‘This is Water’ is a dramatization of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace.

You Don’t Know Water Until You’ve Left Your Fishbowl

Thomas P Seager, PhD
Age of Awareness


Maarten van Doorn recently published a piece inspired by the late David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech called This Is Water. The speech starts with a humorous parable about perspective:

There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says:

‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’

The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks:

‘What the hell is water?’

— David Foster Wallace.

What the joke never explains is how the older fish knows what water is, when the young fish don’t. Van Doorn writes:

The message of the fish story is that the most obvious and important realities are the hardest to see. Often, this is because our natural setting is to be self-centered and to interpret everything through this lens of self.

But what makes the older fish so much wiser? We must infer that it is his experience. That is, the older fish only knows about water because he’s been outside the fishbowl.

Maybe one day he was swimming around, and maybe he gets bored or he gets a little startled or something or for whatever reason, he swims up at a tremendous sprint and he jumps up out of the fish bowl and onto the floor or the table or the counter and he’s flopping around and he’s like,

“What the hell is this?”

This is air.

And some kid comes along and see’s him laying there on the countertop, near suffocation, laboring for every breath that dries his gills out a little closer to death. And the kid scoops him up and puts him back in the fish bowl.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh shit!” the older fish thinks. “This is water.

I teach This Is Water in my engineering business practices course. The lesson we extract in my class is that the only thing we really get to choose is what has meaning (to us) and what that meaning is. The lesson is related to the leadership learning objectives in the course, because making meaning for your organization is the task of the leader.