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Brendan McBride
Professor Padgett
ENGL 101
September 18, 2015
David Foster Wallaces Meaning of Default Setting
David Foster Wallaces commencement speech This is Water examines the idea
of a persons default setting. He gives the speech to inform the graduates about the
difficulties they will face ahead of them in the real world. His speech varies from the
typical commencement speech because it is more honest and truthful. He tells the
audience that their liberal arts degree taught them about learning to think. The speech is
not the ordinary inspirational speech that all graduates hear at graduation. Instead,
Wallace explains to the audience the meaning of their default setting. A default setting is
the natural reaction and emotion a person feels has to an event. The graduates should pay
attention to the world around them and be more conscience in everyday life. In David
Foster Wallaces commencement speech, This is Water, he wants the audience to
understand the meaning of their default setting.
In his speech, Wallace focuses on the theme of a persons default setting. A default
setting is an automatic setting that a person has involuntarily. Wallace describes default
setting when he says, It is our default-setting, hardwired into our boards at birth. Think
about it: There is no experience youve had that you were not at the absolute center of
(Wallace XIII). People are too involved in themselves that they do not realize their
surroundings. Everyone is born with their own individual default setting. While in a
default setting, it can be difficult to think about others and their feelings. Most people

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only think about themselves and their own problems. They do not realize that other
people could be going through problems and difficulties too. The goal is for the audience
to show compassion towards others and not make assumptions about people without
knowing their background story.
One of Wallaces main intentions is to inform the audience about their default
setting to make them realize the important things they miss in life. He uses a short
parable in the beginning of his speech in order to demonstrate the valuable lesson.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish
swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?"
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at
the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" (Wallace XII). The fish are too oblivious to
what is going on around them that they do not see key things in life. The meaning behind
the parable is to show the audience that they are too occupied in their own world. They
need to slow down and realize the valuable things in life. People often get lost in their
boring day-to-day routine and do not think about what is going on around them.
The purpose of Wallaces speech is to convince the audience not to fall back into
their default setting. A persons normal default setting is usually annoyed society and the
things around them. For example, Wallace says, Im going to be pissed and miserable
every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that
situations like this are really all about me (Wallace XIV). The purpose of the foodshopping story is to show the audience that they are too preoccupied with themselves to
care about others. Wallace encourages the audiences to understand other people and the
problems they could have too. If you take time to slow down, you will be able to not

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follow your default setting. There can be value in changing your default setting because
life will become more interesting. Instead of living the same day over and over again,
you will experience more things by not following the same routine.
Wallace does not want the audience to fall back into their original default setting.
Instead, Wallace wants people to experience new things by changing their automatic
response and emotions. People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are
often described as being well adjusted, which I suggest to you is not an accidental
term (Wallace XIII). The objective of changing your default setting is to improve your
happiness instead of living a boring day-to-day routine. A person that alters their default
setting will enjoy life more because they will be more observant. Ironically, Wallace does
not listen to his own advice and he commits suicide three years after he gave the speech.
In the beginning of his speech, Wallace states that he is not the wise fish. He was not
able to take his own suggestions in order to be happy.
By the end of the speech This is Water, the audience understands the meaning
of their own default setting. Wallace says, But if youve really learned how to think,
how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options (Wallace XVI). Every
person has a natural reaction to every event that happens. People often get too involved
in themselves and do not realize other important things in life. The purpose of the speech
is to encourage the audience not to fall back into their default setting. The audience
should be encouraged to change their initial instinct. A person will live a happier and
more enjoyable life once they understand the meaning of a default setting.