David Foster Wallace on Finding Meaning in the Mundane

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 20, 2013 · 27 comments

in A Man's Life


Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a commencement address author David Foster Wallace gave in 2005 to the graduates of Kenyon College. Wallace talks about finding meaning in the mundane by choosing to look at things differently. While he denies he is talking about compassion, he argues that the way you construct meaning from your experience can help you find love and fellowship in situations that would otherwise make you feel cynical and annoyed. Thus what he has to say has much import in regards to how to develop more empathy for others. For that reason we’ve published it in conjunction with today’s post on cultivating charismatic warmth, but it really has meaning far beyond that context.

Here is just one example of the total 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 center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centerdness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. 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.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all 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-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term…

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: 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. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, 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 work day and the traffic is apt to be: 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 is hideously 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, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out 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 frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come 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 gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to 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 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 and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

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.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeremy November 20, 2013 at 11:40 pm

David Foster Wallace says some cool stuff but I think it should also be known he killed himself in 2008.

2 Brett McKay November 21, 2013 at 12:29 am

Yes, it’s true that DFW killed himself. I thought about including a caveat about that, but didn’t since it’s widely known, and mostly because I hate what I call “caveat culture,” (although I still often give into it) in which you have to spell out and preemptively address all possible objections, because if you don’t people will bring them up without thinking through whether they are really important to the meaning or significance of the article or not.

So with a sigh, here is the necessary caveat:

“David Foster Wallace killed himself. That his clinical depression ended up being stronger than the advice he used on himself and gave to others does not negate the wisdom and usefulness of that advice. Many artists/philosophers/writers suffer at the hand of personal demons, while at the same time creating works and offering truths that enrich the lives of others. DFW read a lot about personal development in order to combat those demons, and the mindset he tried to develop for himself may have very likely made his depression more bearable and even helped him live and go on longer than he otherwise would have.”

3 Chuck November 21, 2013 at 7:50 am

Here is the speech in video form:


I’ve told my children that you can change the world in an instant. All you need to do is to change the way you think about things. The thinking process creates ‘ruts’ in the mind. The more we remain in these ruts the deeper they become. Until one day it becomes impossible to even know that the ruts exist, or that there are alternative ways to perceive things. This is one of the underlying issues of depression. Once in the rut it is impossible to perceive any other alternate reality. It is thus very hard to ‘un-depress’ the mind. One can do this only by consciously trying to change the manner in which we perceive the reality, carving out newer, perhaps more satisfying, ruts.

It’s easier said than done, but it is doable.

Read the Gita [http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0006E4DVW/ref=rdr_ext_tmb] It will help immensely.

4 Nick November 21, 2013 at 9:09 am

This reminds me of Steve Covey’s rule of “Seek to Understand First”, in which he describes a run in with unruly children in an NYC subway. After eventually getting annoyed Steve asked the father (who was completely aloof to his children’s behavior) to interject. “I suppose you’re right” said the father, “we’ve been up at the hospital all night where their mother just passed from cancer. I guess they aren’t sure how to deal with it”

5 Josh November 21, 2013 at 10:34 am

I enjoyed your comment more than the actual article. Your “caveat culture” phrase is perfect, basically a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy- “to claim that an argument is wrong because of a negative attribute of someone making the argument.” With today’s information/ internet culture there is almost nobody (politicans, religious leaders, college roommate) that we can’t find something immoral, illegal, or just distasteful about, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the truths they may be speaking.

6 mastereath November 21, 2013 at 11:19 am

Such a classic speech. And yes, the fact that DFW was going through depression at the time almost gives him more credibility. Plus, I don’t think of this as self-help or feel-good therapy, more like a necessary moral perspective. If you want to feel good all the time, read Deepak Chopra or go live in a better universe :).

7 Mark McGowan November 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

This is such a important message and so full of potential. So many lives could be enriched by this trigger of thought. The process of being master of your mind has effect on every aspect of your life and those around you. Its an exciting prospect.
The caveat is only how sad it is to hear this wise fellow was tormented so much.
Thanks again Brett for bringing such great content to us. I for one am better for it.

8 Erik November 21, 2013 at 12:17 pm

The genius that comes from the pits of despair is one of the most amazing facets of being part of this human existence that I have noticed. It’s almost as if, reworded, it is a sign that reads, “I have gone down that lonely path which you are headed towards. Once there, there is no coming back. Heed my words, do not take them lightly. No matter what you think, you are NOT alone.”
His words need to be put on leaflets and passed out to everyone, not stacked up and waiting to be taken. At least, that’s how I feel.

9 Jordan November 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm

You ought to link to the whole speech. It’s great reading in its entirety.


10 Aaron Bumgarner November 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm

DFW’s suicide only points to this speech as a moment (or time period) of clarity in his life, when he had the superior edge over the chemical imbalance in his brain due to whatever tactics he was using at the time to fight it. The circumstances of his death don’t make these words any less wise or true; we do need to make a concerted effort to exercise control over our minds, whether our focus is on being more productive at work or on loving our families and/or strangers better or on overcoming our depression.

Thanks for posting this, Brett.

11 Ryan Sanders November 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

This reminds me of a brief encounter I had with a complete stranger, whose words forever changed how I feel when I wake up in the morning. He was holding the door for me. As I walked into the building, I nodded and said, “Have a good day.” He, in turn, said, “Make it a good day.” He (and DFW) are absolutely right. It is my day. It is my responsibility to make it what I choose.

12 James November 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I have to say this has been one of the most tangible (and comical) articles I’ve read on this site. By far, I think this is the crux of modern society and intentionally appreciating what has been given and earned in our lives is a daily struggle, even if we don’t realize it. I can personally say that the philosophies and virtues expressed on this site have helped instill a sense of optimism and new-found motivation to simply be better. But I can’t deny that the everyday mundane and the feeling “I’m fighting a never-ending battle against pessimism” are what keep me (and perhaps many others) feeling like we are stuck in a vicious cycle of hope and often subsequent disappointment.

Much like the “willpower pie” discussed in a previous article, these everyday occurrences certainly eat up a lot of slices. I do agree, however, if you can in these instances intentionally recognize your perception, it is a great opportunity to change it (and hopefully make it second nature). Thank you for this article and a recognition that everyone else can be just as beat down and pessimistic as I can be (despite what social media may display). Here’s to being persistent and building that willpower!

13 William November 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm

From a wandering heart,
My college experience has left me dumbfounded like the first calm day after an insidious storm. I stand here, but really I sit here, wondering what the purpose of this is. I’ve searched for purpose in every alley and avenue possible while I’ve forged my own path through this race, but in the end it comes up short. If you’re reading this in hopes of finding some answers, I can assure you I have yet to find any. I have seen where the answers are not and therefore where they are must be seen soon enough. I’ve put all of my effort into school and studies. I thought, “Maybe that’s right, maybe that’s what you have to do to find yourself is you have to try and study REALLY hard.” This certainly resulted in exemplary grades and new knowledge, but still no answers to an empty heart. Is not college more than learning and learning more than reading? Then I thought, “Maybe what I need is people. Yeah, I need to surround myself with people to give more of a purpose to these studies.” That isn’t the answer either. Some people are great and some suck, but relying on other people to give you fortitude for your own heart is simply limiting. Next, I turned to my heart’s desires. I tried whatever I thought might give me some more feeling than the emptiness I felt. It was instant gratification and it worked, for a while. In the long run, the short run means nothing, and soon the short bursts of fulfillment left me empty handed. Maybe it’s my own inadequacy showing itself, but I feel as though I have learned more about life by both observing the lives of others and in my own short time here than many learn in their entire lifetime. So it seems to me there’s but one thing to try out and it’s going to sound really simple, but that’s just love. Love for everything. Love for yourself, love for your hard work, love for others, love for God, and love for a girl. So, I’m going to look for this love in everything from the intriguing to the mundane. If anyone beats me to the answer, let me know.

14 Jack November 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

I work for a national “organic” grocery chain that used the “This is Water” video for holiday training this fall. The company was not aware of DFW’s past struggles nor him taking his own life. Their premise of using the speech was that we as employees have the ability to break the monotony of our customer base and possibly go as far as making a difference in their lives. However, it generally was not received that way, the majority of my fellow co-workers felted depressed about their jobs after viewing.

15 Colin November 21, 2013 at 10:33 pm

This was a really good read. It’s too bad that David Foster Wallace killed himself. Depression, from one day to the next can be so different. At lunchtime you can feel like you’re on top of the world, but at dinner time, you can feel like the greatest failure in human existence. Despair doesn’t want us to see past the worst possible solutions.

Many people put up walls when they’re in public. I find myself doing it for no reason other than the fact that I’m afraid of being hurt, or afraid of what I might encounter. It’s difficult to trust people when they seem aloof, and somewhere along the way this cycle of being withdrawn started, and now it cannot break. To protect ourselves, we make ourselves aloof and better than everyone else in our own minds. The truth is, we’re not.

16 Caleb November 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

William, I’ve never commented on one of these posts before, but the questions you raise require me to do so. You have beautifully and honestly put into words a feeling that I know many people share, whether they admit it or not. I won’t claim to have all your answers, but I know I have found the answer for me. You are so close with the simple truth of love. Love must be for God first, a complete, all-surrendering love that affects every area of our lives. Notice I did not say for religion; there are churches everywhere whose dead religion is killing souls. I invite you to watch this video about several people who were searching and found something different- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKnGeD5n-TI- a church that believes in a God who is active in our lives, who can be felt and who is our only reason for living. If this interests you, you can go to the website for many more videos. I sincerely hope this helps you in your search. Feel free to email me if you want to as well.

I don’t go around always quoting Bible verses either, but there is one that has always summed this up for me, Ecclesiastes 12:13 ” Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

17 Jeremy November 22, 2013 at 10:01 am

One of best things a college professor ever said to me was: “I find contradiction to be a very uninteresting criticism.”

18 porkchop November 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm

For most of my adult life I have been an object of dread, for the last dozen or so years I have been working at becoming an object of endearment.
Early in this transition I noticed people treated me differently if they knew me ‘then’, knew me ‘now’, or if they knew me ‘now and then’; those that knew both of me are among my very best friends because they understand that while I am far from perfect I am double way better than I used to be.
When dealing with irksome individuals I choose to picture them similarly engaged in bettering themselves and that what I see now is an improvement over all their yesterdays.
It’s either that or spend all day punching people in the head… c];-)

19 Adam November 23, 2013 at 7:17 am

DFW killing himself is a completely unnecessary caveat. The message is still valid and meaningful, despite his chosen actions. This is a lesson on the contingency of our situations, which is, in effect, a lesson on freedom.

20 Bryan November 24, 2013 at 6:03 am

Hey William, I’ll second what Caleb said. I went through something similar to what you described and found only emptiness in everything. Finally, I found that Love for God (and specifically, the God of the Bible) started putting meaning in everything. Where did all this come from? Why am I here? If I’m not supposed to be at the center of the universe, what (or who) is? Where’d it come from? God made it. Why am I here? He put me here. He wants me to Know Him. He’s at the center. As I’ve started to learn that, That’s helped me to start loving everything and everyone else. He is teaching me to find joy in hard times, and even in the mundane and tedious. Romans 11:36 in the Bible says,”From him [God] and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.”

C.S. Lewis wrote an interesting book called “The Four Loves.” He looks at four different ideas of what love is, each coming from a different Greek word. He builds an interesting case for what true love is, and how that can shape all of our relationships. Good read.

And also, for those of you reading this who don’t believe in God, some of you don’t like seeing us write about God on this site. Not trying to force my beliefs on anyone: This is a place where men can exchange ideas and beliefs. A number of us would quickly say that we are much better men because of our faith. So, as men, we put that out there for others, hoping that it can be of help to another man who’s looking for answers

21 Stephen November 24, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Hi William,
I’d like to add a third voice to making a genuine search for the God the of the Bible (namely – Jesus Christ).
Like Caleb, your post reminded me of the questions to writer of the book Ecclesiastes asked. Start there then go to the Gospels.

22 Ted November 26, 2013 at 6:38 am

@ William: There have already been a couple of excellent responses to your post, but let me add this: Give it time. I am over fifty, and only beginning to understand what an adventure life is, how it ebbs and flows, how it has different seasons, how there can be times of great joy, and times of sorrow.

The best that a formal liberal education can do is give you tools to continue to learn. If I understand correctly, Plato believed that some issues were only properly examined after one turned forty or fifty (so maybe I am not as behind as I thought). Keep studying, keep reading, cultivate friends who share the desire and will to keep learning, and go live a life that will be rich, complicated, often confusing and contradictory — but ultimately rewarding.

23 Chad November 29, 2013 at 4:59 pm

I read a very simple statement that has stuck with me for a long time. I believe this is a good way for me to to remember the idea behind this article on a daily basis.
“Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

That simple statement carries so much truth. Thinking of it when dealing with difficult people or situations, helps me to try and keep a proper prospective.

24 Jayche November 30, 2013 at 2:23 pm

@ comment #13

That is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I felt the disappointment in that, but more important than this, I felt the sense of hope that is somehow made stronger through every wrong turn. I get the impression of sitting under an over pass; everybody passes you by without even noticing that you are there. The strange part is that for some reason, you might just feel like this is right where you are supposed to be, even though it’s lonely and empty. This is your job.

25 Sean December 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

This is a wonderful read, particularly for those of us (like me) who suffer from bouts of misanthropy–particularly when it crowded situations, like the grocery store that DFW describes.

It’s difficult to find a reasonable balance between holding others responsible for their actions, and having empathy for the reasons behind them. I think it’s human nature to struggle with these balances, and incredibly sad when people feel that they’ve swung too far to one side to appreciate the other.

26 Wade Wellman December 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm

An elderly man came to Viktor Frankl with a heavy heart and terrible suffering that he could not escape due to the death of his wife. Frankl asked the man how his wife would have felt had he passed before her. After explaining the pain she would have felt, Frankl simply said, your suffering has saved her from a similar fate. The man stood, shook Frankl’s hand and departed. His suffering now had meaning, his burden was something he carried with purpose. Recognized only when asked to view his suffering differently.

27 Ralph Shipard February 14, 2014 at 5:04 pm

It’s funny that I’ve always tried to do this during traffic or after a REALLY bad monotonous day. I tend to reach a point just before I’d snap at someone where instead it’s like someone flicks a switch and suddenly I’m calm and start considering what problems they might be dealing with instead.

I even remember one time where I was speeding to get my wife to the hospital (our daughter being born less than 15 minutes after our arrival) and thinking that next time I saw someone speeding I might cut them a little slack so long as they didn’t endanger anyone.

Great post – keep it up, thank’s Brett.

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