If you have 10 minutes to spare today, I highly recommend viewing the video above, created by TheGlossary.com and based off David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005.
His speech does an amazing job at communicating one of the most important aspects of education (and life), learning to think:
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
This arrogance, he says, comes from our default setting of self-centeredness:
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness 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.
His advice to the students centers around choosing what and how to think about experiences, versus defaulting to the self-centeredness — essentially being mindful:
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 quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
He goes on to explain why this will be so important:
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.
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.
This reminds of a zen parable from Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: Love & Work:
Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy–not too foggy, but a bit foggy – and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time. And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us. And… crash! Well, for a second we’re really angry – what is that fool doing? I just painted my boat! And here he comes–crash! – right into it. And then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty. What happens to our anger? Well, the anger collapses… I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all. But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person in it, how would we react? You know what would happen! Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events, are like being bumped by an empty rowboat. But we don’t experience it that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them.
The world would be a much better place if we just ignored the default more often and treated a larger number of negative experiences (or in many cases, potentially negative experiences) like an empty rowboat. At least we’d be a little less angry and frustrated.
Being able to navigate and deal with the hundreds of other people and stories you experience each day is an important life skill. All of those people have their own motivations, expectations, goals, fears, internal demons, and life experiences that drive their decisions and actions. It’s almost always not about US specifically. They are just trying to live, get through the day, and be as happy as possible. Just like us.