001: You Are Not Special with David McCullough Jr

Who says? David McCullough, Jr., that’s who. He’s the guy who said ‘You Are Not Special’ over and over and over again to a graduating class of high school seniors in a wealthy Boston community, leaving some shocked, others puzzled, but most inspired. Why would you say such a thing to an accomplished group on their day to be feted? Because it needed it. And what David McCullough, Jr. said that day has been repeated millions of times, becoming a YouTube sensation and eventually leading to a book deal: You Are Not Special: And Other Encouragements.

At the heart of it all David McCullough, Jr. is a modest man who lives simply and teaches high school English. His deep love of reading and discussing the books he’s read is captivating. Listening to a chat with him could very well influence your next book choice. Not long after recording, host Kevin Walsh went out and purchased Zorba the Greek.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. He shares a name with his famous father, David McCullough Sr., perhaps America’s most accomplished author of American and Presidential history. David Jr shares wonderful stories of commandeering his father’s typewriter at a young age and bringing to his dad the typed version of chicken scratch. Well imagine a father’s pride when the same son presented him with the finished version of his own book years later.

If anyone has a good handle on the struggles of today’s kids, you’d have to think David McCullough Jr. is more than qualified to speak about it. And he does so with a passion and zest that’s delightfully wise.

Full Podcast Transcript

[00:00:11] Recorded live from the Sweet Tea studios in Wellesley, Massachusetts. You’re listening to the podcast Why I Read Nonfiction, hosted by broadcaster and author of The Perfect Catch and Follow the Dog Home. Here’s Kevin Walsh.

[00:00:29] Hello welcome to the program and thank you to Nirvana on Cape Cod for sponsoring why I read non-fiction it’s as much about the reader as it is about the books. This is a deep dive in why we love to read how we do it. Reading habits. What books have moved us and what was going on in our life at a time that we read a book to receive the show automatically be sure to hit the subscribe button on your listening directory it’s easy and it’s free. Our guest today is David McCullough Jr. author of You Are Not Special: And Other Encouragements. David welcome to the program. (David) Kevin it’s great to be on with you. (Kevin) Let’s go back to the beginning I do want to do that deep dive into how reading moves you and just how you get into it. But I think you came into the public’s awareness in 2002 with the 2012 sorry with the commencement speech at Wellesley High School in which the constant refrain or at least six or seven times you said to the listening student body you are not special.

[00:01:30] What was the genesis behind that?  (David) Uuuh, A growing concern that kids were becoming crushed by anxieties to achieve and to impress. And I wanted to remind them that there’s nothing wrong with being average.  The statistical inevitability that most of us are average, and that the purpose of school is not to impress anyway it’s to learn. I wanted to send them out the door eager to explore and not impress people.

[00:02:07] (Kevin) Sometimes when people who are hear different speeches we can all hear the same thing and take away something different. My takeaway was I thought it was a very appropriate message to a student body and it could have been another school in a town of privilege in which just because you’re from here, just because you’re educated, just because you’ve been given things advantages financially in life doesn’t mean you’re special. Go out and show us how you really are special by making a difference.

[00:02:37] What was the reaction you got from people?

[00:02:39] (David) Overwhelmingly positive. Some people assumed that I would have gotten a lot of pushback because of it. People angry with me. In fact the only angry people were Baltimore Orioles fans who thought in the speech I’d maligned their team.

[00:02:53] (Kevin) Yeah you were you were dumping on them pretty good.

[00:02:55] (David) I just reminded people that marriages fail more often than the Baltimore Orioles. In fact that year the Red Sox did horribly so I should have used them as the example.

[00:03:10] Kids leave high school. Many of them kind of wounded by their experience there.

[00:03:18] They they they they leave the school having worked very hard to impress college admissions officers. They feel very competitive with one another about getting into a prestigious college. And I wanted them to go off into the world eager to learn eager to grow.  (Kevin) One of the things that you mentioned when you were talking,

[00:03:45] is that the achievement machine instead of learning as we know it now. I remember when I went to school of course there was a way to keep track of things and that’s taking the test. But you talked about in your book that we are now in a lot of ways it’s all about the test instead of just sitting and listening in class.

[00:04:09] How do we get back to that?

[00:04:11] (David) It’s a hugely important in my view are good teachers and by good teachers I mean enthusiastic about their subject to understand where the kids are and how to provide for them what they need to move forward and not simply here’s the material memorize that regurgitate what you’ve learned on the test.

[00:04:30] You need somebody who’s enthusiastic about the stuff and understands kids.  (Kevin) When you walked off the stage after you do the you’re not special, was there any feeling “Well I was really out there on the end of a limb or were you pretty rock solid in your belief that this is what these folks need to hear and that it would be well received or could you kind of picked up on a vibe of people that he’s not praising us he’s not feting all over us?

[00:04:57] (David) No I could tell the kids were alert that they were receptive to what I was saying. They chuckled at the funny parts and they seemed attentive and literally when I came down the steps I noticed breaking from the crowd in the parents section an older woman, a grandmother I imagine, who came at me at full sprint and grabbed me by the arm and and lavished me it was lovely compliments and praise and asked for a copy of the speech. And so I just handed to her the speech I just read from. And as she stepped aside I saw standing behind her Tommy Zink who’s a friend of mine at Wellesley high school head custodian who was shaking his head and said that was awesome. And so I thought you know maybe I’d done something a little beyond the regular there. I’d given commencement speeches before and since. And the reactions haven’t been like that and it was pretty close to immediate. I was ushered to my car by a crowd of people and then people stood in front of the car won’t let me drive away. It was like I was a rock star suddenly and within a very few days there were TV trucks in my driveway and invitations to come talk to Charlie Rose And it was, it was bizarre. I and my speech became international headlines.

[00:06:18] (Kevin) So it was 12 to 13 minutes long. How soon after you did it did you realize your life was going to change and that you would become that you would go viral on YouTube?  (David) The immediate reaction at the event was overwhelmingly positive.

[00:06:32] I mean they didn’t leap to their feet and give me a standing ovation or anything but as I just described it was it was pretty impressive at the next day. My nephew graduated from high school and on Sunday my own son graduated from high school so by the time I returned to school on Monday the Friday Wellesley graduation was for me three graduations earlier and I’d kind of forgotten about it but I got slammed in the face right away by voicemail blinking lights and my swamped with my emails and by the end of the day Monday I was getting press inquiries and invitations and by the middle of the week it had started to go viral and by say a week later my life was entirely different.

[00:07:17] (Kevin) Yeah that led to book deals and that led to some taking some time off from school to write the book appropriately.

[00:07:23] But let me go back to the roots.  You were born and raised where? (David) I was born in Boston followed my father’s career a little while and finally settled when I was 12 and Martha’s Vineyard.

[00:07:34] (Kevin) So your father is very well known you share a name with him. (David) I do. (Kevin) David McCullough senior David McCullough Jr. was there pressure your father has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom to people it surprises. I look at him as maybe the preeminent authority on American history and certainly presidential biographies.

[00:07:53] Was he the big biggest influence in your life as far as writing and reading?

[00:07:58] (David) Yes absolutely. So too though my mother. My earliest memories as a reader or an appreciator of books were the bedtime stories. Peter Rabbit and my favorite The Tomten do you know The Tomten by Astrid Lindren. Take a look at The Tomten. And then when we moved to the Vineyard the public library in our town was literally across the street. I grew up in a house full of books I was always a reader. My not first but favorite high school job was I sat in a parking lot at a beach making sure that the people who arrived at the beach had the appropriate sticker in the window of their car.

[00:08:40] (Kevin) Oh man. You were that guy? (David) I was that guy. (Kevin) Were you tough?

[00:08:45] No I was a pushover but I was also had eight hours a day and so I would read I would read sometimes two books in a day and chew through everything in the shelves in the public library across the street and whatever we had on our own shelves at home or down with A Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. I think that really gave me a ton of momentum as a reader. I go out I’ve always read and I’ve always loved reading.  (Kevin) Did you read your dad books and did he read them to you? (David) I’ve read all of them a couple of times in fact I’m reading his latest book now which is going to be out in a couple of months. (Kevin) I assume he read your book? He did. But not until it was published. I didn’t want him to look at it until after it was done. In some ways did you want to impress him? (Kevin)

[00:09:28] (David) Sure. Yeah he’s hugely important to me.

[00:09:33] I remember as a little kid I used to sit at his typewriter. He writes all his books has written everything he’s published on the same Royal typewriter 1941 typewriter that he bought used. And when I was a little kid I used to sneak into his office and I would roll a piece of paper into his typewriter and I would just hit every letter I came to was before I could read or write and I would just go x x x x m m m comma comma and fill the page with these letters and things and then I’d bring the page to him and say Daddy Daddy what does it say?

[00:10:07] And he would read back to me here Four score and seven years ago And he said “you wrote this?”  And I said yes. To be or not to be that is the question I thought I wrote that? So, when I’d written my book I brought it to him and said Okay Dad what does it say?

[00:10:24] (Kevin) Is there a son alive that doesn’t want to make his father proud? (David) Oh I I hope not. (Kevin) That’s the way I feel with the writing I’ve done the books that I’ve written and just trying to be a good son, a good brother.

[00:10:35] I think a lot of it comes down you want validation from your dad. It’s, it’s important to us. David McCullough Jr. is our guest here on Why I Read Nonfiction. Why I Read Nonfiction is brought to you by Nirvana. A beautiful Cape Codstunning beach house on a private freshwater kettle pond loaded with fish perfect for swimming not just summer spring and fall on the Cape are stunning too and that’s when the trout come alive. For more information on Nirvana and the books we talk about here check out our Web site on why read nonfiction dot.com. And we can link you up with David’s books as well.

[00:11:09] One of the things that you said it in the speech to Wellesley High School and then when I read your book it really jumped out at me.

[00:11:16] You said you should read as a matter of principle and you should read it as a matter of self-respect.

[00:11:23] Can you expand on that?  (David) One has a mind and the way you nourish your mind is through reading the written word literature. Books are the greatest of all human capital. And if you don’t avail yourself of that you’re missing not just accrued wisdom but you’re suggesting to yourself that your mind your perspective isn’t worth nourishing isn’t worth developing.

[00:11:57] It’s important, it’s essential.  (Kevin) Do you think you owe it to your parents or your teachers to do it as well to just hold up your end of being a perpetual student?

[00:12:05] I do.  (David) I don’t think of it that way necessarily. Think you owe it to yourself. It’s a way of becoming a more fulfilled person and a better contributor to the species. I mean all of us I think are obligated to make the world a better place and one is is better able to do that if you’re prepared. It’s a little bit like intellectual weightlifting or something it’s a way to get in better shape and one can perform better if you have a more informed point of view.

[00:12:38] (Kevin) I feel like with nonfiction because it’s real because the people are real the stories are real, sometimes they can change your opinion about world events or certain activities but it’s always another arrow in your quiver and that’s that’s why I prefer it.

[00:12:54] Do you feel that way?

[00:12:56] (David) I can’t say that I prefer it to fiction but I certainly value it. I think all literature non-fiction fiction like poetry drama is wisdom artfully rendered. This is what makes us human. If you don’t avail yourself of that it’s like I don’t know turning your back on the greatest buffet there is.

[00:13:22] It’s exciting.  (Kevin) Well when someone gives you a book recommendation I think when I look at the books of my life that have had the most profound influence, the best book I’ve ever read and it’s given more to more people than anything is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It was given to me by a colleague that I worked with in the U.S. territory of Guam. His name was Gerry Lyons and he was the best news anchor I ever saw in my life. But he was he had very eclectic taste in a number of things. And when I was furthering my journey the next step in my career making my way back to the mainland I was going to Hawaii. And I want to talk to you about that because I know you live there for a long time, I did too. And he gave me the book The Prophet and he wrote me a nice little note in it, but I didn’t read it for three years because I kind of thought it was… well that’s kind of a book that Gerry would read and I thought it might be religious but really in the end it was just short chapters about all the facets in life that you will go through. And I read it cover to cover and only took an hour and a half but now I go back I have a dog eared copy I cherry pick stuff and I go back for when I need that moment in life when there’s pain and suffering when there’s when there’s trouble at work when there’s family issues and everybody has problems. And I go back and I read that and really more than anything what he gave me was the gift of wisdom that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?

[00:14:46] (David) Yeah. (Kevin) Is there one book that you’ve given to…?

[00:14:48] I have a story very similar to yours. When I first began teaching there was an older guy in my department for whom I had great admiration whose example was an inspiration to me who turned and handed me Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek and said “Have you read this?”  And I said no, I haven’t. He said well you should. So I read it and it was it was for me quite profound and it’s it’s philosophy disguised as a novel and I return to it all the time I teach it at Wellesley High School and year after year after year the kids tell me that’s the most important book they’ve read in high school. If you haven’t read it you should.

[00:15:30] (Kevin) So that was your tipping point? (David) Yeah. (Kevin) that’s the one you keep going back to?

[00:15:34] (David) And that’s the book that meant an enormous amount to me as a young man. There are other books in my youth that that got me all jazzed up too. In fact I’m perpetually being jazzed up by one book or another.

[00:15:45] (Kevin) Well that’s the thing you can always think about it or there’s something new, or it could be a discussion with somebody and you go back and you’re just like and say I’m gonna take a bite of that.

[00:15:53] (David) Yeah. And yet I must confess I was very very fortunate to have a really good writer right in my own house growing up who writes big thoughtful important books of nonfiction. And the conversation at the dinner table the things that he was excited about were contagious. That’s why he’s so effective, I think, at what he does is his enthusiasm is apparent and he he crafts it artfully on the page.

[00:16:20] (Kevin) How did you end up in Hawaii and what years were you there?

[00:16:22] I was there from 86 to 02. I wound up there because my roommate from college was there with the Navy and he said Come on out for a visit.

[00:16:30] And I having not much to do said sure. I tell the story that I arrived with a duffel bag and two hundred dollars in my pocket instead intending to stay two weeks. And I wound up staying sixteen years and left Hawaii with a pregnant wife, three children, a Matson container full of that not very valuable furniture, and a duffel bag and two hundred bucks in my pocket and we came back.  (Kevin) You taught at the prestigious Punahou School where Barack Obama attended? (David) I did yeah.

[00:17:02] In fact I taught his sister I taught his sister everything she knows about basketball. (Kevin) Is that right?  (David) Yeah lovely kid. (Kevin) Michelle Wie the golfing great? (David) She was in the junior school I never knew or I left before she got to the high school.

[00:17:14] (Kevin) My love of reading actually started in Hawaii. The first book that I read where I’m like Hey this is I’m really hooked, well, Well I had a co-worker I worked for the CBS affiliate KGMB TV, on Kapiolani Boulevard.  You know where that is right? (David) Yeah I do. (Kevin) Right across from the street from Ala Moana Mall. Myanmar. Anyway two haole boys talking about the islands in Pidgen English and translate for the non kamaainas. His name was Chuck Little, he’s in the Marine Corps ah he was in the Marine Corps he still lives in Hawaii and I noticed… well… traffic in Honolulu is. How would you describe it to people?  (David) A nightmare.

[00:17:48] It’s it’s horrible.

[00:17:50] (Kevin) As bad as Boston, maybe even L.A.?  (David) One of Dante’s levels of hell. (Kevin) And people take the bus there and it has the best bus system in America. So people read all the time and Chuck would read on the bus he would read during his lunch breaks at work he always had a book and he always seemed happy.

[00:18:05] And so finally I just picked up and you know what book he gave me?

[00:18:10] Howard Stern’s Private Parts.  (David) Hah, hah, hah.  (Kevin) Hey you got to start somewhere right? But then I realize it’s like well you know… I admired Howard Stern as a broadcaster. Sure he was raunchy and inappropriate at times but he was endlessly fascinating and that’s what books do is they give us a chance to really dive deep into the personalities of the people that we see on TV.

[00:18:31] We read about elsewhere.  (David) John Adams said You’re never alone if you have a poet in your pocket. So he would carry a book around with him in his pocket all the time. (Kevin) When do you read?  (David) I read in the morning. I read at night. I read anytime I get a chance. I try to make room in my day for it.

[00:18:47] I don’t like so much reading before I go to sleep because it tends to wake me up rather than calm me down. (Kevin) Yeah it goes the other way for me. (David) Yeah. My wife however reads at night that’s sort of the last quiet moment.

[00:19:01] That’s what she enjoys. She’s in the middle of Michelle Obama’s book which she’s loving.

[00:19:05] (Kevin) Mm hmm. Are you a hard copy guy?  Will you

[00:19:09]  get on the electronic readers?  (David) No I’m a hard copy guy. In fact I’m a hard cover guy if I can swing it. I don’t mind paperback. I haven’t done the electronic thing.

[00:19:20] (Kevin) What do you do with the books when you’re when you’re done? Do you have the library going or do you share them with people?

[00:19:24] (David) I stick them on the shelf I shove them at my children I see them pile up. We, I’m guilty of hoarding books I suppose.  I loan them off to friends.

[00:19:35] (Kevin) Have you gone back in and reread your book? (David) Yeah, no I have not.

[00:19:39] I’ve read here and there from it, usually in readings. But no I haven’t read it.  Nor have I seen the speech after I gave it.

[00:19:47] (Kevin) You haven’t seen it?  Your YouTube speech? (David) Not all the way through. No.  Uh uh. (Kevin) Why not? (David) I gave it, I know what I said. (Kevin) You know, once is enough?  Live was enough? (David) Yeah that was it. (Kevin) You did the audio version of the book?  (David). I did.  yeah. (Kevin) What was that like? (David) Great. Good fun. Difficult.

[00:20:03] (Kevin) Why was it difficult?  (David) Maintaining the same timber from sentence to sentence through breaks not stumbling over my tongue.  (David) Was it more exhausting than you thought?

[00:20:16] No it was it just took longer than I thought it would. I thought OK sit down read it out loud. How hard can that can that be?  I had a very good coach that the publisher sent up. It was recorded right across the street from Fenway Park.

[00:20:28] (Kevin) Our guest is David McCullough Jr., author of You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements. For links to his book and others mentioned on the show.

[00:20:37] Log on to our Web site at www.WhyIReadNonfiction.com Many thanks to our sponsor Nirvana beautiful Cape Cod. Have you ever been in the Cape. You’re looking very great spring summer or fall getaway. Check out in. The fishing is fantastic. (Kevin) You ever bail on books? (David) Sure. (Kevin) Do you have any rules for that like how long you’re gonna stick with it?

[00:20:58] (David) At two thirds I’ll spare myself the final third, if it’s not working for me.  Generally I’d persevere through though to the end. For me reading is a joy. It doesn’t take much to please me. I don’t have to love a book to find it a valuable experience.

[00:21:21] (Kevin) Really? Help me out with that because I find I guess part of that may be that I’m cheap.

[00:21:28] I paid for it I’ll get my money’s worth so I’ll just torture myself some more.  But what’s it like for you? (David) Huh, huh, huh. I picture the the earnest writers sitting late at night month after month producing that work and it’s hard for me to give up on that

[00:21:48] person and his or her worthy endeavor. However a book is a performance and everyone has tastes and sometimes things just don’t work. And so I thought OK I tried.

[00:22:05] (Kevin) If you didn’t have I’m also known as an author and you weren’t an author would you be as patient with books as you are right now?

[00:22:12] (David) Oh gosh I don’t know because I… my father is… I can’t imagine not being what I am.  Hard to explain I suppose. It may be, you know, I’m often asked who my favorite writer is? And I make quick answer in probably a little glib a little flip is that my dad’s my favorite writer because he’s one of my very very favorite people and he’s a writer so, uh

[00:22:41] so I have empathy for writers and performers of any kind.

[00:22:46] I mean I don’t like getting up and walking out of a concert that I’m not enjoying the way I perhaps might.

[00:22:56] I did though leave a Patriots game with my children thinking we’re down by two touchdowns as halfway through the fourth quarter this one’s over.  And to beat the traffic we left and we could hear the roar of the crowd as we were getting into the car and they’ve never let me forget that. (Kevin) Which game was that? Was that one of Tom Brady’s 52 career comebacks?  (David) Yeah it was a season opener I think against the Bills, five or six or eight years ago. My kids were littler, and it was a school night, I said come on we’re going and to this day they remind me that dad bailed on that game.

[00:23:30] (Kevin) Do you look around and see what’s in the hands of readers? Or do you ever just go up to them and ask what they’re reading? (David) Oh all the time.

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