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.