Occasionally, there are things we read, movies we watch, and songs we listen to that penetrate our souls and shake us to our core. Sometimes these things inspire us for a period of time — perhaps forever, the way the late Oliver Sacks lifted up the wonderfully talented Maria Popova.
I watched David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College some time ago — before I was ready. I watched again this week and then I found the transcript and I read it countless times. Of course, I can’t promise that it will capture your mind the way it has mine, but I encourage you to watch it anyway. Or read some of my favorite excerpts below. The speech was so popular that it was transformed into a book.
Here’s some of my favorite excerpts and takeaways from his brilliant speech:
Wallace starts by telling a story about a religious man and an atheist arguing about the existence of God.
The exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.
People construct meaning intentionally as a result of their (individual) experiences.
Ultimately, arrogance caused both men to be close-minded — certain of their own beliefs.
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.
Counter closed-mindedness by being open to changing your mind. Apple CEO Tim Cook was most impressed by Steve Jobs’ willingness to change his mind.
We must break free of our natural, default setting to be so self-centered.
Everything in my own immediate 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 think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s 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 no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.
How do we break free?
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.
Life is not fair. You might as well start come to terms with that.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and 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’m gonna 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’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.
Two resources that have helped me, and continue to help me, get better at re-framing are Marcus Aurelius’ timeless Meditations and Ryan Holiday’s wonderful book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. (For the latter, 50 of my favorite takeaways here.)
What if you consciously chose to see things differently? To make life’s routine and petty frustrations about something besides yourself?
But most days, if you’re 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’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle 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’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are 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 made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
You get to decide what to worship.
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. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Wallace on real freedom.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. 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.