The Virtue of Individualism

by | Dec 23, 2001

Success and happiness are possible to all of us--regardless of our raw intelligence, race, sex, or background; we must simply be self-interested, not selfless. We must follow our dreams and our goals with our own thought and effort.

At my high school, like most other schools, speaking at commencement is a great honor. The commencement committee carefully reviews each speaker application and judges each candidate on grade point average, difficulty of classes, extracurricular activities, and an essay. This year, the commencement committee chose me to speak at the ceremony with three other individuals.

Also, as a group, we all decided not to follow a theme this year; instead, each individual was given the opportunity to speak about “anything [we] wanted to say to our graduating class.” So, taking that to heart, I thought about the possibilities of a speech topic. I knew exactly what advice I could give to the jock, the intellectual, the band geek, the pregnant girl, the druggie, etc, because my advice could be applied to all 291 of us.

The first draft was due about a month and a half before graduation. I presented my speech in front of the committee and the other speakers for the first time–and no one said a word. The teachers did not say anything for several minutes…finally one teacher volunteered, “I don’t think your message is coming across clear enough. You don’t want people to get the wrong impression…” The committee agreed that my message needed to be clearer. But I saw absolutely no problem in my message–it was as clear as day but they just refused to acknowledge what I was saying because they did not agree with it. I asked my brother to review the speech to see if he understood the message. He advised me not to change anything.

The next meeting, I came back with my second draft, which was almost identical to my first. Again, the teachers claimed that my message was being misunderstood. Several of them made other suggestions this time. My old history teacher, an extreme liberal, advised me to completely remove the word “selfish” and change it to another word, like “self-reliance.” But as I saw it, changing that word meant changing the meaning of my speech. To review, “selfish,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means “concerned chiefly or only with oneself without regard for the well being of others.” The committee had a problem with the definition, and basically, the philosophical ideas I was implementing. I was not advocating caring only for yourself at all times–I was advocating selfishness toward one’s own goals and dreams. But this is stated explicitly in my speech.

Another teacher advised me to change each “you” to “we.” Of course, I refused. That would change the meaning entirely, and contradict exactly what I was saying about individualism. Finally, the committee gave me an ultimatum: change the speech topic completely and write about what the committee wanted me to write about, or “resign” from the speaking position. I remained firm to my decision not to change the idea of my speech. Why? Because I shouldn’t have had to. They were trying to censor my speech just because they did not agree with the content. I was speaking for my classmates, not the committee.

My next step of action was contacting the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) to find out exactly what my rights were. They jumped at the chance for a case like this for the publicity and because they were so sure of a win. But by the time any kind of case could be heard in court, the ceremonies would have ended. So I put the ICLU on hold, as a last resort.

First, I spoke to the committee members as a group, and let them know my decision: that I still would not change the content of my speech and that I also refused to technically “resign.” So one of the committee members called me down to the principal’s office so the principal could tell me exactly what the committee had told me. As he put it, “I have to support the decision of the committee. If they think that the speech is ‘out of place’ or ‘too negative’ at a formal ceremony like commencement, I must trust their judgment.” I basically did everything I could do on my own. No one wanted to listen to a seventeen-year-old.

The next step I took was talking to my parents. My father was irate about the whole situation, so I gained his support. He also talked to the ICLU about our options. Then my father called the principal and let him know that if he did not reverse his decision, we would take legal action and submit the situation to as many newspapers that would grasp the “censorship” story to run. My father advised the principal to talk to his lawyer. In fact, the principal did just that. He called me into his office the next day and said, “We would be honored for you to speak at commencement with your original speech.” I had won.

For me, the fight wasn’t just about speaking at graduation–it was a fight for my individual rights. Along the way of this battle, I lost a lot of friends who, for some reason, fought for the censorship of my ideas. I also lost the respect of many teachers in my school. Regardless of the “friends” I lost, or teachers’ “respect” I lost, I know I did the right thing.

How do I know? Because so much more good came out of the situation. After so much controversy for two months, almost all of the surrounding community had heard something about my speech (mostly negative), so when the night of graduation came and I stood up to the podium to speak in front of hundreds of people, the auditorium was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Everyone was anxious to hear what I had to say and everyone listened attentively. After the ceremony, many people congratulated me and told me how much they loved the speech. Some people even claimed that they admired me for standing up and fighting for what I was so passionate about. The most important part was that I was more proud of myself than I ever had been. It would have been so easy for me to just change one word for them, but I didn’t.

This is the speech:

The Virtue of Individualism

Today might be the last day I see many of you. Each of you will step in a different direction and pursue your individual goals. Depending on which path you choose, success may or may not be on the road ahead.

I’m not going to stand here and tell you that all of you will succeed in life–some of you may not. Whether you do or not depends on the major choices you make in life, and more fundamentally, on how you make those choices.

Will you choose a career because that’s what you parents want you to do? Because that’s what your friends, or your church, or your race, or community expect you to do?

Or will you put yourself–your wishes, dreams, and aspirations–above those of others by selfishly surveying all the possibilities the world has to offer, and carefully determining which has the most opportunity and is in your best long-term self-interest? Will you take a thorough look at your own skills and talents, and then try to find a career that maximizes your unique skill set and brings you long term satisfaction? Will you realize that what you are passionate about is the most important aspect of your life?

Before you step out to face the world, stop and look at yourself. Right now is the time to evaluate who you really are. Look at your morals, your standards in life, and most importantly, your purpose here on earth. Know what you want to achieve and how you want to obtain the goals set before you. Be decisive in your actions and honest in your convictions–never surrender your values for the sake of another or make another surrender theirs for yours.

The most common kind of advice heard today is that to achieve happiness on earth, you must be selfless and not selfish–that you must sacrifice to your community, your country, or your family–that you must sacrifice for the “good of others,” putting your own “selfish” desires aside.

A contradiction exists in this kind of philosophy. How can one pursue individual happiness when one is focused on everyone else’s happiness but their own? Individual success cannot be achieved if one’s values are focused on anyone other than the individual.

Success is not some random role of the dice. Fate and luck do not exist. Your success is ultimately the result of your thinking. The harder you think, the more successful you will be. Your mind controls everything about you–how you think creates your success. No one can think for you–this is an act you must initiate.

But, as Thomas Edison said: “There seems to be no limit to which some men will go to avoid the labor of thinking…Thinking is hard work.” Success does not come instantly; it must first be created by you, the individual, through your own passionate efforts.

Being selfish does not mean stomping on others in a violent lust for power or indulging in material possessions at the expense of others. It simply means putting yourself first–putting your own long-term self-interest above the wishes or desires of others.

What I am telling you today is radically different than what you’ve heard before: be selfish.

It is you who will suffer the consequences or reap the rewards of the decisions you make in life, so be selfish in making these choices. Use your best judgment, be rational, and make decisions according to what you want.

We are the freest and most prosperous country in the world because our Founding Fathers based the constitution on selfishness–on an individual’s right to pursue their own happiness.

Selfishness is the pursuit of happiness, freedom, and individual aspirations. It means holding on to your standard of values no matter what the cost. It means not sacrificing yourself but living for yourself–because no one else can live for you.

Success and happiness are possible to all of us–regardless of our raw intelligence, race, sex, or background; we must simply be self-interested, not selfless. We must follow our dreams and our goals with our own thought and effort.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest