuval Harari cleverly defines it in his great book on human history and development, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives. . . . teachers and parents tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it. Only they themselves, not others, know their true worth.
Harari may seem to distance himself from this belief and objectify it as such, but he iterates throughout his writings that humans are especially good at “creating fictions”. This particular belief in individualism as well as that opposing it are both complete “fictions”. In fact, according to Harari, all beliefs—from money to legal contracts to the existence of God(s)—are “fictions” whose power derives only from the conviction, quantity and distribution of their believers.
To draw a clear contrast, let’s pretend the opposing views are mutually exclusive and ignore the murkier or cruder variations for a moment: On one side is the belief in the overwhelming prudence of the established hierarchy, trusting of leaders, admiring of those who supposedly earned their place at the top—presumably, they deserve to be there. On the other side is the belief in individualism, that each and every individual is as unique as a snowflake. Whether society can facilitate and/or recognize the unique gifts of each and every person doesn’t matter, every individual is valuable.
There seems to be every indication that these two ways of thinking are in open conflict with each other right now, within us and among us, as much as our nations are currently divided on politics, although this opposition doesn’t necessarily follow party lines. As much as I love to believe in individualism, the rise of populist leaders such as Trump has continually shown us what happens when people lose faith in the wisdom of the establishment, namely, the hierarchy of reputable news professionals. “Fake news”, “the liberal media”, “coastal elites”, these are all catch phrases from those trying to shake down the establishment for being biased and elitist. In terms of credible news sources, this is what happens when hierarchy no longer matters. Breitbart is suddenly on the same playing field as the New York Times.
The exciting new technologies we have now justify why these beliefs are reacting to and clashing with each other so dramatically. Now celebrities can wage Twitter wars with housewives, religious leaders with truck drivers, queens with unemployed writers, presidents with mothers of anthem kneeling football players and vice-versa. The contents of these feuds aside, it’s clear that individualism is unfurling, it is manifesting itself now more fully than ever before. A big part of me is absolutely thrilled about this! I am not one to bow to royals or stand in gaping awe of celebrities (although I do admire some). Most scientists and doctors today would be hard pressed to come up with legitimate proof that humans are fundamentally different from one another, no matter how famous they are, or what class, race or caste they belong to.
Unfortunately, this rapid growth of individualism is not completely positive, nor is it so pure. In fact, from a historical perspective there is nothing pure about us humans at all. We are consummate masters at cherry-picking any and all ideas that bolster our sense of entitlement and desire for more power. I can easily imagine the valedictorian at my graduation complaining about the system being flawed and rigged against him in frustration had he been an unrecognized genius instead of one who was awarded the highest distinction that day. It should come as no surprise that the so-called “anti-establishment radicals” of the far right are the same internet trolls who constantly disparage liberals as “snowflakes” for their own idealistic individualism. Populists have risen to power claiming to fight for the “common man” and being rebelliously “anti pc”—yet, once in power, seem incredibly quick to support age old patriarchal and racial hierarchies erected for millennia.
As much as my anger sparks and burns like a flare under the casual oppression of such constricting and condescending statements as “greatness will only be reserved for the few”, unbridled individualism doesn’t seem so great either. Do we really want to live in a society where no one cares what anyone else thinks? Doesn’t that seem disturbingly close to a world of psychopaths? And we shouldn’t forget that horrible atrocities were committed in the past by those trying to achieve purely egalitarian ideals, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (source). Not all forms of hierarchy are bad.
What now? Is there anything worth believing in anymore?
I’ll never forget the classmate who made this statement during a literature class: “We are just a conglomeration of sugars, proteins, chemicals bonding, reacting to one another. Life has no meaning. It is a delusion to attach value or meaning to anything.” Arguing that everything is a delusion does not cancel anything out—nor does it diminish the necessity or power of these delusions! It is important to note that if this person truly believed in his statement, he would have accepted all opinions as equally delusional, including his own, but in fact, he could not. Just a few moments after that statement, he tried to silence my counter arguments by saying I wasn’t “qualified to have an opinion” because I didn’t have a degree in psychology. I strongly doubt anyone could possess pure objectivity free of any personal bias.
If all beliefs are fictions, all things being equal, it’s simply a matter of finding a belief that works best for both the individual and society, the minority and the majority, the private and the public but, indeed, that is one of the most difficult things to do! Not least of which because many people are (blissfully) unaware their beliefs being fictions, as such in their inherent plasticity, and continue to argue professing attainment of an “absolute truth”. Additionally, we fail time and time again to thoroughly investigate the meanings behind the terms “great”, “insignificant” or even “individual” as much as we casually pepper them in conversation all the time! None of these things exist in a vacuum. Being “great” cannot exist alone, just as the pinnacle of a pyramid cannot exist without its base. Saying that greatness will only be reserved for the few should not diminish the importance of the many who put those few on top and there should be a very good reason why they were put up there in the first place—none of them should be “because they inherited it”—no, greatness should be earned, its foundations well grounded.
That downer of a graduation speech wouldn’t have stung so badly if it didn’t make the blind assumption that our society was a real meritocracy, which, sadly, it is not. For years, for generations, for centuries, since the dawn of mankind, we have not been equal. We have not even had the equal chance to grow optimally, to prove ourselves, or even be allowed to contribute. As much as I love to believe that each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives (Harari), I must admit that having a purpose in life greater than oneself is something I also really want and every person I have ever known has expressed this very same desire.
Who’s to say, “We won’t all be great,” to at least one person each of us is great.
Most of us will never be famous for anything, never discover anything, never invent anything useful, never win any awards. We live in imperfect societies which fail to meet our emotional needs, let alone recognize our vast potential.
We may never achieve our dreams or even meet the goals we set for ourselves. Despite what the advertisers, preachers and politicians promise us, greatness will only be reserved for the few. What if everyone stopped trying or caring? What if all the teachers in our schools, the bus drivers, the salespeople, the cooks in the restaurants, what if everyone just settled for mediocre? What makes things in life truly “priceless” if not someone’s undivided care and attention?
Greatness, if it is ever going to be honest with itself, should not be insecure, should not be afraid of losing its status, should strive for fairness, should allow each and every person to earn their place based on merit. Greatness should strive for its highest potential. Now that is greatness worth believing in.
This is a work of nonfiction by M.P. Baecker.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker ©2018.
A heartfelt thanks to Tom Cummings at his great blog, Tom Being Tom for mentioning Harari on several occasions, prompting me to read Sapiens and thus, inspiring this work!
Citations: Harari, Yuval Noah (2011), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 113