The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

The Cult of Individualism: I’m Special and You’re Not

University has typically been referred to as a privilege. This is true, especially in the age where a girl can get shot for wanting to receive an education. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) of UCLA surveyed thousands of “college freshmen” (for those who are not American, “college” refers to both university and college students) on their perception of their own abilities.

Many described themselves as exceptional.

A 2006 study from CIRP showed that modern college students are more ambitious, leading to an “ambition inflation”. This is a more eloquent way of saying “the bigger something is, the harder they’ll fall”. A quick example can be drawn from some American Idol contestants and the shock registered when a judge says that the contestant isn’t their cup of tea.

To be fair, going to post-secondary education (PSE) does require ambition. When I applied to university, I was ambitious to embark on a journey studying a discipline I would enjoy (and I do), and I wanted to use the knowledge I will gain to change the world for the better. However, when is it too much? When does the fire burn too hot?

The media tends to portray lifestyles that cannot exist for the average person, despite starring average people. Today’s youth are much more exposed to reality shows. They learn that acting stupidly can earn more money than studying for 10 years to become a neurosurgeon.

That’s valid thinking. Whenever money is involved, of course we need to measure the expenses and revenue. If I can earn a lot more for working less, why not?

Because this is a pipe dream for most people.

The cult of individualism, especially in North America, is part of the blame as well. Social agents constantly feed the young with sugar-coated phrases. You may have heard them before; they appear on posters sold in stores that target teachers. “You are special”, “The world is your oyster”, “You are unique”, etc. Everyone is being told they are special. Everyone is unique.

Due to this mindset, it is too easy to adopt a sense of entitlement. I have noticed this in my schools as well, and particularly on social media sites such as tumblr, where people genuinely get upset over the fact that their parents bought them an iPhone 4 instead of an iPhone 5.

Youth today have a stronger sense of entitlement, and unfortunately, we can’t really blame them for it. Society, parents, teachers, and other caregivers have fed them pretty phrases rather than saying, “You have a special ability, and you should work with others to create a better future”. It is unfortunate that some youth feel they can take on the world by storm, and end up being too competitive to work with their peers. Too much competition spoils any progress they make, or can potentially make, and ruins relationships.

Another problem with feeding pretty phrases to youth is that it is too much. Along with the sense of entitlement, youth today are believing that they are innately special, that they’re born with it. Some think they have this innate talent or gift that makes them stand out from the others (and most do), and they think that they don’t need to work so hard because they are entitled to benefits anyway.

It is a vicious cycle.

As educators, we need to change how we speak to students. Do not just say “You are special” or “You are unique”. Rather, comment on the ability that they have, or their behaviours, instead of targeting the person. For example, “I like that you show all your steps; it shows me clearly how you are thinking” is better than “You’re smart at math”.

The method of targeting behaviour rather than the person also works exceptionally well when trying to critique someone. When you target a behaviour instead of a person, you still get your message across, the receiver is able to distance themselves (and thus take in the criticism effectively) while being able to save face. It’s a win-win situation.

Bringing kids back to reality doesn’t mandate a burning crash through Earth’s atmosphere. It doesn’t need to be painful. Educators (we are all educators, regardless if you are a teacher) need to talk in a different manner with their students. Sugar-coating under sparkly words like “you are unique” will only set them up for failure. Target the behaviour, not the person.

Education prepares students for the real world while equipping them with the tools for change. Having ambitious youth who refuse to do work will only cause society to spiral downward at a faster rate.

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274 comments on “The Cult of Individualism: I’m Special and You’re Not

  1. kldawson
    March 27, 2013

    I agree and disagree all at once. I think you should be true to yourself and avoid groupthink at all costs. In my mind you have to be brave enough to say no to the group or you’re as hapless as the guy who closed the gas chamber door after the Jews went in, but I hate this feeling special nonsense. You are you and you are unique and what you think is important, but you deserve nothing more than anyone else.

  2. Lady Gwendolynn
    February 22, 2013

    With some of the examples of phrases you were using – I have seen the same thing like for Bumper-Stickers and other things and often wondered, “Isn’t that going to send kind of a skewed message about what we want people to understand?”. Especially the, “You are Unique! Like everyone else”. Maybe it doesn’t appear all that bad, but while I understand it’s true – it’s not in a sense as well, least not to me.

    I liked how you explained how we should address the behavior though, that is a wonderful idea. I’d think that’d be a Common Sense thing to do, though unfortunately I know Common Sense has become less Common, sadly. Yes; addressing the behavior or perhaps just being specific about what you really mean would be best over being so plain and simple as, “W-ow! You’re a genius!”. That’s not very helpful and doesn’t really say what it should, definitely.

    ~Gwen

  3. ebellz
    February 18, 2013

    “As educators, we need to change how we speak to students. Do not just say “You are special” or “You are unique”. Rather, comment on the ability that they have, or their behaviours, instead of targeting the person. For example, “I like that you show all your steps; it shows me clearly how you are thinking” is better than “You’re smart at math”.”

    In my own work with teens, this type of clear communication creates a stronger bond between teacher and student. You are obviously there, care about them enough to notice these points, and therefore cultivate a genuine, supportive relationship. Something children need in order to be healthy and happy.

    Such a relationship also helps with general classroom behavior. In a positive way! If students understand that they have strengths and weaknesses (as we all do), they begin to realize that others also have strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, this helps them conceptualize themselves as part of a community. Sort of like Socrates saying you cannot define short unless you define tall – there has to be two items inorder to create something (in this case, themselves).

    I think, this thus helps keep contemporary youth from becoming further mired in a self centered world view – something we all need to fight as technology blankets growing minds in human isolation.

  4. fitz1
    February 15, 2013

    Well put. Reminds me of 2 famous phrases: “Individuality is that which all things have in common”, and, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal.” df

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      February 15, 2013

      I love Animal Farm! About every line in there is worthy to be embossed in marble.

  5. rachelpappas
    February 14, 2013

    Ah, earn MORE for working LESS? I have yet to find that niche but have gotten expert at finding a way to work more for less. Well, if you love what you do, though it helps to have a sugar daddy, too. LOL! Great post. Thanks!

  6. anbrooks2013
    February 8, 2013

    It was because of an educator that noticed that I was good in the liberal arts arena that I was able to choose to go to law school. I probably would have gone to medical school and be totally miserable.

  7. emmasouthlondon
    February 5, 2013

    Great post –
    hope it gets the widest audience possible –
    for the children’s sake.
    Best wishes to you,
    Emma.

  8. jamesgillingham
    February 3, 2013

    I rarely agree with everything in a blog post. This one is an exception. Brave, provocative and, as far as I’m concerned, spot-on.

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  10. green hills school of dance
    January 30, 2013

    I was just seeking this info for a while. After six hours of continuous Googling, at last I got it inside your website. I wonder what is the lack of Google strategy that do not rank this kind of informative net sites in top with the list. Generally the top sites are full of garbage.

  11. Flippyman
    January 30, 2013

    You’re completely right. Young people are not only told that they’re special and talented. They’re told that others aren’t. And thus, we get Rebecca Black’s Friday.

  12. jensine
    January 29, 2013

    I so agree, as a part-time lecturer I struggle to feel compassionate for students that get upset over bad grades, but don’t put the work in and while everyone is unique we need conformity to function as a group. ANd yes of course I think me nephews and niece are special, but I always make sure they know no matter how entitled you feel, it doesn’t mean you will get it. And in if everyone is special then nothing is special, discarding those truly wonderful and unique moments and achievements into nothingness.

  13. Pingback: The Cult of Individualism: I’m Special and You’re Not « Almost Awesome

  14. LailahMonte
    January 25, 2013

    “You are unique, but you are not special.” is the way I think of it. Perhaps it’s not the phrasing one would want to use on an impressionable young child, but it’s my own guideline for not becoming an insufferable prat. What upsets me is the manner in which I feel like education, or at least the school system I went through, does everything it can to destroy the natural curiosity children have. I wrote about it recently, and I’ve actually written a fair bit about education even though it’s not my primary focus. I’m in this stage of life where I’m considering a return to college and wondering what might have happened if the education system as I knew it was different. Anyway, if you get a chance, I’d appreciate your input.

    http://likenewleaf.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/candy-sales/

    Also, you have an awful lot of smiley faces for a grumpy giraffe. :)

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 25, 2013

      I’d gladly take a look-see. Yes, I’m not always grumpy. That could cause wrinkles.

  15. A Music Gal
    January 25, 2013

    Hello, i think that i saw you visited my web site thus i came to “return the favor”.I am trying to find things to enhance my website!I suppose its ok to use a few of your ideas!!

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 25, 2013

      Sure! As long as you credit/link my post, then it’s fine. :) Thanks for visiting!

  16. taiorafan21
    January 25, 2013

    This post gave me a new perspective on individualism and the culture we live in. I think messages like “you are special” do reinforce a sense of entitlement and kids today need to learn that the world doesn’t owe them anything. Any reward or gratification they get will be the result of effort and work, not due to any innate quality or talent.

  17. Night rainbow
    January 25, 2013

    I completely agree with all those points. Right! Behaviour rather than the person should be the target. Kudos to a well-written topic! :D

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  19. The Grumpy Giraffe
    January 23, 2013

    Thanks! This blog is my hobby, but I am currently the editor of a student newsletter for the Faculty of Education. Neither the editor position nor this blog (or any of its contents) were paid for, and everything I write here is my own content. I tend to focus on current education issues and reforms in that newsletter, and sometimes the things I want to write about don’t fit the current newsletter theme, so I post them on here. Glad you enjoyed it.

  20. Tarantino Panda
    January 23, 2013

    Agree completely! I too have seen it reflected in Reality Shows like American Idol or X Factor (as we have in the UK). Kids who clearly can’t sing, but have been “encouraged” as being special for so long that they believe they can!

  21. jonathanhilton
    January 22, 2013

    I have just read your blog for the first time today. I like the fact that you care enough to put ideas out there, to be observed, thought about and accepted or rejected. On this one, I have to agree and disagree. I do fully and whole heartily believe that every person is born with a talent that is unique to them, you, me or anybody else. That doesn’t mean that we are entitled, nor should kids feel this way. Shouldn’t kids feel to some degree that they are special? Doesn’t life have a way of pounding you with should have’s and could have’s that naturally fight against this feeling. They cover it up and then you spend significant time later on in life trying to rediscover what that special part of you is.
    I think perhaps there is a way to recognize the talent and good in everyone while not creating a generation of self absorbed, reality show contestants. There has to be. Life can be a very hard road, there are plenty of people who want to tell you that you are not the least bit special, I relish the chance to tell anyone that they are totally unique, powerful and gifted human beings and I will never feel bad about doing that.
    I am very grateful for the thought provoking article. Thank you for writing it. I look forward to reading some more of your grumpy giraffe thoughts.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 22, 2013

      Thank you so much for your comments! Yes, I believe it’s fine to recognize each other’s talents, as long as the parties know that talent needs to be nurtured, and that solely being good at something doesn’t guarantee a free pass to anyone.

    • SoundEagle
      January 24, 2013

      Hi Jonathan, I understand what you wrote here, but we need to be critically aware that no one is “totally unique”, let alone all three at once as you described: “totally unique, powerful and gifted”, not to mention that human beings have more similarities than differences, share a large number of human genes, histories, heritages, cultures, languages, social media, educations, arts, resources (both natural and human-made) and so on.

      Hi Michelle, I agree with you. The problem is not confined in schools but also happens at homes, where some modern parenting styles are unfortunately reinforcing children to think that they are the centre of the world and adults are there to bolster them and to enable their wants and desires, resulting in superficiality, egocentricity, narcissism, individualism and cult of celebrity.

      Thank you very much for your insight into the matter. Well done and well explicated!

  22. Pingback: The Cult of Individualism: I’m Special and You’re Not « kristininholland

  23. paxgirl
    January 22, 2013

    As an educator, I really appreciated the example: “I like that you show all your steps; it shows me clearly how you are thinking” is better than “You’re smart at math”.

    The latter CAN set students up for failure; as soon as they hit a math discipline that is difficult, they could decide they’re not good at math after all and give up. If they’ve been acknowledged for various processes and specific thinking skills, as in the first part of the example above, there will develop a desire to keep doing the act that prompted the success.

    Some good thoughts; thank you.

  24. kirsty13
    January 22, 2013

    When will the hard working kids at school be the ‘cool’ kids? From an early age, social rewards, like popularity, come from acting stupid. Coincidentally, where are the reality shows about people working hard in their lives to make a real difference to the lives of others? Young people then, might have more of a chance of learning how that sense of achievement, through reaching out as a human race, amounts to genuine self-worth while helping to sustain our future. As opposed to becoming rich and famous for breaking up with someone on TV or getting a new face! Enjoyed reading this post.

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  26. alexandraswanberg
    January 22, 2013

    This reminds me of a George Carlin stand-up. He’s talking about how everybody is told they’re special when they’re younger, and he’s asks “At which point does a person go from being special to being not so special?”

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 22, 2013

      George Carlin was a great comedian. He was smart, and knew how to communicate his message to the general public without dumbing it down, but still providing a strong entertainment aspect.

  27. lonelyscientist
    January 21, 2013

    Not in Asia. We work our ass off to be on the top of the food chain.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      January 22, 2013

      I’m Asian too. China still has a strong sense of entitlement, but it takes a different form. China’s entitlement is detached from individualism completely: it is linked with dependence on their parents. This is seen in second generation kids who have wealthy parents, and when something goes wrong, they say to their authority, “Do you know who my father is? He’s CEO of such-and-such.”

      American entitlement stems from individualism. Chinese entitlement stems from dependency.

      • Gaius Gracchuss
        January 22, 2013

        Ah GG,

        All entitlement comes comes from some type of collective dependency not individualism. AS you know Individualism is diametrically opposed to entitlement.
        It is a moral, political or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. It opposes most external interference with an individual’s choices, whether by society, the state or any other group or institution.

        Have a Blessed day

  28. millefleur504
    January 21, 2013

    Excellent! I need to send this to my brother, who is a high school teacher. Thank you for pointing out the entitlement that children today have developed, thanks to their parents and society.

  29. Pingback: Individualistic-living off the backs of Giants is a bit Ironic. | encompassingchaos

  30. Mike
    January 21, 2013

    The need to feel special is really the need for meaning, to know that “I matter.” In an age where actually doing things that matter is, in the typical college situation, often postponed until the mid-20s or later, there’s a movement to compensate by being special and unique. Of course, this is compounded by the internet’s ability to give everyone a sense of identity — Facebook profiles, YOUtube, MYspace, I-phone, etc. But all of this is a yearning for a sense of meaning, purpose, importance. One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had recently is being acknowledged appropriately for something I did. It wasn’t lavish praise, it was just a sort of matter-of-fact, “You did that.” Just having the value of my efforts seen as they are, not inflated or even necessarily praised, was very inspiring. It made me want to do more, try more things, contribute more to the lives of others, and perpetuate that cycle. In that regard, I agree with the idea of “targeting behavior rather than people.” I think we all just need to be honest and clear with each other: “Hey, you did that. It mattered to me.” That’s it.

  31. ruminationsofmine
    January 21, 2013

    Well said and a long time coming. I enjoyed this blog.

  32. Pingback: The Cult of Individualism: I’m Special and You’re Not « Random Thoughts

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