How Not to be a Self-Centered Jerk: David Foster Wallace on Metacognition

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?”

So begins David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

This speech got a lot of online buzz shortly after Wallace delivered it. Recently I stumbled across it and was pleasantly surprised: Wallace says something here that’s timeless.

His main point: Many things worth thinking about are invisible to us, as water is to fish.

I doubt that Wallace set out to write a “self-help” speech. Yet that’s exactly what he did — if by self-help we include making the effort to examine our assumptions in ways that reduce suffering.

One of our primary challenges is to question three unconscious beliefs that seem to be hard-wired into us:

  • I am the center of the universe.
  • Everything that happens is ultimately about me.
  • Everything that happens should satisfy my wants and needs first of all.

As Wallace says:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not 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.

Like the Buddha, Wallace argues that this natural lens of self-centeredness leads us to needless and near constant suffering.

In a speech at a prestigious liberal arts college, Wallace could have wandered next into an abstract and purely academic discussion. He didn’t.

Instead, he reveals a homely secret to the robed and newly graduated students seated before him: Much of adult life involves dealing with petty frustrations such as traffic jams, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines at the grocery store.

In situations such as these, one thing that can send us straight to an internal hell is our thinking:

What happens, for instance, if I regress to my default belief that I am the center of the universe? Then the primary fact about the traffic jam or crowded parking lot or long line is that it inconveniences me. This leads inevitably to anger that everyone else is in my way. And that is both an injustice and a tragedy.

In any moment, however, we have another option. We can stand back from our habitual internal monologue, examine it, and even choose different thoughts. This is the essence of metacognition — thinking about our thinking.

Wallace explains how to use metacognition during a traffic jam:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s 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 safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

The punch line of Wallace’s speech is that metacognition is the whole point of a liberal education:

… 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. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

When we do exercise this kind of choice, every little frustration becomes a chance to drop a dose of compassion into our collective consciousness.

After all, it’s not all about me. You and I are in this together. And if we choose, we can be a little kinder to each other.

It all stems from the way we think.

Wallace’s commencement speech was published as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.