Forget Being Special, Be Happy Instead

"Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Life is plural. It's never one thing, it's many things. In that same vein, I can't think one thing and leave it at that. No. One direct belief opines other subsequent beliefs. I am special. Okay. But for that to be true, everyone else would have to be unspecial. This seems attractive at first but is this a particularly good way to live life? And does being special mean the same thing as being happy?

Because who decides we are special? Who are we trying to convince? Who are we trying to impress? Who's scrutiny are we under? On the surface, it seems like a way to build self-esteem, but under the surface, it is a way to control, build fear, and increase expectations.

Only those who believe they are not special need to be told they are special. Who tells them they are not special? We do. Who tells them they are special? We do. It's manipulative. You can't tell someone they are special without indirectly implying they may not really be special. It's like telling a woman who is perfectly fine with herself, "You're not fat." That thought wasn't even in her head until we put it there. Special and not special did not exist until we made it exist.

Animals don't worry about such things. They act authentically. They don't know what good or bad is until we tell them what a "good boy" is. And it comes with expectations and rewards. (The way we control pets and people are not so different. Because we have learned, what works on animals also works on us.) It's how we control their behavior so their outer-life fits our expectations. After all, the outer-life is all we can control. We can't control thoughts and emotions, no matter how hard we try.

Special Strings Attached

Being special also means we must excel. At everything. Rather than uniqueness freeing us to follow our interests, and fail, and learn, we are too busy trying to be high-achievers in whatever society mandates. And whatever we're good at becomes our identity. We can't have an interest, if we are good at it, it has to be what then defines us. Whether your interest is sports or art, if you are good at it, then you must become an athlete or an artist. You can't just do it because you like it and perhaps move on to other things. No, you are special, that means you are limited.

The golden prince can never leave the castle.

In Zen Antics: One Hundred Stories of Enlightenment, Torio Tokuan writes:

Do not consider yourself elevated in comparison to ordinary people. Those who are commonplace just rise and fall on the road of fame and profit, without practicing the Way or following the Way.

They are only to be pitied, not despised or resented. Do not give rise to judgemental thoughts by comparing yourself to them: do not give rise to ideas of higher and lower.

This is the attitude needed to enter the Way of the sages and saints, buddhas, and bodhisattvas. Therefore, we place ourselves in the state of ordinary people, assimilating to the ordinary, while our will is on the Way, and we investigate its wonders.

Every special achievement is a crucial step in your ultimate success. Success is the culmination of a lifetime of being special. Being like everyone else means you are failing. A "C" used to mean average. Now a "C" is disappointment.

To be special, to be successful, involves: being more than others, having more than others, and achieving more than others.

Famous for his brush paintings, Zen master Tetsuo tells his students:

You must remember the saying, ‘If you want to avoid depending on society, don’t let criticism and praise disturb your heart.’ When you can cultivate your art without leaving any mundanity at all in your chest, then mind and technique will naturally mature, and you will eventually be able to arrive at the subtleties. This is the way out of darkness into light.

Special Is a Judgment

We tell people we are special because we want others to see us as special. That is how we want to be judged. That is the pressure we feel we must live up to. Everything we do must lead somewhere, to some final reward. To get approvals from the right people, rather than doing things for the enjoyment of doing them.

Being special means we are worried we are not special. We are constantly worried. About everything. That we are not good enough in every area that counts. Children already feel the pressure, if they have an interest in science, they are expected to be a scientist. If they happen to like medicine, "Oh, you'll make a great doctor someday." Then we shouldn't be surprised when kids say, "I don't know," so much to adult questions. They know any answer comes with permanent consequences.

The pressure is to be special because we don't feel we have any other choice. Nothing is allowed to be novel; everything is life or death. You can't take dance class because you like to dance, it's to look good for Stanford.


We can't be independent. We fear failure and risk too much. As children, when we were scared, we needed our parents. This fear prevents self-reliance. Zen master Tetsuo said, "If you want to avoid depending on society, don’t let criticism and praise disturb your heart." Being on our own without a net is scary if we never had a chance to develop the skills needed to be on our own. Rather than recoiling, we must demand to be given that chance. To embrace life as a sum total whole.

(Photo by Polaroidbilly)

(Photo by Polaroidbilly)

In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

[Man] must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

To be independent means being able to act without value-judgments, whether they be good or bad. To act without need of praise or to avoid criticism. To do you and be you and take risks and live and learn.

Sick of the Pressure

In a viral graduation speech, English teacher David McCullough Jr. told his students, "You are not special." The idea was a much-needed breath of fresh air in an environment that covered its despair with smiles and self-esteem. It attracted so much interest, it spawned a book: You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements. McCullough argues that the pressure to excel means we are never allowed to fail. Then how are we to take chances? To grow from failure?

We will give up freedom, try to live up to expectations, kill ourselves to impress others, all we need to hear is: "You are special."

Then perhaps giving up this notion of being special is not an act of tough love but one of compassion. It's freeing us of all the bullshit that comes with "being special." All the pressures of "being perfect." There's a reason why sometimes there are several drafts of suicide letters. Even that hasum to be perfect. Death seems like the only escape from "the perfect life." What is our default definition of a perfect life? A happy life? Good grades.

Trading One Extreme for Another

High expectations coupled with compliments is just as toxic as low expectations combined with insults. One tells us we are a failure, the other tells us we are not allowed to fail. Either way, we will never be good enough.

Rather than equanimity, we trade one extreme for the other. From dehydration to drowning. Morning or night. One backlash to the next, never splitting the difference and finding a happy medium. Never finding that peaceful afternoon.

Being special does not mean being happy. Being happy means you are happy.

Is it so unimaginable how toxic being "special" can become? But proof of this has always been around us. Whenever hearing an account of someone turning to drugs, the standard explanation is: "It was such a surprise he turned to drugs. He had the perfect life. He was so happy. He had straight-A's." Or when hearing of suicide: "It came as a total shock. She was so happy. She was a straight-A student."

Grades are always brought up, as if some kind of quantifiable evidence. Want to know the health and welfare of a child? Just look at their report card. Achievement means everything is okay. Perhaps achievement is the problem. Perhaps how we get people to achieve is the problem.

The "perfect" outer-life sometimes hides a wounded inner-life. After all, the outer-life is all we can control. We can't control thoughts and emotions, no matter how hard we try.

Then society can keep its "special." We don't need it. Let us live life the way we want, without judgment.

The Commencement Speech Needed

McCullough writes:

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 — which springs, I think, from 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. 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?’ As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. ...

If you’ve learned anything in your years here, I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. ... I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know, how little you know now, at the moment, for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here, that matters.

Emerson writes:

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.

What you owe the world is to bring to it something genuine from yourself. That takes the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation. Not someone else's life, but your own life. Today is just the beginning. It's where you go from here, that matters.

McCullough urges:

[D]o 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... Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read, read all the time, read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer. ...

You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ... President Roosevelt, the old Rough Rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. ... Carpe the heck out of the diem. ... 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.

In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.

Get busy, have at it, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer.

McCullough writes:

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. 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. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and create independent thought, not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion, and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.

Boom or Bloom

Flowers bloom, even when there's an old WWII "boom" tank in the way.

Flowers bloom, even when there's an old WWII "boom" tank in the way.

Like a flower, we will never properly grow if we are overwatered or underwatered. When there is too much structure, a little wild growth isn't a bad thing.

A flower doesn't think about how special it is or what is expected of it. A flower doesn't compare itself to others. It simply blooms.


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