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Quotes From David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech

From his most famous novel, 1996’s Infinite Jest (an epic at just over 1,000 pages) to his many articles and essays, David Foster Wallace is celebrated for his deep meditations on modern life. The writer often asked existential questions and explored what it means to relate to other people — questions he did not shy away from when asked to speak to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College. His address, titled “This Is Water,” is now considered one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time.

The title of the speech is taken from a parable about a young fish who doesn’t even know what water is, just as humans often operate on autopilot without being fully aware of our surroundings or actions. At its heart, the speech is an invitation to wake up and pay attention. Wallace encouraged his audience to use their schooling to assess their role in the world more thoughtfully. “Learning how to think,” he offered, “really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Wallace was essentially expounding the benefits of mindfulness: He explained that we can all be more conscious of what we choose to focus on, that instead of running on “default” settings guided by outside forces, we have to remind ourselves, “this is water.”

In 2009, a year after Wallace’s death at age 46, the speech was released as a short book with its full title: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Its message has resonated with thousands of readers and listeners miles and years beyond the 2005 class at Kenyon College. Here are nine quotes that get to the heart of “This Is Water,” urging us to “stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”

The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, 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.

The real value of a real education... has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head.

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

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" — the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education... You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.

The capital-T Truth is about life before death.

If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d 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.

Photo credit: Agence Opale/ Alamy Stock Photo

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About the Author
Julia Rittenberg
Julia is a writer, theater and comics lover, and lifelong nerd in Brooklyn, NY.
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