What David Foster Wallace Got Wrong About Water

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech that has recently become internet famous via this video:

So goes the story:

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?”

I had seen the video before, but I’d forgotten about it until a professor of mine showed it in class a few weeks ago. I don’t think he even planned on it, but I’m sure glad he played it.

A few days ago, a friend and I, both of whom are graduating this year, took a walk up to picnic point, this beautiful wooded path that eventually leads out to a drop-off point formed of rocks where you can overlook the city of Madison and the surrounding suburbs. It was an awesome 75 degree day, and it was sunny. We tromped around the woods like little kids, exploring little coves and sand bars, treating the hike like a journey. We left our phones at home and tried to forget about what time meant and what obligations were. Interspersed between our moments of frivolity were nostalgic reflections on the last few years of school. It was then that I realized the meaning of the This Is Water speech.

It was also then that I was aware of the so-called ‘water’ that had been my implicit environment during the last few years of college. I realized how much I had learned that I didn’t know I learned. I’m not talking about knowledge from lectures; I’m talking about fucking LIFE LESSONS, man! It’s amazing how much I recollected that I thought I had missed. Now, I’ll never forget that phrase: this is water. Here are a few more things I learned in college that I’ll never forget:

1. Impress People With Your Work

The first day of Freshman year, I listened to a speech from this dude that worked at Google during their very first days as a company. Honestly, I was barely paying attention. But, for some odd reason, I remember his advice: impress people with your work. It means less talking and more action. It means doing more than necessary and exceeding expectations. It means doing all the optional readings in your classes, and then buying the books that are suggested in the “further reading” sections of those books, then maybe posting summaries on a blog you created in your free time.

2. Take Control of Your World

I was a music major when I started college, studying percussion, music business, and music recording. My percussion instructor was strict, organized, insightful, and lively. One day, when our percussion ensemble was standing around, disorganized and cluttered, she told us to “lay claim to your universe.”She said many wise things, but WOW, such a profound way to describe self-efficacy. Since then, whenever I feel like I’m being pulled by forces that I don’t agree with, I stand up and lay claim to the space that I’ve carved our myself in this life.

3. You Always Find What You’re Looking For

In an English literature class Sophomore year, my professor was kind of a hard-ass. He was intimidating. He had this amazing power of knowing when you didn’t know the answer, and then promptly calling on you. Pretty sick fellow, but he pushed me intellectually more than most people I’ve ever met. In literature, he taught us that “you always find what you’re looking for.” If you think the text is about the Red Sox winning the World Series, you’ll find the evidence. This professor is the guy that taught me that if all you have is a hammer, you see all problems as nails, and that it helps to have multiple intellectual tools on your belt to be able to solve different problems and see different angles. In simple terms, the dude taught me the raw and amazing value of perception, as well as the fallacies of “objectivity.”

4. Everyone Is Interesting

I took a poetry class the next semester, which was pretty fucking terrifying because we had to read our poems to the class. So, the first lesson I learned in that class is that uncomfortable situations lead to growth. “Uncomfortable pleasantries,” because what’s necessary is rarely comfortable, and what’s comfortable rarely leads to growth. The second lesson was that everyone is interesting if you take the time to listen. The stories that people will tell you are amazing, and being interested helps you be interesting, and it turn, build a flourishing network of diverse and successful people. Also, I learned the emotional power of words.

5. Learn from Everything

Ryan Holiday probably doesn’t remember this at all, but it stuck with me when he told me “There is always something you can learn in every situation. It’s not all top down teaching though.” Learn from everyone and everything. Learn 30 things per year. I learned from my friend Liam that you should add one person to your network each day. I learned from my friend Luke the transformative value of self-improvement. I learned about business, life, and philosophy from books. I learned more in college from reading between the lines than I did from reading my textbooks.

6. There’s Always Room at the Top (For Those Who Want It)

It’s always been my dream to work (excel) in the music business.  I’ve had an amazing array of opportunities in college, from working on Shiny Toy Guns’ album launch and national tour, to helping local bands market themselves, to being the marketing manager at WUD Music. Still, we become blinded by our own self-doubt at times; sometimes, it takes encouragement to realize your own potential. So I reached out to somebody who is very successful in the music industryRyan Birtcher, CEO of Audio Stranger and founder of Tavik Clothing. He told me, “Just remember that there is plenty of room at the top because no one is willing to do what it takes to get there.” Exactly what I needed to hear! And it echoes what Tim Ferriss said so many years ago in one of my favorite books: “The fishing is best where the fewest go and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone is aiming for base hits.”

So, that was my water. But I realized something else that day: David Foster Wallace forgot the second half of his maxim. What he said was, “this is water.” But he should have added: “there’s always more.”

I’m grateful that I’m aware enough to not only account for my surroundings, but to recollect upon what my surroundings have taught me the past four years. But it’s not over yet.

When my friend and I stepped down onto the rock drop-off of picnic point, we passed a family, a Father, his wife, their daughter. The daughter was off the age about to enter college, and as forced as the symbolism may be, I have to admit that my friend and I felt we were passing her the torch. Us, leaving; her, just arriving. But we forgot: the Father, wearing his Badgers’ alumni sweatshirt, had also passed us the torch. 1st down and life to go. We got to the bottom of the drop-off, looked in three different directions at all the life in the city before us, and I said to my friend: “This is Water.”

He turned to me, smiled, and said, “and there’s always more.” TC mark


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