What the Hell Is Water?

I’m an inspirational quote person. I like them because they often push me to be a better person, or at least remind me to strive to be a better person. When I find quotes I enjoy–in articles, in books, in speeches, in music, on Thought Catalog— I write them down on the virtual sticky notes on my Macbook desktop so that I’ll see them every day and remember that I always have the opportunity to improve.

Recently, I watched a graduation speech that was laden with quotes that I wanted to write on my virtual sticky notes. The speech is “This Is Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Wallace gave the speech in 2005 to the graduates of Kenyon College, and it truly does inspire; it’s funny, but chock-full of life lessons.

The speech starts out with this little story (which will explain the title of this post):

“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?”

Growing up, my parents told me to take a walk in another’s shoes every once in a while, basically, think about what’s going on in the lives of the people around you, not only about how you’re feeling. Wallace’s speech is the grown-up version of that piece of advice. At least that’s how I interpreted it. There are so many days when it’s easy to forget that other people have tough lives too–he emphasizes that it’s easy to operate on you own default settings with little awareness of others. Ultimately, it’s an individual decision to choose to be compassionate and disciplined and aware every day. This point is better put in his own words below:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

There are things in life to appreciate day in and day out and it’s hard to recognize them, and I know I have to remind myself to be aware; aware that “this is water.”

(The first link is the 22-minute, full speech; the second link is the 9-minute version with an accompanying video)



2 thoughts on “What the Hell Is Water?

  1. I am completely in love with that fish story. Thank you so much for sharing it. I find my inspiration in writing things for myself but I can see that as a fantastic story to remind yourself of.

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