David Foster Wallace: This is water

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 zeroes in on our default setting. The way we see life before we consider that we have a choice over what we think, believe and act on.

The only thing that is capital T true is that you get to decide how you see (life)

If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough.

If you worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly and when time and age start showing you will die a million deaths before they plant you.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid. 

Worship intellect, you will end up feeling stupid, always on the verge of being found out.

These are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing


Blind certainty - a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know that he’s locked up

Think about it. There’s no experience you’ve had that you aren’t right at the centre of.

Choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centred

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.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk 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, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes 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 going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-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, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. It’s my natural default setting, I am at the centre of the world. 

The thing is of course there are totally different ways to think about these things. It’s hard, it takes will or effort.

The capital T Truth is about life before death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over. This is water. This is water.”

Neil Gaiman: Make good art

Neil Gaiman’s 2012 Commencement speech at the University of the Arts is priceless. He tells the story of a freelancer making his way in the world, working out what’s right and wrong, following the wind and a hunch and opportunity and making up the rules that contradict what all the others are telling him.

I’ve copied my favourite quotes and lines from the lecture below the video, a collection of timeless wisdom from the world of doing life, your way.

My favourite lines from the speech

When you start out on a career in the arts you don’t know what you’re doing

If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody has done it before they haven’t yet made up rules to stop it being done again

If you have an idea of what you want to do and want you want to make then just go and do that. That’s much harder than it sounds and also sometimes much easier than you can imagine.

You have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, finding work, getting where you want to go

Decide on the mountain you want to walk towards and keep walking towards it. Take work that moves you towards your mountain.

I learned to write by writing. 

If you do what you love then even if you don’t have the money at least you have the work. If you do it for the money and the money doesn’t come you won’t have anything. Every now and then I forget that rule and every time the universe kicks me hard and reminds me.

Anything I did just for the money was rewarded by nothing but bitter experience.

The things I did because I was existed and wanted to see in reality have never let me down.

The problems with failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder. The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you’re getting away with something, and that at some point someone will discover you. Imposter syndrome.

At some point, you have to stop saying yes to everything because not the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back. And you have to learnt os ay no.

I watched my peers and my friends and the ones who were older than me and I’d watch how miserable how some of them were, telling me how they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they always wanted to do, anymore, because now they had to earn. Certain amount every month to keep where they were. They couldn’t do the things that mattered or that they’d always wanted to do and that, seemed as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.

The biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do because you’re successful.

When things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. Eventually time will take the sting away. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days too.

The urge starting out is to copy, and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. The one thing that we have that nobody else have, is you. Your story, your vision.

The things I’d done that worked the best were the things I was the most uncertain about. People look back and explain how they were inevitable successes, and I had no idea.

It’s not lying if you say you’ve done something and then seek to ensure that your future makes good on what was once a lie. It’s chronologically challenged.

You get work however you get work, but people keep working because their work is good and they deliver on time. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver on time. 

This is really great, you should enjoy it. The best advice I ever got that I ignored.

Stop, look around and say “this is really fun.” 

The harder you work and the more wisely you work, the luckier you’ll get. But there is luck, and it helps.

Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procratinator

It would be apt to begin a series of blogs about excellent TED talks by pointing to one about procrastination.

In one of the funniest TED talks around, writer Tim Urban discusses the process that all procrastinators may not necessarily enjoy, but will definitely relate to. For those of you who are familiar with the stacking up of pressure as a deadline approaches, the fear of the panic monster and the unavoidable desires of our internal instant gratification monkey, this will have you in fits of giggles.

Urban finishes off with a note of caution which poses a question: what is the outcome of a procrastinator’s life, when deadlines are taken away. Watch out for his life calendar, a graphic with a box for every week of a 90 year life. Turns out, when you think about it like that, maybe procrastinating isn’t the best thing to do.