We Can’t All Be Special

em·bel·lish : (v)

1. To make beautiful, as by ornamentation; decorate.

2. To add ornamental or fictitious details to: a fanciful account that embellishes the true story.

I am boring. I come from a long line of good, honest, and boring people. We are dull. There is no romance in our back story. My great grandparents emigrated from Europe, settled in the Midwest, farmed or worked at jobs that earned a modest living, raised kids, and died of natural causes at untragic ages. We do not claim any poets, criminals or royalty in our lineage. We’re not even good looking.

I wish it were different. I would love to be the descendant of banished aristocrats, smuggled to the young United States to make their fortune after escaping the guillotine in the French Revolution. A great back story, a compelling creation myth, is a tremendous asset. So tremendous, in fact, that people tend to create them in order to make themselves more attractive to mates, to peers and to employers.

(My imaginary ancestor)

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Famous people make up stories to reflect the way they feel about themselves. Stories that, if they aren’t exactly accurate, are the version of the story that should be true.

(From CNN, 2012) An “America’s Got Talent” contestant’s emotional story of getting hit by a grenade in Afghanistan is not backed up by military records. And now, questions surround whether he embellished his heroic tale.

Lance Armstrong said [about doping and lying about it for years] he was caught up in his own myth and explained that after surviving cancer, he was “ruthlessly” determined to win at all costs. 

Was Manti Te’o a sympathetic victim of a cruel fraud, or a calculating participant in a phony story that had been milked to aid his bid for the Heisman Trophy?

Marco Rubio has often talked emotionally of how his parents fled Cuba when Fidel Castro took power, and came to America, a land of freedom. And that’s why Marco Rubio loves America. Unfortunately, it’s not true, according to a Washington Post investigation. (New York Magazine October 2011)

These kinds of lies happen all the time in business and job interviews. People embellish their work history or take credit for successful projects. They sometimes run into someone who can dispute the facts or correct the record, but for the most part, they get away with it. Why do we feel the need to make ourselves more important than we are? Why do we all want to be special?

I blame our celebrity-crazy culture. There is no room in our collective short attention span for average guys, pretty good people who are pretty good at what they do. We want to be famous –  to be extraordinary. A recent graduation speech by David McCullough Jr., the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and English teacher at Wellesley High School, went viral when he said to the graduating class, “You’re not special.” One imagines the collective gasp from the audience.

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He goes on to say: “…[because of] our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality—we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

He calls Wellesly High School “one of the best” schools, then turns on his own phrasing. “I said ‘one of the best’ so we can feel better about ourselves, but that phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.”

I love how he fearlessly calls out our “everybody wins” approach to life these days: “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

One of the humbling aspects of maturity, my maturity, anyway, is that you come to know what you don’t know. You learn that we can’t all be special. And I’m okay with that.

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