David Foster Wallace on Learning How To Think

In the commencement speech This is Water, David Foster Wallace speaks about the goal of education. He reminds the audience that this goal should be developing the ability to think, rather than accumulating factual knowledge. The ability to think, according to Wallace, is the awareness that allows you to consciously decide what you think about and how you think about it. Without this awareness, you are swayed back and forth by the impulses and insecurities of your mind, which leaves you in a state of slavery.

He begins his speech with a metaphorical story. Two fish swim along, an old fish crosses their path and asks them “How’s the water?”. The two fish keep swimming, and after a while one of them asks the other: “What the hell is water?”. The meaning of the story is that the most basic and fundamental truths and the limitations of our thinking are invisible to us. They are so close to our eye that they are impossible to see.

Each of us lives in his/her own universe. The world we live in is shaped by the things we pay attention to, and the meaning we assign to these things. This is in turn determined by our personality, which is shaped by genetics and childhood experience. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to step out of this perspective. We are caught in it.

Wallace discusses the saying “the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”. If we are not careful, we may find ourselves locked in a obsessive struggle to fulfill illusional objectives of our neurotic minds. The most widespread slavery of mind I know of is the struggle for success – I have spent many years in it. We think that we need to be beautiful, healthy, successful, intelligent, witty and popular to feel valuable (obviously we also need a partner with the same qualities). As long as we are able to conform to these ideals to a degree that allows us to feel ok, we can hold on to this mindset. But what happens if we can’t? Clearly, this thinking leaves no space for accepting mental illness, loss and failure. What happens if we end up alone, sick, and scathed by life? What happens if we fail at our jobs or in our education? We feel like losers, we get depressed and suffer, because there is a conflict between our mindset and our life experience.

If we persevere in this struggle, we may arrive at a new perspective, after a period of depression. This new perspective is one in which the value of a human being does not depend on success. And then we realize that we have been enslaved all along, enslaved by our conviction that the value of human beings is conditional, enslaved by the belief that we are only deserving of attention and love if we are successful. We were constantly trying to convince ourselves that we were deserving of love.

And then we experience the wonder of personal growth. We feel how our mind is larger, our perspective better. Problems that seemed to be unsurmountable just vanish. It is not that our live has changed fundamentally – only our perspective has changed. We may still struggle with the same situation, but somehow it is okay. There is also more space for others – before, we were constantly trying to maintain our self-esteem, our gaze was firmly focused upon ourselves. Now that we are no longer locked in this struggle, we are able to lift our gaze, to really observe others and think about their feelings. We find that others are suffering, too, and that we are not alone.

What is a limited perspective you had to let go of?

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