Lords of our Tiny Skull-Sized Kingdoms

Back in 2005, American writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to a graduating class. The talk has become known as ‘This is Water‘ and has influenced many over the years.

It’s a powerful piece of work that, by virtue of being very different to the standard run-of-the-mill commencement speeches regurgitated at the culmination of academic award season, stands alone. Its impact is somehow even more poignant given the sad fact that Wallace took his own life some three years later, after a relatively short career which involved writing one of Time Magazine’s Best 100 Novels of the twentieth century (‘Infinite Jest‘).

You can check out the full transcript of the speech here. And there have been many articles over the years highlighting just how impactful the speech was. Please do check them out if you’re seeking a more erudite assessment. But for my own purposes, I’d summarise the key points as follows:-

Education is about learning how to think – not about the knowledge itself.

That journey will depend on the context we each bring to the task – so it’s very different for every single human.

Learning how to think is learning how to be less dogmatic. Realising that you can be – and will be – wrong (particularly on the things that you are most certain about).

We are self-centred by default: “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms”. But it is crucial to break out of this comfortable prison – because that illusion of comfort will slowly suffocate you if you do not.

You must always decide how to deal with the frustrating, monotonous, boring times in which you struggle in your life –  by understanding that others have their own stories. It’s similar to Stephen Covey’s ‘Man on the Subway‘, ‘everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about’, ‘do not judge my story by the chapter you walked in on’ etc.)

This has to be a choice: it cannot happen by itself. And whether you are aware of it or not, it is up to you alone to decide what has meaning in life and what doesn’t…

…and whatever has meaning, you will worship – in the sense that you will subconsciously crave and seek it out). So make it far more than simply money or possessions.

The most worrying part: the world will not stop you from seeking those material things – because most of the world isn’t learning, doesn’t think and so mistakenly stays focused on such insubstantial outcomes by default.

So never stop learning. Every. Single. Day. Because only by learning, can you be the fish that not only notices its environment – but is able to choose how to respond. And what to do – not just for yourself, but for others.

This……is water.