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6 Life Lessons From the Best Commencement Speech of All Time

In 2005, novelist David Foster Wallace stepped onto the podium at Kenyon College and delivered one of the best graduation speeches of all time.

Wallace’s speech was later turned into a short book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Here are 6 life lessons from ‘This Is Water’ speech. [1]

foster wallace this is water

Wallace at a reading in 2006 (CC BY 2.0)

Lessons From This Is Water by David Foster Wallace

1. The meaning we construct out of life is a personal, intentional choice.

“As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance…But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

2. Question your deep-rooted beliefs.

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded…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 centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

3. Get out of your head.

“Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise 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.”

“It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my 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.”

4. Learning “how to think” requires discipline.

“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.”

5. Everybody worships. We just get to choose what to worship.

“Here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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…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. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But 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.”

6. True freedom is the byproduct of awareness and sacrifice.

“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…The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing…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…to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”


Footnotes

1. Listen to This Is Water David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech.

Legendary Psychologist Carl Jung on Human Nature (Rare 1959 Interview)

Carl Gustav Jung was a prominent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology.

He coined popular psychological concepts including the collective unconscious, and extraversion and introversion personality types.

In 1959, BBC’s Face to Face TV series aired a 40-minute interview with Carl Jung at the old age of 84 years old—18 months before his death.

During the interview—filmed in Switzerland at his lakeside home near Zurich—Carl Jung discusses his early life, human nature, consciousness, personality types, death, religion, and the future of the human race.

Here are 5 important ideas on human nature from Jung’s rare BBC interview with Freeman.

carl jung bbc interview

Carl Jung BBC Interview (Source)

1. Consciousness Is “I Am”

Freeman: Now, can I take you back to your own childhood? Do you remember the occasion when you first felt consciousness of your own individual self?

Jung: That was in my eleventh year. There I suddenly was on my way to school I stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in a mist, walking in a mist, and I stepped out of it and I knew, “I am.” “I am what I am.” And then I thought, “But what have I been before?” And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing how to differentiate my self from things. I was just one thing among many (other) things.

2. Personality Isn’t Permanent—It’s Always Changing

Freeman: Have you concluded what psychological type you are yourself?

Jung: Naturally I have devoted a great deal of attention to that painful question, you know! And reached a conclusion? Well, you see, the type is nothing static. It changes in the course of life.

3. The Only Real Danger that Exists Is Man Himself

Freeman: During the nineteen-thirties, when you were working a lot with German patients, you did, I believe, forecast that a second world war was very likely. Well now, looking at the world today, do you feel that a third world war is likely?

Jung: I have no definite indications in that respect…We are so full of apprehensions, fears, that one doesn’t know exactly to what it points. One thing is sure. A great change of our psychological attitude is imminent. That is certain.

Freeman: And why?

Jung: Because we need more — we need more psychology. We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all coming evil.

4. Belief Follows Evidence

Jung: Well, I can’t say. You see, the word belief is a difficult thing for me. I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and then I know it — I don’t need to believe it. I don’t allow myself, for instance, to believe a thing just for the sake of believing it. I can’t believe it. But when there are sufficient reasons for a certain hypothesis, I shall accept . . . naturally. I should say: “We had to reckon with the possibility of so and so” — you know.

5. Man Cannot Stand A Meaningless Life

Freeman: As the world becomes more technically efficient, it seems increasingly necessary for people to behave communally and collectively, now do you think it’s possible that the highest development of man may be to submerge his own individuality in a kind of collective consciousness?

Jung: That’s hardly possible. I think there will be a reaction — a reaction will set in against this communal dissociation. You know, man doesn’t stand forever, his nullification. Once, there will be a reaction, and I see it setting in, you know, when I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.

Jeff Bezos on Why You Should Trust Your Gut, Not Data

Amazon takes pride in its ruthless efficiency: fast delivery, a gigantic variety of products, and demanding work culture.

But efficiency isn’t the key to Amazon’s success.

During an interview at the Economic Club of Washington, Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said: “I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts… not analysis.”

In his 2018 annual letter to shareholders, Bezos elaborates on this ‘power of wandering’ and explains why his best decisions have been based on intuition, not analysis. 

Here are five of his key ideas.

Take risks based on intuition

Amazon’s Prime membership and the Fulfillment by Amazon have been highly successful programs. But at the time of their launch, both programs were radical ideas that had a high probability of failure. As Bezos noted:

“We invested in both of these programs at significant financial risk and after much internal debate. We had to continue investing significantly over time as we experimented with different ideas and iterations. We could not foresee with certainty what those programs would eventually look like, let alone whether they would succeed, but they were pushed forward with intuition and heart, and nourished with optimism.

Develop a builder’s mentality

According to Bezos, a builder’s mentality is the key to Amazon’s extraordinary innovations:

“From very early on in Amazon’s life, we knew we wanted to create a culture of builders – people who are curious, explorers. They like to invent. Even when they’re experts, they are “fresh” with a beginner’s mind. They see the way we do things as just the way we do things now. A builder’s mentality helps us approach big, hard-to-solve opportunities with a humble conviction that success can come through iteration: invent, launch, reinvent, relaunch, start over, rinse, repeat, again and again. They know the path to success is anything but straight.”

The success of Amazon’s AWS cloud service is a testament to the power of a builder’s mentality. “None of this would be possible without a culture of curiosity and a willingness to try totally new things on behalf of customers…AWS is now a $30 billion annual run rate business and growing fast.”

Embrace the inefficient process of wandering

Whilst efficiency is important, it often cripples creativity and hinders innovation. Bezos argues that wandering is an essential counterbalance to efficiency.

“[W]andering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided – by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity…that it’s worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there…The outsized discoveries – the “non-linear” ones – are highly likely to require wandering.”

Imagine the impossible

Bezos suggests that imagination, curiosity, and gut feeling are the key drivers behind the invention of new solutions to familiar problems.

“With Amazon Go, we had a clear vision. Get rid of the worst thing about physical retail: checkout lines…we imagined a store where you could walk in, pick up what you wanted, and leave…The biggest needle movers will be things that customers don’t know to ask for. We must invent on their behalf. We have to tap into our own inner imagination about what’s possible.”

Scale your failures

The power of wandering is the sheer volume of failures that lead to extraordinary success.

“As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures.

One of Amazon’s major failures was the Fire phone. But this doesn’t stop Bezos and his team from using intuition to make important decisions.

“[W]e were able to take our learnings (as well as the developers) and accelerate our efforts building Echo and Alexa…No customer was asking for Echo. This was definitely us wandering. Market research doesn’t help…Since that first-generation Echo, customers have purchased more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices.”

Takeaway

At the heart of innovation is the intangible combination of imagination, intuition, and irrational optimism.

Whilst analysis is useful, the mind is limited to information from your past to predict the future. But the path to success is non-linear, random, and unpredictable. 

By integrating your intuition with experience and analysis, you’ll make better decisions, generate new ideas, and tap into an abundance of opportunities no one else can see.

The Smarter Brain: Healthy Eating, Bad Decisions, Organising Emails

Ideas worth thinking about

On Observation

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

― Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner in Physics and pioneer of quantum mechanics

Source: Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science

On Healthy Eating

Dr. David L. Katz, a renowned preventive medicine specialist, attempts to answer every question you may have on healthy eating.

Big idea: The optimal diet for longevity is made up of whole, minimal processed foods, mostly plants, and plain water. Focus on foods, not nutrients.

Source: Mark Bittman and David L.Katz.The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating RightGrub Street. (20 min read)

On Bad Decisions

Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest basketball players in history, and a Stanford University psychologist, on why we make bad decisions, even when we know better.

Big idea: Popular opinion suggests that we make bad decisions because of our beliefs or cognitive biases. But peer pressure often leads to bad decision-making.

Source: Mayo Oshin. The Chamberlain Effect: Why We Make Bad Decisions, Even When We Know Better. (7 min read)

On Organising Emails

A study of over 85,000 attempts to sort and find emails revealed findings on the efficiency of organising emails in our inbox.

Big idea: Organising emails using folders is a waste of time. Using the search function is a much more efficient use of your time.

Source: Whittaker et al (2011). Am I wasting my time organizing email?Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings.

On Speaking the Truth

“Life is short and truth works far and lives long: let us speak the truth.”

― Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher

Source: The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1


Mental model of the week

INVERSION

inversion mental model

Idea icon credit to IconBros

What is a mental model?

A mental model is an explanation in our mind of how things work in reality. It’s a worldview that shapes how we think and understand the world.

The more mental models you have in your mind, the better your ability to think in new ways, solve difficult problems, and make better decisions in everyday life.

Great thinkers, problem-solvers, and decision-makers rely on a wide variety of mental models to simplify complexity and spot opportunities most people don’t see.

Mental models are imperfect, but useful to train your brain to think better.

What is inversion?

Inversion is a mental model used to avoid mistakes and uncover solutions to difficult problems by solving problems in inverse form.

It originates from the 19th-century German mathematician, Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, who made important scientific contributions by using the strategy “invert, always invert.”(loosely translated from ‘man muss immer umkehren.’)

How do I use it?

Step 1: Identify the opposite of your problem.

For example, let’s say you want to build healthy relationships. Consider the question: “How can I build toxic relationships?”

Step 2: Brainstorm solutions to the opposite problem.

For example, one way to build toxic relationships is to criticize others and dismiss their opinions.

Step 3: Avoid solutions to the opposite problem.

In our example, by avoiding different ways to build toxic relationships you can improve the odds of building healthy ones.

Key takeaway: Instead of focusing on being right, focus on being less wrong.


Word of the day: TSUNDOKU (Japanese). Buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up on shelves. (Source)

Thank you for reading,

Mayo

Your Brain Food Chef

Want new ideas to think better, make better decisions, and achieve your potential? Subscribe to The Smarter Brain newsletter.

 

Jeff Bezos, Reading Aloud, Busyness, Idea Generation

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

— Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood


Worth reading

1

Jeff Bezos’ Guide to Life

5 life lessons from Jeff Bezos during his interview at an invite-only getaway summit:

1. Develop your mental toughness.“Each time you have a set back, you’re using resilience and resourcefulness, and inventing your way out of a box.”

2. Make decisions that minimize regret. “How he knew to leave his job and start Amazon: Jeff had a been working in finance software engineering on Wall Street. But in 1994, he told his boss he wanted to start an Internet book store. His boss told him it was a pretty good idea but that it was “a better idea for someone who didn’t have a good job.” Jeff took a few days, and decided “the best way to think about it was to project my life forward to age 80” and make the decision that “minimized my regrets…”(…)“Then it was immediately obvious” that he should leave to start Amazon. “If it failed, I would be very proud when I was 80 that I tried.”

3. Avoid multitasking. “I don’t like to multi-task. If I’m reading my email I want to be reading my email…I multi-task serially.”(The science is clear on this point. )

4. Practice childlike curiosity. “Because the world is so complicated, you have to be a “domain expert” to find solutions to problems. “But the danger is that once you’re a domain expert, you can be trapped by that knowledge.” You have to approach things with childlike curiosity. Inventors are the experts with beginners minds.”

5. Choose your life story. “We all get to choose our life stories. It’s our choices that define us, not our gifts…You either choose a life of “ease and comfort”, or of “service and adventure”, and when you’re 80, you’ll be more proud of the latter.”

Josh Constine, Tech Crunch ()

2

How Busyness Leads to Bad Decisions

“You churn through the day.. feeling busy, purposeful and a little breathless. Yet as the end of the traditional workday.. you realise with a sinking feeling that you haven’t even begun the big project you meant to tackle that day.”At the end of each day, you beat your chest and resolve that ‘Tomorrow will be different,’ but the vicious cycle repeats itself. Why?

“When we’re stressed and feeling pressed for time…our attention and cognitive bandwidth narrow as if we’re in a tunnel.” And this tunnel often leads to wasted time on “low-value tasks,”instead of “the big project or the long-range strategic thinking.”

The main culprit of busyness is email: “the perfect addictive “attention slot machine”.” Because “[o]ur brains are wired for novelty, so we actually love being interrupted with every random ping and ding of a new message.”But there’s hope. We can escape the tunnel of busyness by “thinking about our schedules as less like a pantry that we cram anything…into, and more like an art gallery where we…decide what is most important and how to arrange it so that everything fits.”

Brigid Schulte, BBC ()

3

Idea Generation

Sam Altman (Investor and CEO of OpenAI) on generating ideas to build a highly successful startup. “It turns out that good founders have lots of ideas about everything.”So how do you get good at idea generation?

6 ways to generate great ideas:

1. Surround yourself with people who have a “good feel for the future.”These individuals “will entertain improbable plans, are optimistic, are smart in a creative way, and…tend to think without the constraints most people have, not have a lot of filters, and not care too much what other people think.” They also won’t “make you feel stupid for mentioning a bad idea, and…never feel stupid for doing so themselves.”

2. “Stay away from people who are world-weary and belittle your ambitions. Unfortunately, this is most of the world. But they hold on to the past, and you want to live in the future.”

3. Don’t be afraid to look stupid. “The best ideas are fragile; most people don’t even start talking about them at all because they sound silly.”

4. “Think about the most important tectonic shifts happening right now. How is the world changing in fundamental ways? Can you identify a leading edge of change and an opportunity that it unlocks?”

5. “Get good at differentiating between real trends and fake trends. A key differentiator is if the new platform is used a lot by a small number of people, or used a little by a lot of people.”

6. Pursue ideas that you’re well-suited for. Because “founder/company fit is as important as product/market fit.”

Sam Altman ()

4

Rediscovering the Lost Power of Reading Aloud

In the ancient world, “[t]o read at all was to read out loud.”In fact, “Silent reading of the sort we practice with our books and laptops and cellphones was once considered outlandish, a mark of eccentricity.”

We often forget that a large part of human history was passed down through oral tradition. “Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head…And the chief means of transmitting that cultural wealth, from generation to generation, was the human voice.” Unfortunately, we’ve lost the art of oral storytelling. “With schools having largely withdrawn from the practice of making students memorize poetry, few of us today have anything approaching the interior resources of a rhapsode.”But we can rediscover this art by reminding ourselves “that in reading aloud, we are taking part in one of the oldest and grandest traditions of humankind.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon, Literary Hub ()

5

How Your Brain Develops Reading Skills

Reading is second nature to most of us. But behind the scenes, your brain works hard to translate complex symbols into words and meaning. To read on a basic level, your brain needs to recognize letters and visual symbols—regardless of their size, case, font, and position—and translate them into spoken language. The region of the brain responsible for this translation is the ventral occipito-temporal (vOT) cortex.

A study by Taylor and colleagues, combined neuroimaging with artificial language learning to uncover how the vOT supports reading ability. During the study, the researchers trained twenty-four adults to read two sets of 24 new words. Each word was written in two different alphabets of specially created symbols. The results showed that your brain translates visual inputs to meaning by shifting from the posterior to the anterior vOT. This shift occurs automatically in the brain of a skilled reader.

Key takeaway: Your brain isn’t designed to read. High-level reading skills are developed through rigorous practice.

— Taylor et al. . PNAS (2019).


Worth listening

How to Design Conversations That Matters

How to apply design thinking to lead, influence, and connect better through conversation. “In group dialogues…we jump to conclusions, we tend to go from a question to an answer as quickly as possible…because…we don’t like to sit with silence…if we have regrets, that’s an inner part of ourselves saying I’m not happy about that.”

The Art of Manliness ()


Worth watching

Groups Search for Consensus, Individuals Search for Truth

“What society wants for you is not what’s always good for you…Guilt is society training you to be your own warden…It programs you to beat yourself up when you transgress one of its truths.”

— Naval, YouTube ()


Today I learned: 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by 3% of the world’s people. ()

Food for thought: Losers wait to feel inspired before taking action. Winners live by a different motto: Do what you hate to do, but do it like you love it.

 

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