This is water - Book summary

Pulkit Yadav

Pulkit Yadav

Jul 1, 2021

This book is actually a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to graduating students of Kenyon College class of 2005. The entire speech is under 23 minutes and is available as the original recording on the internet as well. It’s a great example of powerful, well-articulated content concentrated in tiny portion size.

The author makes the point that the purpose of modern education (and specifically liberal arts education) is to teach you “how to think”. More often than not, we are stuck with the default monologue inside our head which puts us at the center of the universe. This results in us losing our mental peace on encountering everyday minuscule annoyances eg. someone cutting us off in traffic, unruly kids and other chaotic elements inside convenience stores, etc. The author’s advice is to be mindful of this automatic thought process inside of us and treat the people with more empathy, creating imaginary stories if necessary – maybe the person who cut us off has a sick daughter they are rushing to the hospital, for example.

He narrates two fables to illustrate the point of people being so mindlessly and over-confidently stuck inside their beliefs and narratives that they are utterly unable to imagine or even entertain a different perspective. One regarding two fishes being unaware of what water is and the other a dialogue between an atheist and a theist, the atheist being unable to entertain the possibility of a divine intervention in his life.

Loved the passage on worshipping. Real education gives you the freedom to be well-adjusted and deliberately decide what to worship. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. There is a compelling reason to worship some spiritual-type thing eg. a God or a set of unviolable ethical set of principles i.e. pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. For example, worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

This point regarding the difficulty of being able to perceive something exactly as it is perceived by another person is a much deeper topic. Delving into metaphysics for a bit, you quickly realize that there is no objective reality. The world you experience around you via your five senses is processed by your cognitive machinery and then assigned some meaning. This cognitive machinery is not the same in any two persons – it is shaped by several factors including your genetics, your culture, and the total of all experiences you have had leading to today. End of digression.

This also reminded me of the book “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, which talks about things getting lost in communication and then being misunderstood by others. It takes conscious effort to be on the same page as others, to really see things from their eyes, to step into their shoes and see things from their perspective. This is not the default setting we operate at.

The entire speech doesn’t mention meditation even once. The author even concludes by saying that it is unimaginably hard to break out of this default unconscious mode, to stay conscious and alive day in and day out. I believe meditation is the answer to reduce the difficulty level. It is the daily tune-up necessary to check-in with ourselves and observe if we have gotten sucked into the default mode once again by the cacophonous world around us which demands our constant attention and benefits by lulling us into being mindless drones. Meditation is a reliable tool we have at our disposal to stay mindful and choose how to perceive the world around us.

Just like fishes in the water, you have to keep reminding yourself. This is water. This is water.

Love the closing line too – your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts about this article. Connect with me on Twitter.


Pulkit Yadav

Pulkit Yadav