David Foster Wallace: Think Outside The Box

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1067 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020

Words: 1067|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. David Foster Wallace Short Biography
  3. David Foster Wallace's Speech: Thinking Outside the Box
  4. Conclusion
  5. References


In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement speech titled "This is Water" to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. This speech captivated its audience through its relatable style, heartfelt and authentic tone, and its tailored message. Wallace artfully wove a narrative comprising various parables, each conveying distinct messages, all of which contributed to his overarching theme: the importance of empathetic thinking. This essay analyzes how Wallace has encouraged his audience to think outside the box, to shift their focus from self-centeredness to an awareness of the world around them.

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David Foster Wallace Short Biography

David Foster Wallace, born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York, was a renowned American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. His parents, a philosophical professor and an English teacher, undoubtedly influenced his intellectual upbringing. In 1985, Wallace earned his B.A. from Amherst College and pursued a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Wallace's literary works left an indelible mark on numerous individuals, with many notable writers, including Matthew Gallaway and David Gordon, acknowledging his profound influence. However, despite his ability to inspire others, Wallace grappled with personal demons, particularly depression, which plagued him since his early twenties. Despite multiple attempts to find effective antidepressant medication, he tragically took his own life.

David Foster Wallace's Speech: Thinking Outside the Box

Wallace's "This is Water" commencement speech commenced with a humorous quip: "if anybody feels like perspiring cough, I'd advise you to go ahead because I'm sure going to." This lighthearted introduction immediately captured the audience's attention. He proceeded to recount a simple yet profound story involving two young fish encountering an older fish. The elderly fish greeted them, asking, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The young fish continued swimming, and one eventually inquired, "What the hell is water?" While seemingly straightforward, this anecdote held a deep philosophical significance.

The first life lesson derived from David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" speech revolves around delving deeper into the water parable. The young fish, oblivious to the water's presence, take it for granted. In contrast, the older fish comprehends the water's essence and has learned to appreciate its beauty. Wallace openly acknowledges that he, too, is not a "wise fish" and is still learning—an ethos appeal that lends credibility to his message. This parable serves as an allegory for our lives, with water symbolizing the daily grind. Often, we become so engrossed in immediate concerns that we overlook the subtle wonders of the world. However, as we mature, we begin to appreciate the beauty surrounding us.

Another story shared by Wallace involves two men sitting in a bar in the Alaskan wilderness—one an atheist and the other religious. The atheist found himself lost in a blizzard, unable to see anything. Desperate, he knelt and cried out, "Oh God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm going to die if you don't help me." When he was eventually rescued by a couple of Eskimos, the religious man assumed this was a conversion moment. However, the atheist responded, "No, man, all that was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp." This story illustrates how two individuals can interpret the same event differently based on their beliefs, emphasizing the subjective nature of perception and the importance of empathetic understanding.

The second profound insight from Wallace's speech underscores that every individual possesses the freedom to perceive life differently. Wallace contends that awareness grants us this power, asserting, 'you get to decide how you're going to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.' Each person harbors a 'default setting' ingrained since childhood, which inherently revolves around self-centeredness. Wallace's ultimate aim is to advocate for the transformation of this instinctual default setting. Cultivating the ability to view the world beyond the 'lens of self' paves the path to becoming well-adjusted. While it may be inevitable at times to revert to our hardwired setting, practice can facilitate improvement and personal growth.

The final anecdote presented by Wallace to the graduates is a scenario that many have likely encountered, evoking a powerful connection with the audience. This relatable situation, which I myself have experienced countless times, underscores the most compelling segment of his speech. He describes the common scenario of leaving work in a rush to buy groceries before heading home, only to find that every minor inconvenience starts to grate on one's nerves. The checkout line is agonizingly long, and the journey home involves navigating slow-moving traffic alongside vehicles adorned with 'patriotic or religious bumper-stickers that always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest.' Wallace's use of pathos in this segment strikes a chord with the audience, as many have undoubtedly found themselves in a similar exasperating situation.

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In conclusion, David Foster Wallace delivered this remarkable speech to his audience with profound benevolence. Throughout his discourse, Wallace strategically emphasizes certain words to underscore key points, ensuring they resonate with the audience. His delivery is often infused with humor, serving to captivate the listeners' attention. He comes across as trustworthy and repeatedly emphasizes that the graduates are not obligated to alter their perception of life; he is merely offering an alternative perspective for them to consider. Wallace's skillful use of storytelling keeps the graduates engaged and enables them to form personal connections. Towards the conclusion, he adeptly unites all three lessons into a cohesive overarching purpose: mindfulness, not only of oneself but also of one's surroundings, and the imperative to break free from the default setting. David Foster Wallace's tragic suicide lends emotional weight to his message, compelling the audience to heed his underlying wisdom.


  1. Wallace, D. F. (2009). This is water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassionate life. Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Wallace, D. F. (2009). This is Water. Kenyon College Commencement Address.
  3. Lewis, M. (2009). David Foster Wallace's wisdom and "This is Water." Vanity Fair.
  4. Galloway, M. (2015). "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace. Poetry Foundation.
  5. Grossman, L. (2009). "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace. TIME.,8599,1902084,00.html
  6. Richtel, M. (2008). "This is Water" - For commencement speeches, words of wisdom are hard to beat. The New York Times.
  7. Schulz, K. (2019). The reality of consciousness: A philosophy of mind course inspired by David Foster Wallace's "This is Water." The Journal of General Education, 68(3-4), 231-248.
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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

David Foster Wallace: Think Outside The Box. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“David Foster Wallace: Think Outside The Box.” GradesFixer, 01 Sept. 2020,
David Foster Wallace: Think Outside The Box. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
David Foster Wallace: Think Outside The Box [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Mar 4]. Available from:
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