clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Selflessness is the Best Thing You Can Do for Yourself”

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns

“Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself” is a quote from David McCullough’s 2012 Wellesley High School graduation speech titled “You Are Not Special” —- a controversial speech that immediately went viral —- not just throughout America, but, all around the world.

If you have the time and the interest, here is McCullough’s iconic speech:

A few months after David McCullough’s speech, I invited him to speak to the students and faculty at Foxborough High School. I was delighted when he accepted the invitation because I knew how much he was in demand as a motivational speaker.

David McCullough agreed not just to deliver a speech at a jammed-packed all-school assembly, he graciously stuck around to speak to several of my classes where he engaged the students in extraordinary and unforgettable discussions.

Here are some of the focal points of David McCullough’s speech that resonate very strongly with me:

  • Having the guts and the temerity to tell Wellesley High School grads, with their families in attendance, that “you are not special.”
  • His brilliant use of syllogisms (logical paradigms) —-i.e., if a =b, and b = c, then a = c.
  • Pointing out to the students how they were all sitting literally “on a level playing field” (the football field, of course!), wearing the same colored caps and gowns while receiving the same exact diplomas (save for their names).
  • “Yes, you’ve been pampered, coddled, doted on, helmeted and bubble wrapped...”
  • Some students make the mistake of pursuing “accolades more than achievement.”
  • As for achievement —- “mommy can’t order it for you from the caterer.”
  • Distinguishing how schools and people try to claim they are “the best” or “one of the best”, “however vague and unverifiable” it is, or for however “self-satisfying” it is to consider themselves “among the elite.”
  • “There is only one best —- you’re either it —- or you’re not.”
  • “If everyone gets a trophy, then trophies are meaningless.”
  • Encouraging students to “Read —- read as as a matter of principle —- read as matter of self-respect.”
  • “The relevant life is a life of achievement.”
  • “Climb the mountain so you can see the world —- not so the world can see you.”
  • “Get up, get out, get busy...carpe the heck out of the diem.”
  • “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”


Back in 2012 when I applied David McCullough’s speech to the players on the Arizona Cardinals, it instantly reminded my of Larry Fitzgerald and Pat Tillman, two of the most selfless players and personas in the history of the franchise.

While Fitz was chasing history, he always deflected questions about his own achievements in favor of highlighting the team’s goals.

No Cardinal I have ever seen did more to celebrate his teammates’ achievements. When they would make great plays, he was always the first to run over to hug them in order to share their joy with them.

While I (and millions of others, I presume) would have loved to see and hear Fitz openly announce and discuss his retirement from the Cardinals and the NFL, it just goes to show how selfless Fitz was to the very end.

Talk about a life of achievement —- not only for what Fitz accomplished on the football field, but for the tireless work he continues to put forth helping those in need at home in Arizona and abroad.

Thus, it is a slam dunk to think of Pat Tillman the same way.

Pat Tillman devoted his life to the service of others. He felt that a life of service was his duty.

He never wanted one iota of attention or celebrity for it —- because. he simply wanted to serve the same way that all of his fellow teammates and soldiers did —- and he was always quick to acknowledge that the vast majority of them —- received no fanfare at all.

Pat Tillman never thought he was special. He believed he was doing what any loyal, service-minded person would do.

Pat Tilman climbed the water tower in Tempe to see the world, not for the world to see him.


On a final note, after David McCullough agreed to spend a day at Foxborough High School, we met for lunch at a restaurant in Wayland in order to discuss the agenda for his visit.

The highlight of the lunch occurred when he shared that a couple of months ago during the summer he and his wife had been invited to visit a little coastal town in western Italy, all-expenses paid. The town had offered him a handsome fee to deliver a speech at the village square.

After the speech, the little town then gave David and his wife a jubilant parade.

While they were riding behind a marching band in the back seat of a large convertible past hosts of cheering villagers, David said he turned to his wife and asked, “Honey, did you ever in your wildest dreams, think we’d be paraded like this around a village in Italy?”

David said that his wife, without a moment’s hesitation, looked deeply into his eyes and said, “sorry, honey, but you have never been in my wildest dreams.”

After one of the loudest guffaws I have ever let loose in a restaurant, David asked, “Do you think it would all right if I included that in my speech to the students?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “After all, it perfectly confirms your point, doesn’t it?”