David Foster Wallace, widely considered one of the most brilliant writers of his generation, wrote prolifically about an incredibly wide spectrum of human experience. In novels, stories, essays, and magazine articles, he won legions of fans, established deep connections with readers and established a reputation as a towering intellect. But it was in his commencement address to Kenyon College's graduating class of 2005 that Wallace spoke with unprecedented directness, telling graduates in how to live in the "day to day trenches of adult life" with awareness and compassion.
The deeply moving and wryly humorous address -- later published in book form with the title This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered On A Significant Occasion, On Living A Compassionate Life -- quickly took its place among the most famous commencement addresses in recent history. And in the wake of Wallace's tragic death in 2008, the speech took on a new level of significance to his admirers.
"It captures his electric mind, and also his humility -- the way he elevated and made meaningful, beautiful, many of the lonely thoughts that rattle around in our heads," as The Economist's magazine More Intelligent Life put it. "The way he put better thoughts in our heads, too."
Here are five universally applicable lessons from Wallace's now-iconic 2005 address.
Ruthlessly question your own beliefs and assumptions.
Wallace is quick to dismantle our preconceived notions about the liberal arts cliche that education "teaches you how to think," and makes it the goal of his discussion to illuminate what this platitude really means. And it's not just about critical thinking or the ability to analyze or argue well.
An important part of truly learning how to think, he says, is becoming "just a little less arrogant" -- having some awareness of how little we actually know, and behaving accordingly.
"To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties," Wallace explains. "Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I 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."
Educating ourselves is a lifelong process of stripping away our deeply-held convictions and assumptions in order to transcend our own limited viewpoints and, as a result, allow ourselves to think more openly and broadly. For Wallace, this is a way to escape the confines of our own minds.
Growing is a movement from narcissism to connection.
We live and think from a completely self-centered place, says Wallace -- and of course, it's natural to perceive all things relative to ourselves. This is the way we automatically engage with the world -- self-centeredness is our "default setting."
"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," explains Wallace.
But this self-centered mindset can keep us from engaging with the world with awareness and compassion. Our work as people who are learning to think, says Wallace, is to choose in each day and moment (for instance, when we're sitting in traffic or waiting in line at the supermarket, annoyed and impatient at anyone who might be slowing us down) to move beyond our own self-centered frame of mind.
"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," says Wallace.
Stay present and open.
Wallace's address touched upon an ancient truth: The mind is naturally unruly, and if we are to live with a sense of freedom and peacefulness, we must take some measures to gain control over it. Wallace quotes the old cliche, "The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master."
"It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive," says Wallace, "instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head."
But learning to stay alert and attentive are central to learning how to think. If we can learn to exercise some control over how and what we think, we'll become increasingly able to choose what we pay attention to and how we construct meaning from our experiences.
Wallace jokes that if you're unable to exercise this choice as an adult, you'll be "totally hosed":
"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," says Wallace.
Through the "day in and day out" of adult life, Wallace says, we must choose how we react to countless small annoyances, boredoms, frustrations and injustices. When something doesn't go our way (even if it's simply getting stuck in traffic), we make the situation about ourselves -- what we want and how unfair it is that we're not getting it.
"That petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in," says Wallace. "Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and 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.
Create your own meaning.
Learning how to think leads to the freedom to consciously impose meaning on your own experience.
"You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't," says Wallace. "You get to decide what to worship."
In some of the speech's most memorable words, he explains:
"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. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 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. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you."
Above all, be good to others.
We educate ourselves and learn to control the mind for one important end: To be less self centered and more connected to others; to choose compassion in as many moments as we can.
"The really important kind of freedom," says Wallace, "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."