Moving Beyond Our “Default Settings”

by | Sep 22, 2008

Keen cultural observer and wordsmith David Foster Wallace–who passed away at 46 this month–gave the commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio, on May 21, 2005.

He advised that it’s important to break out of one’s “default settings,” which is his phrase for the state of mind that limits one’s ability to operate at a higher level of consciousness on a day-to-day basis.

…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.

That’s damn good advice. There’s way to much going on to “pay attention to.” We need to focus on what matters most to us and go deep there. We need to pick our waves carefully, and ride the ones we’re good on. The ocean, like the day-to-day world, is much to big to comprehend, but there is one thing we know—we have to go into both with utmost awareness and respect.

His point about choosing how we construct meaning from experience is also hugely important. The clichéd version is “we create our own reality.” Which is true, of course. We have the power to choose how we relate to events and to people. Often times, we don’t choose is what Wallace is getting at in his speech, we just fall back on our “default settings.” Wallace thought it important to do better than that, to work towards a better self, which means consciously shaping ourselves with thought.

Or as Ken Kesey said, “Always stay in your own movie.”