The Pomp, The Circumstance

What a new grad needs to know about life, in general.

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Everything I Learned In School Came In Commencement Speeches

After all those years we spend in school, which lessons prepare us for living?

I relish the moment when I notice the universe mysteriously converging two seemingly unrelated events right before my eyes. Call it coincidence, providence, kizmet, or fate. I, for one, don't need a definition or an explanation. I'm fine not knowing how the lady gets cut in half during the magic show's final act. We need a few good mysteries.

When I saw the following "This Is Water" video this week - the same week I'm releasing my new writing project - it felt like one of those serendipitous moments. In my opinion, this video offers a message for our time. A message I believe in so strongly that I wrote my new workbook to encourage its in-depth exploration. Rather than write an intro to the video with a plea to watch it, or an intro to my workbook with a plea to buy it, I'll simply offer the video below. If it resonates, readers can explore the additional sources I provide at the end of this blog.


(UPDATE: In recent months The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust has asked video sites to take down the 'This Is Water' video due to copyright issues. If the above video does not work, please do a search for 'This is Water' to find a new video link or read the transcript of David Foster Wallace's Kenyon college commencement address.)

The blogs I write on Psychology Today cover numerous topics, yet most contain an underlying theme of the empowerment of personal choice and personal responsibility. Our culture feasts on endless spoils of external information - advice, conjecture, diagnosis, punditry - and too often loses sight of the power of turning within. Of nurturing our innate wisdom and listening to the voice of guidance that exists within every single one of us.

But with so much noise, how can we hear them? We think we hear them, but therein lies the problem: too much thinking. Not enough listening, for lack of stillness and lack of confidence in ourselves. We think we don't know something because we haven't been told yet. Or, we're positive we know something because we heard someone else tell us. Making little time to sit quietly with the information and turn inward to make our own sense out of what we've just heard. Who has time? In 10 seconds the news bite has changed, the social media feed has scrolled down, and new news is already old news.

Like David Foster Wallace asserts in this speech, I believe we each possess the power of conscious choice. We can choose how we will process information and perceive the world around us. Be it with doom or with hope, rigidity or flexibility, savoring or rushing, that's our choice to make. Our choice and our responsibility.

Wallace's speech was a commencement address given at Kenyon College, speaking to the value of education. And while I personally place great value on higher education, I don't believe the choice to attend college directly translates to becoming educated or well-rounded. For those, we have additional choices to make.

First and foremost, an education is about learning how to open our mind, be still, and just listen. Even before engaging in critical thinking, the first step in education is learning when to turn it all off. Turning off opinion, pausing the opposing viewpoint, and simply turning on our curiosity. There will be opportunities for the rest - the analysis and arguments - many many opportunites.

But that first brave step is about choosing to get to know ourselves. We do that by being willing to look inward and examing ourselves before trusting what's coming from out there- from all the noise. Noticing how our inner voice responds to the information we see and hear- not reacting, just noticing. And like Wallace suggests, realizing for the first time that we are not the center of the universe. That every single choice we make is a choice for and of the universe. Our choices don't exist in a vacuum. Choices aren't confined by our dorm room walls. We get away with nothing- that's the ripple effect of our choices. So we choose wisely.

That's the magic and mystery that I've learned by first choosing to be still and listen. Learning how to listen, how to be still, how to trust ourselves amidst all the noise, and how to exercise our incredible freedom of choice.

Best Commencement Speeches by Steve JobsConan O'Brien, and Neil Gaiman.

Interested in exploring these concepts further? My new self-exploration writing workbook is available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Related Psychology Today articles:

On Compassion for Others

On Quieting the Noise

On Mindfulness


Brad Waters MSW, LCSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and Master's certification in Holistic Health Care from Western Michigan University. Brad is also a personal development writer whose books are available on Amazon and

Copyright, 2013 Brad Waters. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

The Pomp, The Circumstance