Table of contents

David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech

February 11, 2021 · 3 min read

Introducing the reading

David Foster Wallace was born in upstate New York, a son to two college professors. He himself published widely, authoring short stories, and became a professor of English and creative writing. He is best known for his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, and a work published after his death, The Pale King, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 2012. He is one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation despite his relatively brief life and his commencement speech remains one of the main ways people discover his work.

Liberal arts

Wallace believes controlling what you think is one of the core lessons of a liberal arts education.


  • Do you remember your commencement speech in college? Any notable stories or speakers?

  • Did anyone here attend a liberal arts college? Why or why not? Was anyone afraid that their degree wouldn't have a "material payoff?" If your pursed a technical degree, did you fear it wouldn't have any "human value?"

  • How has your liberal arts education or lack of it shaped your approach to work? Do you think it has had an impact, positive or negative, on your outlook and day-to-day?


Wallace points out that how we construct meaning is a personal, intentional choice.


  • Have you found yourself questioning the 'truth' during the current political climate? How so? Are these new thoughts and feelings or have you always harbored them?

  • Wallace goes on to talk about how we need to have 'a little critical awareness about [ourselves] and [our] certainties.' What certainties have you had in your life that have become shaky or you have proven wrong? Are there any that you are currently questioning?

  • What has had the most significant impact in where you find meaning? Past experiences? Your family? Your education?

Default Settings

Many highlight Wallace's analysis of self centeredness as one of the most important takeaways from his speech.


  • What tools, actions, or tactics have you put in place to 'adjust your default settings' and stay 'alert and attentive'? Meditation? Religion? Exercise?

  • Where do you think you are most 'selfish' in your life? Is that a bad thing? Has it changed over time or has it been the same consistently?

  • Wallace goes on to talk about the mind as a "excellent servant, but a terrible master." Many scholars throughout history have talked about mastery of the mind, are there any other that have stood out to you?


Wallace goes on to discuss the many things that people worship and how each of them can be wicked in their own ways by "eating you alive."


  • Wallace struggled with depression and alcoholism and when he lost the ability to write (what he worshiped), friends suggest that he lost himself. What in your life do you think you worship? Is there something critical in your life that guides or fuels your day to day? Do you worry about this?

  • How has what you worshiped changed over time? Has it been influenced by moments in your life? Have there been moments when you have read, listened to, or experienced something that altered your course?


In his closing remarks, Wallace focuses on a "freedom" we should all be working toward and the continued education that needs to happen in order to get there.


  • At Air one of our values is the cura personalis, or care for the entire person. Wallace touches on this through his initial quote on the "really important kind of freedom" we are all working toward. Who in your life has displayed this type of selfless care? How?

  • At Air we constantly talk about learning and growth (perfecting our craft) and in his last line Wallace says "education is the job of a lifetime." What are you doing to continue your personal growth outside of work? Obviously all of us are busy, but are there small things that have had a major impact for you?

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