Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

I was recently reminded of David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) well-known commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Below is a summary and commentary on the speech. Some of its main themes are: solipsism, loneliness, the monotony of life, the meaning of real education, and the importance of sympathy and conscious awareness. (At the bottom of the post is a video which contains multiple quotes from the speech and ties together its main idea. Below that is an audio of the complete speech.)

Wallace begins with a parable:

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?”

Wallace quickly explains that “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.” Against this story’s backdrop, Wallace considers the value of the liberal arts education. Wallace argues that the significance of a liberal arts education isn’t so much about learning how to think as it is that it provides”the choice of what to think about.”

To explain this idea he considers a theist and an atheist who are both convinced that they know the truth. For Wallace this shows that people construct meaning from the inside by interpreting reality differently.  Yet most of us are close-minded, unaware of how imprisoned we are to the ideas and events that continually shape us—to the water all around us. A real education teaches us: “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

So a liberal arts education gives us tools to escape from our default settings, from the things we believe to be obvious, but which really aren’t. Education

… 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 …

If you’re truly educated you can “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.” And to show why this is so important Wallace informs the new graduates:

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.

To explain Wallace pictures of an average day in the near future for college graduates:

you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping … So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

This is the life that awaits the graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting, which is to be frustrated with all of this. We can then see that all of this isn’t about us;  we can learn to see things differently. Perhaps those in traffic or at the store are as stressed as we are. Perhaps their lives are much worse than ours. It is hard to see the world like this, but we can do it with effort. As Wallace poetically puts it:

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.

Wallace’s point is that “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” (This advice is reminiscent of the existentialists.) Worshipping money, power or physical beauty will not satisfy, for you will never have enough. These are the things the world encourages us to worship, what we worship by default. But

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.

Wallace concludes then that this is:

… 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.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, 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. I wish you way more than luck.

I thank Wallace for reminding me of of so much—that education is about choosing to escape our biological and cultural default settings; that we can only control our own minds, and not the external world; and that real education is a lifelong process. Finally, I thank all the friends and teachers who help provide me with a liberal arts education so long ago. It has not made me rich, but it has helped make me free.

And here is the speech in full.

9 thoughts on “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

  1. Hi John.

    First, I apologize for my english as it’s not my main language.

    I suppose that this post is not coming after the “Monotony of Work” one by chance, as they are deeply interconnected in my opinion.

    I, like your friend, also work as Software Engineer and make acceptable money, but also as him, the mere though of thirty more years of this kind of life in front of me is killing me. Trying to do what Wallace told us in his wonderful speech is really all we can do about it, and it is really helpfull, but to life you whole life like that, year after year, it gets really hard.

    I am also aware that, in spite of everything, being a Software Engineer is probably one of the most interesting jobs than modern societies can bring, so I don’t wan’t to even think about how terrible the life of many (most probably) otra people shoud be. In fact, most of my colleages are perfectly happy as SE, they are “entertained” and “happy”, despite most of them are deeply ignorant in tons of topics outside software or engineering (people just don’t honestly care) this kind of feeling is not that frecuent. I suppose that the thing that scares me is not necessarily THIS job, but the fact of being “forced” to have to spend most of my time on wharever keeps me away of getting closer to wisdom and Truth, and some kind secular holyness that i sometimes feel á la Spinoza when i’m deeply imbued in the process of learning, that i can’t even in words with my own language, much less with a foreign one.

    Because the thing is, I just want time to learn, to read, to understand, to uplift myself. I honestly think i would change this for a stupid meaningless job which simply let me have time to read on work hours or something like that, despite losing tons of money; my ever growing pile of books/sites/documentaris gets higher each day, and each day i’m more aware that i’m not going to be able to read/comprehend most of them in my life time, and the day to day life becames unbearable under this realizations.

    So, why do I even write this? I don’t know, i suppose it’s only a free rant to someone how I think might understand what i’m talking about (as I said, is harder than it seems, which makes it even more absurd). I do not thing that there are real solutions to this more than to try to be aware about what Wallace says. In fact, if most of human wouldn’t have works like this, civilization would be impossible, at list at thos moment, so it is kind of fair and honorable to life like this. But still, a lot of days, it hurts deeply.

    By the way I’m glad that my Parfit comment send you to revisit him, he is such a wonderful author (this was like a year and half ago, but still).

  2. What a deep and thoughtful comment. Perhaps I will be able to address it further in a future post. In the meantime, good luck Anom in finding a better way.

  3. Anom: I share all your concerns. You stated the tensions very clearly.
    I guess the biggest question is “do you have children?” If so, you live for them now. If not, every day you face the same choices.
    Money or wisdom; few can achieve both. I chose wisdom and relative contentment, 20 years ago. So far, so good.

  4. Thank you Len for your response.

    The thing is, I am going to be a father in a few months. And I made the decision to be one precisely because it was one of the few things it ocurred to me that it may be a good use for my money, besides simply giving it up to charity, which would be in fact a much more easier decision.

    If I am not brave enough to just leave everything to pursue wisdom, it really seemed to me that to be father was one of the more moral options, because after all, I could not supress the idea that my main reason to NOT have a child is mainly selfishness: I didn’t want to give my time and attention to another new human being just because I want to keep learning and understanding things, but this would be a knowledge that almost surely I am not going to use to change the world in any real sense, I only pursue it for that spinozian “amor intellectualis Deis” pleasure and awe, so it’s kind of hedonistic thing in the end.
    The thing is, that wonderful life of peace and knowledge (or the little of that that I have in my life), is so good that I don’t want to renounce to it; but it is a life that I can enjoy now precisely because someone did the sacrifice for me in the past, the very same sacrifice that I don’t feel like doing now for pure selfishness.
    So how could I made the decision to NOT be a father, having a wonderful and loving wife who wants to have it, and having money and a good enviroment to nurture him, and being quite clear at this point on my life that it is almost a sure thing that i am not going to change the world for better in any significant way? I couldn’t make that decision without feeling incredebly selfish, almost immoral.

    So I supose that I would “live for them” for now on. I’m not sure if that’s not my best path to “holyness” anyway, maybe it will be maybe not, only time will say, but surely will make my longing for wisdom much more harder, maybe even impossible. That’s life, and I just want to honestly do the right thing, the just thing.
    My hope is that maybe I could bring to that child a good enough environment to install in his/her heart the seed of the love of knowlegde and virtue, in a way that I could not enjoy when I was a kid, so he or she can combine I life of knowlegde and uplift with a way of earning money which is less time consuming than mine (or more directly related to knowlegde itself I supose). Because I truly think that we desperately need more moral, well educated people in this planet, and sometimes the people that have the best chance to create more humans like that, are the ones which doubt more about it. Maybe I will end being a terrible father because having this ideas on the first place, I don’t know. I honestly hope that it wont be the case, but I just can not know. I am very aware to the dangers of trying to live the life you want through your sons instead of leting then be whoever they really are, so surely it will be difficult, all I can do is to try to it well with all my heart.

    So to sum up, I supose that the train to give up everything for wisdom already left for me. But hey, look at John, he had a wonderful family, and that have not keeped him away to a great amount of wisdom in his life, so I have some hopes about it. But surely i won’t achieve the same level’s of undersandig and wisdom that someone whom taked Len’s path. I will live with it, but it will always hurt a little inside. I just honestly expect to redeem myself with what I finally chosed.

  5. Anom,

    As a father and grandfather, I can assure you that the time and effort spent in raising children will not prevent you from pursuing wisdom or philosophical insights. Rather, watching a unique consciousness emerge within your child, and helping to teach and nurture that consciousness, will provide you insights about life that can never be learned through pure academic study. Even reading the same book over and over again to your child (you don’t know what I mean by this, but in a couple of years you will) can teach you something about the way the brain and mind develop and is never wasted time.

    So don’t look at raising a child as opportunities lost; look at it as opportunities gained: to learn new knowledge and insights about life that no one else can teach you.

    Best of luck to you and your family.

  6. Thanks James for such a wonderful reply. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot for the experience of being a father.

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