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"This is Water": A Message on How to Think by David Foster Wallace



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David Foster Wallace was once described to me as “maybe the greatest literary talent since James Joyce” by one of the world’s foremost experts on Joyce. If you have not read his fiction (and non-fiction), I can’t recommend it enough.

I was recently reminded of one of his most poignant speeches which explores the real value of education. Here is the audiolink.If you’re reading this at work, here’s the fulltranscript.

A few choice quotes:

“[Education] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about”

“Because weprize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysisdo we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the otherguy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talkingabout just where these individual templates and beliefs come from.Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’smost basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of hisexperience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; orautomatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how weconstruct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentionalchoice.”

“everything in my own immediate experiencesupports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; therealist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely thinkabout this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so sociallyrepulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our defaultsetting, hard-wired into our boards at birth [...][so]It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow alteringor getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to bedeeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everythingthrough this lens of self”

“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”

“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberalarts education is supposed to be about: how to keep you from going throughyour comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, aslave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely,completely, imperially alone day in and day out”

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. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.