Cover image for This Is Water


This Is Water

David Foster Wallace's famous speech, given as a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, is an appeal to a life well lived, but not as you may expect.


Key Takeaway

David Foster Wallace suggests that value of a liberal arts education is not in learning how to think, but understanding that we choose what we think about. This choice allows us to care, to consider, and to engage. Wallace's definition of adult freedom is living that lesson, every day, no matter how difficult.


David Foster Wallace's This Is Water is one of my favourite speeches. Given at Kenyon College in 2005, his commencement address is an appeal to a life well lived, but not as you may expect.

Wallace opens his address with a story about two young fish who meet an older fish on their travels. The older fish asks in passing "how's the water", and they all swim on. Sometime later, one of the younger fish asks the other: "What the hell is water?" [1]

It is funny, and simple, but to the point. It highlights the awareness required to move through life on a setting other than default, and the difficulty in adjusting to new realities when you don't question your own.

This, Wallace suggests, is the true value of a liberal arts education. It is not about being trained to think, as those who pass through such programs can already think, and often very well. Instead, it is about understanding that we have a choice about what we think. This allows us to evaluate meaning, interrogate our values, and give thought to how we apply them.

Living this lesson, he says, is also a choice. Wallace's definition of real adult freedom is to be attentive. To care. To consider your words and thoughts, and engage with conscious effort. To constantly remind ourselves of our watery surroundings, every day.

It is a beautiful, short piece, and well worth your time.

If you would like to listen to the full audio, or read the transcript, you can check it out here at Farnam Street.

If you prefer to read via kindle, or a physical copy, you can pick it up on Amazon.

[1] David Foster Wallace. This Is Water Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate L. Boston, Little Brown & Company, 2009.‌

Sign up, break it down.

Every month I write a newsletter called Deconstruct, where I share insights on decision making, personal growth, and antifragile careers.

It also includes early previews of upcoming posts, and a behind-the-scenes look at my work.

50+ readers love it. Check out a sample, to see if it's right for you!

Privacy is very important to me, and I will never send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time using the link provided in every email. See my Privacy Policy for more detailed information.