5 Timely Lessons From David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water”

On May 21st 2005 Author David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class of Kenyon College. Over the next twenty minutes he delivered what is considered by many the best commencement speech of all time, now referred to as “This Is Water”.

The speech gets its title from a parable in which a wise old fish asks a pair of younger fish: “How the water feels today?” The two bemused youngsters reply with “What the hell is water?”

Wallace deploys the image of the clueless fish to show that “the obvious realities of the world are often the hardest to see.” He also uses the speech to share his thoughts on education, awareness, and how to live a meaningful life.

Unfortunately, Wallace took his own life on September 12, 2008. Although he may be gone, the call for compassion and consciousness in “This Is Water” remains as relevant today, as it was 15 years ago. To honor Wallace’s legacy I want to share 5 timely lessons from the speech:

Lesson 1: Our Brain’s Default Setting Is Solitary, Smug, And Self Centered

“It’s a matter of choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of the natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

If there is an antagonist in “This Is Water” it is the human brain. Despite his scholarly vocation, David Foster Wallace has a rather cynical view on the mind, in its most unobserved state.

Wallace believes that our minds are naturally self centered. He states that while we find this idea repulsive: “It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

This self centeredness comes with a slew of nasty side effects: arrogance, isolation, and the general belief that the world should cater to YOUR needs.

Wallace emphasizes that this default setting is not something that we are conscious of. This makes it an exceedingly difficult issue to address. But as the opening quotes suggests Wallace believes it is possible to liberate ourselves from this unconscious bias with work.

Lesson 2: Knowledge Has No Teeth Without Awareness

“The real value of a real education, has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.”

One of the platitudes Wallace deconstructs is the idea education teaches students how to think. He questions this idea by pointing out the graduating students could never have been accepted into a prestigious University if they didn’t know how to think.

The ability to think is not what matters, what matters is the choice of what we think about. Being smart or “educated” isn’t merely the ability to process knowledge, it is having the awareness to direct that knowledge. Or as Wallace puts it learning “how to think” means:

“Exercising some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to.”

As we learned in the previous lesson the unobserved mind defaults to selfishness. Our brains are mine fields of psychological biases and self-serving fallacies. It is its natural state.

Awareness gives us the power to keep this urge in check and allows us to examine our thought process, and interrogate our self-centered tendencies.

Lesson 3: You Are The Author Of Your Consciousness. You Choose What You Worship.

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

We all worship. All of us! Not just the raving preacher on the street, or the Hare Krishna handing out flowers at the airport.

Unlike these “fanatical” figures, our secular forms of worship are more subtle. They manifest in silent adoration for things like money, beauty, power, and intelligence.

While they may not be as palpable as their religious counterparts Wallace believes they are more insidious. Religious relics are inviolable, but we can never acquire enough money and intelligence. Power and beauty will inevitably fade with time.

While modern society venerates these traits, we are not doomed in the matter. Through effort and awareness we can choose new objects of worship. We can opt out of the less savory options and choose to appreciate things that won’t “eat us alive.”

Lesson 4: There Is Meaning In The Mundane

“If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars.”

The crux of This is Water is a theoretical, but all too real, trip to the grocery store. Wallace depicts the trip in excruciating detail. Describing everything from the terrible traffic, the stampeding crowds, to the bland “muzak” playing on the loudspeaker.

This grocery store is the imperfect world we inhabit. It is the arena for us to practice awareness. The trenches where we choose what to worship. Without it we cannot grow. It is one thing to comfortably learn about ideas as abstractions, it is another to put them through the insipid inferno of everyday life.

This is one reason the speech holds up. While other commencement speeches excite grads with lofty promises of the future Wallace gives them the unsexy, yet necessary, tools to deal with life’s many, maddening inconveniences. Success and sex appeal are transitory; rush hour traffic is eternal.

Lesson 5: Freedom Is Choosing Awareness And Compassion

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

At its heart, “This Is Water” is a call for compassion. When left to its own devices the unquestioned mind is short-tempered and brutish. It looks at others as mere pieces in our solipsistic quests. Impediments; things that are in OUR way.

In his initial description of the shopping trip Wallace has nothing but unkind things to say to his fellow shoppers. He describes them as “stupid, “dead eyed”, and “cow-like”.

But Wallace goes on to reconsider the shoppers from a more empathetic lens. From this lens they are no longer “dead eyed cows”, or “assholes in SUVs”, but fleshed out people with their own desires. People who are likely just as “bored and frustrated as he is.”

While Wallace acknowledges that at times this interpretation may be over-generous, the alternative is much uglier. It is to go through life in your default setting, and not considering “possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.”

The task will not be easy. It takes effort and discipline. It requires a choice. A choice to be open to the world in front of you. To look at it with clarity and realize, unlike the fish in the parable, that:

This is Water.

Educator and Copywriter Who Writes About Creativity, Marketing, Pop Culture, And Occasionally Mindfulness Meditation