There is something striking about most commencement speeches. I have watched, listened to, or read many commencements speeches. Some of the notable ones I can mention are from Steve Jobs, Denzel Washington, Ben Carson, Barack Obama, and several others. Today I want to look at one of such striking commencement speeches. The year was 2005 and the place was Kenyon College. The commencement speech was being delivered by David Foster Wallace. The title of his commencement speech was This Is Water; let us explore some striking lessons from it.

Be Deliberate About What You Pay Attention To

This is something that I usually drive home whenever I can in my articles. Even on a personal level when I interact with anyone I always endeavour to impress this principle into them. Whatever you do in business i.e. your actions are informed by your thoughts. Those thoughts are informed by what you pay attention to. I am talking about what you watch or listen to.

This entails people you interact with, the platforms you spend time on, and so on. Your actions cannot magically align with what you want just like that. It is just like garbage in, garbage out – you get what you put in. Your business success depends on your recognition and appropriate application of this principle. In his speech, David Foster Wallace enunciated the importance of all this when he said:

‘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 ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master’.

So be conscious of and aware of what you pay attention to. Only pay attention to material that aligns with your desired outcomes. No wonder you hear most successful business people emphasising the importance of reading. This is all in pursuit of ensuring what is being put in aligns with the intended results. If you are passionate about greenhouse farming, for example, then dominate what you pay attention to with material on that subject, daily.

You Must Actively Break Free From Selfishness Or Self-Centredness

The point raised here is a hard-hitting one and touches everyone. We are all naturally wired to prioritize ourselves over others. The degrees vary but most of us are so selfish or self-centred. This usually causes one to ill-treat or manipulate others be it colleagues or subordinates. These are character traits that are not good for attaining business success. They not only cause one to step on others but they also cause one to have biases and prejudices. You cannot be creative, perceptive, or innovative if you think you know it all. You are also blocked from taking in new knowledge. You must break free out of that affinity to think you are bigger and better than others. Here is what he said and he really nailed it more than I could have:

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here is one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, the most vivid and important person in existence.”

…it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you in not an accidental term.

You Tend To Miss The Obvious So Open Your Eyes And Ears More Intently

In life and more so in running businesses people tend to assume they know everything. At times people even search far and wide for things right in front of their eyes. The most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hard for you to see or talk about. That is why you need to have a constant renewal of your mind so that you are open up to new insights.

Writing about this reminds me of the Matrix trilogy – such a deep set of movies but sadly most of you enjoy the action and miss the essence. Remember when Morpheus said to Neo, “You think that is air you are breathing now? It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” We are socialized and influenced by so much wrong stuff and as such we need to always unlearn certain things.

David Foster Wallace said, “There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, which nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how is 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?’” This is how many people live their lives.

These lessons are necessary for the business person or entrepreneur. Many of you need to be awakened to these realities and if you heed them your life can drastically take a turn for the best. Interestingly, no one might hold a gun to your head to consider these lessons. It takes you making conscious and deliberate efforts – it is on you! The choice is yours.