David Foster Wallace, a Buddhist monk and a developer walk into a bar

Irene de Mas
Jul 29, 2018 · 5 min read
David Foster Wallace not wearing a bandana.

Today I’ve done something I repeat every few months. It has become kind of a ritual. Every once in a while, whenever something reminds me of it or I need some guidance, I reach for This Is Water [1], a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. I have a transcript edited in the form of a handy little pocket book that I can’t count how many times I’ve read — although in some occasions I listen to the speech instead.

This is not the only thing I keep going back to. There are movies I’ve watched over 20 times, foods (read: avocado) I eat every single day, and silly songs I’ve had stuck in my head for weeks. My favorite restaurant hasn’t changed its menu (or cutlery or setting) in over a decade. But out of all my constants, This Is Water is the one I’d pick. Every time I revise it, a different part gets my attention and I learn something new. It’s comforting to find new meaning in work you already know, like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while.

The following fragment is the one that has resonated with me the most today:

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “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.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

Around the time I discovered This Is Water, my father gave me a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. I didn’t pay too much attention to it and thought it wasn’t for me. But then I started reading it. At first it was out of guilt, which then turned into curiosity and then into thinking that this Vietnamese monk really was onto something — exactly the same Wallace was onto. Much has been written about mindfulness and I won’t add to a pile of literature that’s already too big. What this article is about is something apparently unrelated — remember what the title said? Coding, right? Bear with me, I promise it wasn’t a clickbait.

I have a natural tendency to focus on things that interest me. It’s a gift and a curse. It allows me to put a huge amount of love, passion and care into everything I do, to work hard until something is as great as I can make it. Thanks to this ability, I can create stuff I am proud of. And yet, if I am not conscious and aware enough to choose what I pay attention to, it can make things painfully difficult for me. I suspect my father realized this before I did and that’s why he chose Thich Nhat Hanh’s book.

I tried many of the techniques described in it and, while I felt there was wisdom behind them, they didn’t quite work for me. Then I decided to opt for a different approach. I can’t keep my mind from being obsessive. So instead of letting my disposition to focus be a vulnerability, I learned to use it to my advantage. When I’m getting carried away by my First World, spoiled girl problems, I try to focus on a different kind. And coding is perfect for that.

One afternoon in May I was sad. Actually I had been for some days, spiraling and thinking about stuff that hurt me but I couldn’t keep out of my mind. So I came up with a little project: building a new portfolio for and by myself. I researched the best way to do it and I opted for Gatsby. It was a challenge, it helped me learn some super basic React and, being honest, any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald has me at “Hello”.

I went through some tutorials, drew wireframes, chose a color palette and typography and I was good to go. With a clear goal of what I wanted to build, I started doing it. Fast-forward to sunset and turns out I had been sitting for 5 straight hours without even realizing it. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, and coding forces me to do the opposite of that.

The same trance-like state happened when I first started learning HTML and CSS 4 years ago or when building a simple Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock game to practice Swift. It doesn’t matter if it’s JavaScript, CSS or the next programming language. Having a specific problem (or, better yet, many) to solve is the most effective trick I’ve found to take my mind off all the other things I’d rather not be thinking about. I’ll never know if this is what David Foster Wallace was talking about when he mentioned exercising some control over how and what you think. But I’m sure as hell trying to follow his advice.


[1] If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I envy you. You get to enjoy This Is Water for the first time. Watch the speech or read it — both options are a wonderful, enriching way to spend some time.

And don’t get me started on David Foster Wallace! His masterpiece is a big time and intellectual power investment to say the least, so I will recommend one of my favorite essays written by him — obviously related to food. If you want to know more about his life, you can watch The End of the Tour, where he is portrayed by a surprisingly moving Jason Segel, or read an extensive The New Yorker article on him as a writer and a human being. When you’re done with these, I’ll be thrilled to provide more material — you can ask Irene about way more than restaurants. [2]

[2] I’ve tried to avoid footnotes, I really have, but I can’t do it anymore. If anyone from the Medium team is reading this, please consider supporting footnotes so readers don’t have to come all the way down here and then manually find where they left off. It would be deeply, deeply appreciated. I’m sure I’m not alone on this. Thank you 🙏

Ironhack

Ironhack is a global tech school with campuses in Miami, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin & Mexico City. We offer courses in Web Development and UX/UI Design. With more than 1,000 graduates, we have an extensive global network of alumni and partner companies.

Irene de Mas

Written by

Project Manager 🤹🏼‍♀️ Freelance Writer 👩🏼‍💻 Food Nerd 👩🏼‍🍳

Ironhack

Ironhack

Ironhack is a global tech school with campuses in Miami, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin & Mexico City. We offer courses in Web Development and UX/UI Design. With more than 1,000 graduates, we have an extensive global network of alumni and partner companies.

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