This Is Water - A Commencement Speech On How To Become A Better Thinker



In my opinion, David Foster Wallace gave the second best commencement speech after Steve Jobs.  I encourage everyone to read this one.  David talks about the importance of not only just thinking in general, but the importance of understanding what to think about.


An example that he talks about is when some one is hungry after a long day at work and there is no food in the fridge.  Now they have to go to the grocery store. Once you finally arrive there and gather all of your items together to pay, you then need to get on a line, which you learn is a very long line.  This frustration that you now feel is part of what David refers to as your "default setting" because this feeling just naturally occurs.


You know that being angry is a negative emotion, but it still doesn't stop us from getting angry.  David talks about understanding that we may very well be angry, for understandable reasons, but there are other ways to get through this long line that we have to wait on before we pay.  This long line can give us a chance to think and that is what David does when he gets on these long lines after a difficult day at work.  He uses this time to think, and that thinking can be about an importance sales pitch he made to a client, an importance discussion that went on during a meeting, or any other important decision or moment that was made in that day.


Understanding what to think about is a very good way to better your outlook on life.  I summarized and put some of my favorites quotes from the speech below, but you can also check out the links at the bottom if you are interested in reading it yourself, which I recommend because it's that good.


David starts off his speech by sharing this short metaphor for life:


“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 swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”


I like this because it sums up a lot that happens in life.  We are these small fish swimming in a huge ocean (known as planet Earth) and the big and important realities are often right in front of us, yet they are the hardest for us to see and realize.


“The really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a [liberal arts college] isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”


Here is another good story that David shares which highlights the way that two different people can interpret an event entirely different despite having the same information:


“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness.  One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer.  And the atheist says: 'Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God.  It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing.  Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.' And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled.  Well then you must believe now,' he says, 'After all, here you are, alive.'  The atheist just rolls his eyes.  'No, man, all that was, was a couple of Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”'


“Teaching someone how to think is to teach them to be a little less arrogant than everyone else.  To have just a little critical awareness about yourself and your certainties.  Because a huge percentage of the stuff that you tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.  I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”


This next quote refers to our "default setting" or our natural way that we are programmed to think.  It's important to realize that it's hard to get rid of.  David, in his speech, refers to the people who can alter this natural, hard-wired way of looking at the world [as] well-adjusted.


“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.  We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive.  But it’s pretty much the same for all of us.  It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.  Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.  The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.  And so on.  Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”


“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.  Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”


“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head.  They shoot the terrible master.  And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”


“The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means.  There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.  One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.  The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”


“It is unimaginably hard to [see the important realities that are hidden right in front of us], and to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.  Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.  And it commences: now.”



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