Learnings from David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” Graduation Speech
In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a 22-minute “This Is Water” commencement speech at Kenyon College to a class of graduating students. Time magazine ranked it as one of the best commencement speeches ever delivered.
The address aims to convey the unsexy realities of “adulthood”, and a call for young minds to apply the real value of education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and grades, but in understanding “how to think” – to be conscious and mindful, to be able to decide for oneself on what to give meaning to, to be well-adjusted to situations, to acknowledge that the realities of others are as true as yours, and to essentially show compassion towards the people and the world we interact with every single day.
This is not a speech about moral values, but Wallace’s take of what it means to be educated and what an educated mind chooses to think about, in the attainment of the most precious yet least talked about kind of freedom – awareness.
The Reality of a Fish Story
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swims on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
Wallace tells a parable of an ugly truth. Just as a fish can swim without realizing that he is in the water – an element essential for its survival, we individuals see the world through a myopic lens, often believing what we know and experience as the only absolute reality. We get caught up in what we think matters, from being part of a rat-race to pursuing or losing some infinite thing, with our close-minded view hiding the real-world in plain sight.
Acknowledge Our Self-Centred Default Setting & Discipline It
Being ignorant stems from our automatic self-centred “default setting”. Our needs and feelings are unconsciously the most immediate and urgent. There is no shame to be “hard-wired” this way, for as long as we discipline ourselves to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the universe and move past our natural selfish thinking to start paying attention to what goes on in front and around us, only then we can open the doors to a world that calls for much-needed empathy and compassion.
At the same time, Wallace warns of the irony of how academic education can sometimes enable our tendencies to over-intellectualize stuff and get lost in abstract arguments inside our heads, resulting in the oblivion of how our self-centred default setting has unconsciously set in.
Learning “How to Think” – We All Know This Stuff Already (Or Do We?)
Learning “how to think”, when said explicitly, sounds almost insulting as though there is even the need to teach one how to think. Yet, knowing “how to think” in this context of consciously perceiving, constructing meaning behind experience, and not living life uncritically, is like a sleeping giant in many of us that occasionally needs a nudge to be awakened.
Wallace speaks about the culture of worship in the real-world, from money, beauty, power, to intellect, where we determine things of material or abstract that we give meaning. The society celebrates such worship, advertising its yield and creating envy, rewarding a few with personal freedom, yet leaving most never satisfied. “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.” Wallace reminds us that “you get to decide what to worship.” Surely our educated minds can choose wisely.
We all know this stuff already, but “the whole trick is to keep the truth upfront in our daily consciousness”.
What “Day In, Day Out” Really Means
We all simply grow into adulthood and live it. Perhaps surviving the daily grind is a way to define its starting point. Wallace speaks of an average adult day, highlighting boredom, routine, and petty frustrations, not with the intentions to paint a daunting and unpromising view of the future for the young audience, but to remind them of the numbing realities, and urge them that in such dull moments to not lose sight of “how to think”, take time to deliberate, and make conscious decisions to behave appropriately, sympathetically, and humanely.
Freedom in Awareness
Freedom means different things to different people, but we can agree that unconscious living does not make us free. Living without questioning and in blind act make us slaves to the world around us. It is through education that we learn “how to think”, what thoughts to abandon, and what to give meaning. In doing so, we attain true freedom in simple awareness of the absolute “real and essential”.
In his speech, Wallace urges students of the graduating class to not go through adulthood unconscious – to stay mindful, adjusted, and wise, purposefully practising compassion and humility every day. Like education, this takes great effort, and therefore “education really is the job of a lifetime”.
“This is Water” is a beautiful and powerful piece worthy of perennial reflection.
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) was an American author, known for his mammoth novel, Infinite Jest, and a short-stories collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He explored literature and pop culture in his dense prose and intertwined complex plotlines, flowered with a plethora of footnotes that aims to disrupt the narrative flow.
Wallace, David Foster. “Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005.” https://web.ics.purdue.edu/-drkel1y/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.