In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered the “This is Water” commencement speech at Kenyon College. I’ve studied and written about the most viewed commencement speeches in the past, but this one is special.
In just over 20 minutes, he covers the “unsexy” yet very real realities of day-to-day adult life. The graduating audience appears to laugh at various times in the speech, but I don’t think David Foster Wallace intended for any of it to be humorous. He’s calling out the “default setting” of the unconscious human minds that are all too common in mainstream society. The state of your own mind will determine how you live in the “day in and day out” and “day-to-day trenches of adult existence.”
While he pokes fun at “didactic little parable-ish stories” in commencement speeches, David Foster Wallace delivers one of the best. This post outlines my own personal interpretation of his speech.
If you’re interested, you can listen to the full speech here:
The Purpose of This is Water by David Foster Wallace
Here’s the gist of the “This is Water” story itself along with 3 simple life lessons we can all apply to our day-to-day existence (bold added throughout for emphasis).
The Purpose of the 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 swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’“
- “If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.”
- “The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’“
3 Profound Life Lessons from This is Water by David Foster Wallace
- “And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
- “If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
- “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.” (Note: See my own experience with lifestyle inflation.)
- “And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.”
- “The really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”
- “The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.”
- “If I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.”
- “Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently.”
- “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”
- “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
- “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.”
- “Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.”
- “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But 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: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
- “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
- “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”
How are you doing on these three life lessons? Do you acknowledge your default setting? Are you exercising control and choice over your mind? How about paying attention and staying present?
- “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. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
You’re welcome, Mark!
I know, this is old. I’ve just happened upon this because some one recommend this speech to me. Frankly, I hated it and DFW came across as a psychopath and an unaware narcissist. And I’ve read and reread through the transcript and I can’t see what the big deal is. I don’t know what was suppose to be so deep or moving. I’m assuming I’m wrong or missed something. Anyone care to enlighten me? I know no one will see this but I hit the web in a fit of anger and wound up here.
“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Just like the fish are in water without realizing it, we are in the default setting of our minds without realizing it. We have a choice of how and what to think. In other words, we can shift from the default setting to conscious awareness.
This was a really good, quick summary and analysis of the speech. Thanks for taking the time to do all this!
Of course, Trent!
Kyle. That really is an excellent summary. This essay and Hunter S Thompson’s letter to a friend are two of my absolute favourites. Keep well and thanks for writing this piece
Appreciate it, Chris! I’ll check out the Hunter S. Thompson essay.
Be less certain.
You got it, Joe!
Awesome analysis Kyle.
I appreciate it, Jake.
Kowalski from penguins of Madagascar
Thank you sir
Sure thing (love your username, by the way :))
I didn’t realise how potent the message was when I was first listened to ‘This is Water’ 6 months ago.
It’s saved my life a couple of times over the last few months whilst I’ve been experiencing an existential crisis. Crazy what a shift of consciousness can mean to your understanding of the world, and your part in it.
Thank you so much for this and for your blog.
Of course, Yvie! I also revisited this speech just the other day. I think it will always be relevant because it’s so applicable to day-to-day reality. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my own existential crisis story (along with the comments of many others experiencing their own crises today).
I was introduced to this speech by my professor at University, and have listened and shared this speech numerous times. This speech promotes the need for empathy in our society.
Keep sharing the good word, Jasprit!
I’m doing an English assignment on this speech, and this site helped me understand it better
What is the English assignment?
I am supposed to write an essay of my analysis of this speech. I just cannot figure out a way to explain the repeating phrase at the end “this is water”… It would be great if anyone can help!
I thought I would take a shot at answering your question, not in a definitive way but just in a way that came to me as I went back to the talk and listened to the end again.
What spoke to me was the part just before “this is water” which was “we need to keep reminding ourselves”.
It is likely that your need for this essay is long past and you figured out a response for yourself since you wrote that in March, and here it is toward the end of July. But if I might paraphrase the ending it would be, “keep reminding ourselves that this, whatever this is that is happening in front of me and to me, is the only reality I can count on.”
My story, my take away, my lessons learned will all come from this and may or may not be true accurate or helpful, but yes, whatever this is, and in the message he presented it was “water to the fish“ is the same thing as whatever is happening to us as humans. I don’t know if this helps you but it helped me to think through this and I appreciate your question.