The Monotony of Everyday Life and David Foster Wallace’s Advice to Graduating Students
Inspiring commencement speeches are not a rare thing come graduation season. Politicians and celebrities will tell you to do what you love and embrace failure as a learning experience.
But in David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, which has come to be called “This is Water,” he dismissed the usual talk of the future and possible success. Instead, he took the time to address something rarely discussed about adult life: the monotony of everyday life and its in-between moments.
After Wallace committed suicide in 2008, the speech began to receive a lot of attention. It recently made waves on the web, collecting nearly five million views on YouTube after The Glossary, a video production company, created a 9-minute abridged video using excerpts from the original 22-minute address.
It’s been up for over a week now and perhaps you’ve already had it forwarded to you multiple times, but there’s no harm in hearing about it one more time.
In his speech, I believe Wallace wishes for people to consider their mindset. Those in-between moments he talks about include a long, slow checkout line in a grocery store, a situation in which one might feel inconvenienced.
All too often, it seems most of us are in a mindset that our time is more valuable than others. We don’t concern ourselves with how others feel because we let our selfish emotions automatically dictate our behavior. In a grocery store checkout line, you probably don’t think about how the other people in line feel.
I interpret this part of his speech as Wallace touching on a disconnect we have with other individuals; and how simply acknowledging other people’s feelings can help alter our mindset during an otherwise annoying or stressful situation.
Near the end of the speech, Wallace said:
“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.”
The speech contains thought-provoking ideas that can be applied to everyday life and probably some of the most relevant advice for new graduates.
The Glossary’s video version of the speech is embedded below: