Demystifying Excellence

This talk — given when Cory Cullinan was a young high school music teacher and before he’d brought Doctor Noize, Reach Studios and children of his own into the world — describes how deeply tragic events in his childhood lead him to the philosophy and purpose that guides everything he’s done since.

PINEWOOD SCHOOL EXCELLENCE ASSEMBLY
May 2001

Speakers
Gil Brady
: Math Teacher & Baseball/Softball Coach
Nikhil Sahweh: Pinewood Student & Author
Cory Cullinan: Music Teacher & Soccer Coach

Introduction by Kathy Pickett
Pinewood School Board of Directors

You all know Mr. Cullinan as the music teacher here. But I would like to tell you a little bit about what brought him here.

Mr. Cullinan was fortunate to grow up in a strong Los Altos family. His mother was very involved at his school and in his education. His father was known to kids throughout the community as a fun loving coach, and to parents as a City Council member and Mayor of Los Altos. Mr. Cullinan’s brother, Tracey, was a computer whiz regarded as one of the smartest kids in town. At the age of thirteen, Tracey worked as a salesman at ComputerLand in Los Altos; at the age of fourteen, Tracey was a member of the Atari Youth Advisory Board; and by the age of fifteen, Tracey was interviewed on the “Today” show as a young entrepreneur, a programmer with his own software company called Superior Software who billed clients at $25 an hour.

But when Mr. Cullinan was a freshman at Los Altos High School, things changed. His brother had a seizure and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. His father researched medical treatments, found him the best doctors, and Tracey had surgery to remove the tumor from his brain. It didn’t work. The tumor quickly spread, and Tracey gradually lost control of his limbs until he died when he was a senior and Mr. Cullinan was a sophomore in high school.

Mr. Cullinan’s father was used to achieving what he put his mind to, and was distraught with the idea that he had lost his oldest son and let his family down. He tried to numb his pain a number of ways, becoming an alcoholic in the process. Unable to overcome his family’s setbacks, Mr. Cullinan’s father killed himself less than a year after the death of his oldest son, leaving Mr. Cullinan and his mother a suddenly small family.

Over the next year, while a senior in high school, Mr. Cullinan was the ASB President, Homecoming King, a competitive soccer player, a songwriter and performer in two rock bands, and a straight A student who was accepted to Stanford, where he went on to graduate with Distinction and Honors in Music and Political Science.

What is it that makes a person strive for excellence in any situation? That is what we have asked Mr. Cullinan to talk about today.

DEMYSTIFYING EXCELLENCE
by Cory Cullinan
Pinewood School Music Teacher & Soccer Coach

Thank you, Mrs. Pickett. An unexpected thing happened after my family’s series of tragedies:

I felt a sense of inner peace. I felt that, as a consolation prize to all the pain, the gift of perspective had been bestowed upon me. My direction in life became simple and clear. I wanted to dedicate my time and passion to the things that interested me most, every day.

So I asked myself: Why am I not working toward all these things every day already? I’m titling this talk Demystifying The Road To Excellence. Why “demystifying?” Because, in a cruel trick by God, or Nature, or The Tooth Fairy, or Mr. Gardner, or whoever happens to govern your belief system, we all seem to be hardwired to fear or avoid the quest for excellence. We worry: What if we fail? What if we put ourselves on the line and fall flat on our face? Isn’t it easier to strive for less and minimize the risk? The answer: No, in the long run, it’s harder on you to take the easy route. Why? Because when you’re older, and you look back on your life, you won’t be too disappointed about the girl who turned you down. But you’ll always wonder, with regret, about the girl you never asked. And the same holds true for anything you truly care about.

So why this fear of striving for excellence, and how do we overcome it? It dawned on me at the age of sixteen that three things prevented people from achieving excellence in their lives, and that conquering these three things was the key to sustaining a life of fulfillment. I call these my three little insights.

  • Insight #1: Identify a small number of core areas which you care most passionately about. (Mr. Brady talked about this.)
  • Insight #2: Devote your time to these areas every day. (Mr. Brady talked about this too. Either we’re both really smart, or we’re both really stupid… I’m not sure which.)
  • Insight #3: Be confident all the time.

I started with Insight #1. I sat down and realized that my goals in life could really be honed down to five passions. I began to call these areas my cornerstones, and they’re still the same:

  1. I wanted to find the girl of my dreams. I wanted to find her, marry her, and make sure she knew that she was a goddess every day. I found her at the age of 19. More on that later.
  2. I wanted to write music. I turned to writing music with a passion, saying things in songs I would never say in real life. It’s a cathartic and fulfilling way of expressing myself. (It’s probably the same feeling Nicky feels when he writes.)
  3. I wanted to educate myself and others. Knowledge gave me a sense of power and the feeling that I might make a difference in the world.
  4. I wanted to play soccer, because I was pretty good at it and it was fun.
  5. I wanted to get to know all sorts of people. I began to reach out and befriend anybody who interested me, from the geeks to the jocks and everyone in between. And I still hang out with the geeks — for example, I sometimes hang out with Mr. Cartnal. (You’re welcome, Mr. Cartnal.)

Identifying your cornerstones is the first step on the road to excellence. Keep in mind that nobody ever succeeds long-term if their goal is “success.” You are not seeking excellence. You are seeking fulfillment in some combination of personal passions — soccer, music, mathematics, vampire slaying, whatever. Fulfillment comes when you reach for your best, your most excellent, at your passions.

Insight #2: The most important step every day on the road to excellence is getting on the road to excellence every day. This sounds obvious, but in times of trouble, it’s not, because of our natural fear of failure. The distance between myself and excellence seemed insurmountable until I realized that excellence was not a destination, but a direction. Excellence is not a destination. It is a direction. It is an endless journey, and you never reach the point of perfection, and that is precisely what makes it so enjoyable, because those on the road are always getting better.

This insight largely materialized from a question I kept asking myself: Why was my brother an inspiration to me? It wasn’t because of his specific accomplishments. They impressed me. No, what inspired me was this: When my 17-year-old brother learned he was going to die, you know what he did in his final year? He did the same things he always did. He kicked butt at school, he wrote software programs, he hung out with his geeky brainiac friends, and he traded jokes with me. There was no big rush to do all the things he’d always wanted to do in life. He was already doing what he wanted to do. I realized that, as long as I could remember, Tracey always had the confidence and wisdom to take steps in the directions of his passions, every day. Never, in all my days, will I forget that lesson. If you build your life around the things that you are passionate about, and strive toward excellence in those areas, then when things get really rough, you’ll still have some semblance of peace about your life.

I’m not as good a teacher as Mrs. Schmitz is. I’m not as good a coach as Doc is. I’m not as good looking as Mr. Gardner is. (Okay, that’s a lie, but I’m trying to suck up to him, because he’s my boss, you know?) But I can tell you, with all sincerity, that I am heading in their direction, and that is an excellent thing.

I never spend a week in which I don’t pursue all five of my cornerstones.

Insight #3: You can, and should, be confident. All the time. Why? Because confidence is not based on the belief that you are the greatest. Confidence is not based on the belief that you are the greatest. Confidence is based on the understanding that if you’re headed in the right direction, there are going to be successes and failures along the way, and that’s okay. People don’t get this at all, it’s just amazing to me. During my brother’s illness, it started to occur to me that while Tracey had staples in his head from his surgery, and he had no hair and was vomiting one day a week from a chemotherapy treatment that merely served to prolong his life for a few months, he was embracing his every last day and opportunity. Meanwhile, I was worrying that a girl named Pam might say no if I asked her out, and that maybe I shouldn’t play my first gig at the school because I might mess up a song or two. And the contrast seemed ludicrous. It dawned on me that my lack of confidence was ridiculous. To have the confidence to do something you want to do, you don’t need to ensure success. You just need to understand that it’s okay to fail sometimes. And once I got the confidence, and stopped being a wuss, I started to have more success.

When I was a freshman at Stanford, I got to know a girl named Janette Sampson. She was smart, had a beautiful singing voice, had an adorable laugh, and she tirelessly worked for underprivileged kids and people with disabilities. I found this particularly inspiring because Janette Sampson, the most articulate and thoughtful woman I knew, had been legally blind since junior high school, and therefore unable to read a book with her own eyes or read the teacher’s notes off the board at school. But through her gentle confidence and internal vision, she earned an acceptance to Stanford and worked to help pay her way through both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. So I did what any guy who’s smart enough to recognize excellence and secure enough not to fear or resent it would do: I hit on her. And when Janette told me, early on in our courtship, that she was used to dating taller guys, and that I was too short for her, I was unfazed, and I said to her, with as much smarminess as I could muster: “I’m too short for me too, Baby, but I work around it. You can too.” So now I’m proud to say that I have found the one thing I sought most in my life, which is an excellent woman who loves me, and I strive every day to be an excellent husband. And there are days when I succeed at being just that.

Pinewood’s own great philosopher-poet Eric Crites once raised his hand in my class and asked: “Mr. Cullinan, if you went to Stanford, how come you’re just a music teacher?” That’s a fair question requiring a serious answer. Here it is: Pinewood offers me a great opportunity to accomplish my five cornerstones, so it makes me happy to be here with you punks.

I had the honor of speaking at my high school graduation at Los Altos High. I had two main points to deliver. I want to offer the same two points to you.

First, thank you for making me a part of this community. It enriches my life and strengthens my confidence that I am accomplishing something worthwhile. Pinewood’s teachers and administrators have come together this year and committed ourselves to accomplishing greater things than ever before, and I, for one, am very excited about it. I would like to thank my fellow teachers, and our administration, for making this happen.

But out of this wonderful community comes the second point, and that is the responsibility to make good use of what our community provides for us. Make no mistake about it: We are the wealthiest people in the world. We are the wealthiest people in the world. Here in the cradle of the world’s technology center, in the sunlight of the Bay Area, at a school with a teacher for every eight students, we are all children of privilege. Every single kid in this room has a greater wealth of opportunity than 99% of the people in this world, simply because we’re here. And there is nothing wrong with being privileged as long as you understand that this privilege is not just a lucky opportunity, but the gift of responsibility, to pursue your dreams of excellence and make your world a better place. And there is no greater wasted opportunity than a child of privilege who fails to see this opportunity, and uses it as a chance to be lazy.

It is your responsibility to identify what is important to you, your life goals, your cornerstones, and to place your feet on the road to excellence. It’s not your parents’ responsibility, not your teachers’, not your dog’s or your God’s. We’re here to help you choose your direction, not choose it for you. And don’t wuss out on yourself here–you should be elated that your life is in your hands. It is a luxury that many people in the world do not have.

The road to excellence is not a destination, it is a direction. I’m heading in that direction. Pinewood is heading in that direction. It will enrich your life if you not only head in that direction with us, but inspire us, as a school, to be even better.

So I’d like to close by asking you, Eric Crites, and all of you here at Pinewood: Why are you who you are? Why do you do what you do?

If you immediately answered those questions in your mind, you’re probably headed in the right direction. If you didn’t, it’s time to set your course. Those on the road to excellence are who they are because that is who they chose to be. Those on the road to adequacy or confusion are who they are because that is what they ended up as. Your direction dictates your destination.

We live in a culture in which it is sometimes cooler to look good but deny your passions than it is to strive for excellence but fail. Don’t fall for it. Because ultimately, your fulfillment is not gonna come because the cool kid in class thinks you’re all right. Fulfillment will come because you know that what you’re doing is best for you. And if you’re not making an honest effort to live up to your wonderful and unique gifts, all the baggy pants in the world aren’t going to cover up the fact that you’re coming up short when you look at yourself in the mirror. Be what you want to be. Today. Thank you.

My Family 1971
My Family 1971
My Family Now
My Family Now

Go deeper with Cory's Learning Curriculums...
Online / PDF Demystifying Excellence Keynote Address
Online / PDF Sophistication Matters Keynote Address