This is water - The importance of perspective.
2 min read

This is water - The importance of perspective.

This is water - The importance of perspective.

Whilst reading How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, I came across Bill Gates' reference to David Foster Wallace's novels and his hallmark commencement speech This is Water.

Having watched it a while back, I decided to jog my memory. Here is the video.

The commencement speech is to a group of liberal arts students. The general theme is about the importance of thinking and the choice in what to think about.

The speech opens up with a story of two young fish.

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 goes on to highlight.

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.

By this point, my curiosity is peaked and a million questions are firing away. Questioning my objective reality has recently been a staring theme of my thoughts, especially during this pandemic times. To me what Wallace means by the quote is to question our beliefs regarding the meaning we draw from life. This point is made by Wallace later on in the speech.

Wallace talks about how our most basic understanding of the world is hard-wired at birth like our general body shape and characteristics. And that many of us hold dogmatic beliefs that we fail to let go off as a result of blind certainty:

blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

This quote is too close to my heart. Upon entering the real world 4.5 yrs ago, I initially found myself disenchanted and disillusioned by the reality. It took at while to begin the process of unlearning a lot of my deep held beliefs regarding societal expectations. This process was facilitated through introspections around questions like

  • What is success to me?
  • What matters the most to me?
  • What are my values?
  • Is achievement the only essence of life?
  • What can provide me ever lasting fulfilment?
  • Am I as important as I think I am?
  • How can I think outside of myself?

Wallace encourages the student to have less certainties and more critical awareness as majority of the times you will be very wrong. A good example that Wallace uses is our belief that we are the centre of the universe. We are born to view the world in reference to ourself. Therefore we walk around with a natural bias. This is what Wallace calls our default setting.

He emphasises the need to stay alert and attentive as to how we draw meaning from our experience. Another powerful quote he mentions is

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

My biggest take away from the speech was the need for critical analysis of your thoughts, prejudice and opinions. If one doesn't override our default setting, then you are in for a painful victimised experience of life. There are many other takeaways from the talk but I will leave it for another blog post.

Some of my favourite commencement speeches: