Translate this page

Afterskool - Your Mind is an Excellent Servant, but a Terrible Master - David Foster Wallace - Transcript 🔗

Below is the edited transcript of the video.

Fish And Water 🔗

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 is the water?”. And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over to the other and goes “What the hell is water?”.

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches: the deployment of didactic, little parable-ish stories.

The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre. But if you are worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you, younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude. But the fact is that, in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance. Or so I wish to suggest to you in this dry and lovely morning.

Of course, the main requirement of speeches like this is that I am supposed to talk about your Liberal Arts education’s meaning. To try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff.

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliche in the commencement speech genre, which is that a Liberal Arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”.

If you are like me, as a student, you have never liked hearing this. And you tend to fill a little insulted by the claim that you have needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think.

But I am going to posit to you that the Liberal Arts cliche turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we are supposed to get in a place like this is not really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.

If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I would ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Blind Certainty 🔗

Here is another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaska wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of god with the special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer.

And the atheist says “Look, it is not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in god. It is not like I have never experimented with the whole god and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from camp in a terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost. I could not see a thing, and it was 50 below. And so I tried it, I feel to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh god, if there is a god, I am lost in this blizzard and I am going to die if you don’t help me!’”.

And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well, then you must believe now.” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.”.

The atheist just rolls his eyes: “No, man, all that was was a couple of Eskimos happened to come wondering by and they showed me the way back to the camp.”.

It is easy to run this story through a kind of standard Liberal Arts analysis. The exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.

Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our Liberal Arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true, and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from inside the two guys.

As if a person’s most basic orientation towards the world and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hardwired, like height or shoe size. Or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.

Plus there is the matter of arrogance. The non-religious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogantly certain of their own interpretations too, they are probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us.

But religious dogmatist’s problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty. A close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner does not even know that he is locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will too.

Default Setting 🔗

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something that I tend to be automatically sure of. Everything in my own experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe. The realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it is so socially repulsive. But it is pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it, there is not experience that you have had that you are not at 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.

Please don’t worry that I am going to get ready to lecture you about compassion, or other-directedness, or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue.

It is a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted”, which, I suggest to you, is not an accidental term. Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect.

This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what is going on inside of me.

As I am sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head, which may be happening right now.

Twenty years after my own graduation I have come gradually to understand that the Liberal Arts cliche about “teaching you how to think” is actually short-hand for a much deeper, more serious idea.

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being concious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Because if you can not exercise this kind of choice in adult life you will be totally hosed.

Terrible Master 🔗

Think of the old cliche about “the mind being an excellent servant, but a terrible master”. This, like many cliches, so lame an unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with fire arms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your Liberal Arts education is supposed to be about. How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete.

Day In, Day Out 🔗

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means.

There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I am talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it is an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college graduate job, and you work hard for 8 or 10 hours, and at the end of the day you are tired, and somewhat stressed, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper, and maybe unwind for an hour and then hit the sac early, because of course you have to get up the next day and do it all again.

But then you remember there is no food at home. You have not had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job. And so now, after work, you have to get into your car and drive to the supermarket. It is the end of a work day, and the traffic is apt to be very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it is the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.

And the store is hideously fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing corporate stuff, and it is pretty much the last place you want to be. But you can’t just get in and quickly out. You have to wonder all over the huge, over lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junkie cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, etc., etc. I am cutting stuff out because it is a long ceremony.

And eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there are not enough checkout lanes open, even though it is the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and get told “have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. And then you have to take your creepy, flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls madly to the left all the way out to the crowded, bumpy parking lot, and you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc., etc.

Everyone here has done this, of course, but it has not yet been part of your graduate’s actual life routine. Day, after week, after month, after year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is going to come in.

The Work Of Choosing 🔗

Because the traffic jams, the crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I am going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.

Because my natural, default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About my hungriness, and my fatigue, and my desire to just get home.

And it is going to seem, for all the world, that everybody else is just in my way.

And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid, and cow-like, and dead-eyed, and non-human they seem in the checkout line. Or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cellphones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply, personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I am in a more socially conscious Liberal Arts form of my default setting, I can spend time at the end of the day traffic being disgusted with all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s, and Hummers, and V12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40 gallon tanks of gas. And I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest – this is an example of how not to think – most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers.

And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future generation’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled, and stupid, and selfish, and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so on, and so forth. You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in the store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it does not have to be a choice. It is my natural, default setting.

It is the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I am operating on the automatic, unconscious assumption that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that of course there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way, it is 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 save enough to drive.

Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose child is hurting or sick in the seat next to him, and he is trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he is in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am, it is actually I who am in his way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I am giving you moral advice, or that I am saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it is hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you will not be able to do it, or you just flat out will not want to.

But most days, if you are aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over made up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line.

Maybe she is not usually like this, maybe she has been up three straight nights holding of her husband who is dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low wage clerk at the motor vehicles department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating red tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it is also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.

If you are automatically sure, that you know what reality is, and who and what is really important, if you want to operate in your default setting, then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities like these that are not annoying and miserable.

But if you have really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know that you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars.

Love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things, deep down.

Not that the mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that is True is that you get to decide how you are going to try to see it.

What To Worship 🔗

This, I submit, is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted: you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what does not. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here is something else that is weird but true: in the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually not such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And a compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship, some inviolable set of ethical principles, is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It is the truth.

Worship your own body, and beauty, and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths, before they finally get you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already. It has been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, epigrams, parables, the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful, is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that is what you are doing.

And the so called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so called real world of men, and money, and power, hums merely along on the fuel of fear, and anger, and frustration, and craving, and the worship of self.

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth, and comfort, and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our own, tiny, skull sized kingdoms. Alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But, of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting, and achieving, and displaying.

Freedom 🔗

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, little, 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, nagging sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably does not sound fun and breezy, or grandly inspirational, the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the Truth with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.

You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please do not just dismiss it as some finger waging sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big, fancy questions of life after death.

The Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.

Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: this is water. This is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world, day in and day out, which means yet another grand cliche turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime. And it commences now.

Download my free ebook

Subscribe to my mailing list and get a free email course

* indicates required


Translate this page

Updated on 2022 Jan 17.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.