How Not to be a Self-Centered Jerk—What David Foster Wallace Teaches Us About How People Change

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?”

200px-David_Foster_WallaceSo begins David Foster Wallace’s timeless commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. His point: The things that seem the most obvious and self-evident are the hardest to think about. Why? Because they are as invisible to us as water is to fish.

If we want to avoid being self-centered jerks, however, these are precisely the things most worth thinking about.

I doubt that Wallace set out to write a “self-help” speech. Yet that’s exactly what he did—if by self-help we mean the effort to change our beliefs and behaviors in ways that reduce suffering. Wallace’s speech illuminates what we do when creating books for this purpose.

Three beliefs worth questioning

One of our primary challenges is to question the unconscious beliefs that are wired into us. For example:

  • I am the center of the universe.
  • Everything that happens is ultimately about me.
  • Everything that happens should satisfy my wants and needs first of all.

As Wallace said:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

In a line of reasoning that the Buddha would approve, Wallace argues that this natural lens of self-centeredness leads us to needless and near constant suffering.

Self-centered thinking takes us to hell

In a speech at a prestigious liberal arts college, Wallace could have wandered off into an abstract and purely academic discussion. He didn’t.

Instead, he reveals a homely secret to the robed and newly graduated students seated before him: Much of adult life involves dealing with petty frustrations such as traffic jams, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines at the grocery store.

In situations such as these, one thing that can send us directly to an internal hell is the quality of our thinking:

What happens, for instance, if I regress to my default belief that I am the center of the universe? Then the primary fact about the traffic jam or crowded parking lot or long line is that it inconveniences me. This leads inevitably to anger that everyone else is in my way. And that is both an injustice and a tragedy.

Metacognition opens the keys to heaven

In any moment, however, we have another option. We can stand back from our habitual internal monologue, examine it, and even choose different thoughts. This is the essence of metacognition—thinking about our thinking.

Wallace explains how to use metacognition during a traffic jam:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

What “learning how to think” really means

The punch line of Wallace’s speech is that metacognition is the whole point of a liberal education:

… 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. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

When we do exercise this kind of choice, every little frustration becomes a chance to drop a dose of compassion into our collective consciousness.

After all, it’s not all about me. You and I are in this together. And if we choose, we can be a little kinder to each other.

Wallace’s commencement speech has been published as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Shane Parrish over at Farnam Street has some excellent posts about Wallace’s speech, including: