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If You Want To Be More Attentive, Start With Self-awareness

When someone suddenly cuts you off, your default setting is to be angry, to flip them the finger, or to speed up next to that person’s window to see what they look like so you can remember their face forever.

When you’re bored, don’t know what to talk about, or are genuinely disinterested and unstimulated by your environment, your default setting is to be rescued by your cellphone.

When a salesperson in a clothing store asks you, “May I help you with anything?” your default setting is to say, “No, I’m just looking, thank you,” instead of saying, “Listen, I have a party to attend this Friday and I want to look like James Bond.”

The reason why this is so dangerous is because these events make up the majority of our lives — sitting in traffic, being bored, asked to speak up, and waiting. If all we do is unconsciously react to these events and not use them for the opportunities they are, what does that say about who we become?

Every now and then you find something on the internet that you wish you read or listened to years ago. As the Fall semester comes to an end, the arise of commencement speeches begins. Every year around this time I watch a few favorites, like J.K Rowling’s Harvard Commencement speech, Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech, and most recently, David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” Kenyon Commencement speech — one of my newfound all-time favorites. These speeches, usually meant for graduates, offer the deep, didactic philosophical wisdom on meaningful work, failure, creating, and pursuing our dreams. It’s something that anyone can listen to and embrace. It’s something that isn’t really taught or emphasized in traditional education.

But back to changing our default setting, a phrase used by David Foster Wallace. His speech reflects a raw form of self-awareness and humility — two of the most powerful and necessary elements to improve and change oneself. How difficult is it to truly observe how you think, feel, and behave, and also be able to correct yourself? It’s the kind of self-awareness that I try to exercise daily, to see myself for who I really am or what I’ve done, and to be humble enough to admit my shortcomings and learn from them — and, even more difficult, to allow this self-awareness to facilitate lasting change.

I’m not going to provide a full transcript, but rather two major parts of the speech that deeply resonated with me, and of course, I think will resonate with you. It’s easy to let this kind of wisdom fly over your head, but I hope you choose to embrace it with an open heart and mind. He says [emphasis by me]:

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s 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 center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’ This is not a matter of virtue — it’s 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-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.


Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re ‘supposed to’ think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult endeavors and the easiest to dismiss as useless. How often do we wake up and say, “How I reacted yesterday was ridiculous and I need to change that”?

The roman philosopher Seneca once said:

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.

The reason why it’s so helpful to have heroes, mentors, or systems of principles like religion or philosophy is because it helps us override our default setting. It helps us do the more difficult tasks of understanding, empathizing, and being compassionate.

You can live your whole life on a default setting — many do — but ask yourself while gathering evidence from history and your experiences, is this the person you want to become? Is this how you want to be remembered? That, too, is a choice.

It’s amazing what can be said in 20 minutes, the impact it has on an eager mind searching for wisdom to lead a greater life, but more importantly, how we can use what’s said in those 20 minutes as guidance throughout our entire lives.

The full commencement speech is below.