Your attention is a precious resource. But one that is all too often wasted or ignored. Annie Dillard speaks to this beautifully: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
You can choose to focus your attention and the minutes of your life on what matters to you. Or not. The act of focus may seem small in the moment, but its ripple effects are wildly consequential.
In today’s episode we draw inspiration from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and emphasize the importance of choice when it comes to where we gift our attention. We then invite you to reflect on 4 questions to spark your own best thinking on how to put the ideas shared into practice in your own life.
Lessons and Passages from David Foster Wallace’s Speech “This is Water”
- Deepen Your Awareness
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?”
- Pay Attention to the Obvious + Choose What To Think About
So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think.
But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
- Step Outside of Ourselves
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.
- Exercise Control Over How and What Your Think
In the twenty years since my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand these stakes. And to see that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think was actually shorthand for a very deep and important truth: 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 – or will not – exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
- Treat Your Attention as a Precious Resource
- What are you currently paying attention to? Consider how you have spent this day or yesterday. What about this season? This year? What does your schedule tell you about your attention? What about your bank statement?
- Are you currently paying attention to the things that matter to you? What feels like it’s missing? What are you ready to release? What are you ready to invite in?
- What values are being honored by where you currently gift your attention? Pay attention to not what I think I value, but what my attention suggests that I value. Based on where I focus my attention, what does that tell me?
- Where will you choose to gift your attention – This day? This week? This season? This year?
Resources and Links
- “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace
- Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”