“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?”' David Foster Wallace, novelist and university professor, started a 2005 graduation speech with this parable.
When I taught students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, we discussed Wallace’s use of water and compared it with the persistence of racism in a pseudo post-racial America. The high of Obama’s election encouraged the promotion of a false narrative about substantial progress and social inequalities. Critical race theory informed the lectures, assignments, and class discussions.
This week, the fish and water parable returned to me through an audiobook. It wasn't used to explain our world's disguised but omnipresent realities. Steven Kotler’s book, The Art of Impossible; A Peak Performance Primer, references Wallace and the parable in a chapter where he illustrates the important role of focus in high achievements.
Like the big fish in the water, our awareness of the present moment is fundamental to clarity. Distractions demolish human potential.
According to Kotler, if we want to achieve greatness, we have to train our brains to tap into intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation. If you lack motivation, it could mean that you are unclear about your passion. There are other factors that influence success, but curiosity is a good starting point.
Kotler uses examples of writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and professional athletes to argue that curiosity or interests precede purposeful successes. Twitter’s new CEO, Elon Musk, is among the names mentioned throughout the book. Many high achievers began with lukewarm interest in a topic that evolved into a hot passion.
Identifying and exploring the overlap between your interests, passion, and purpose can create a meaningful life. However, please understand that you will meet struggle and frustration at multiple junctures along the route to destiny.
Kotler suggests we use challenges to enhance the skills necessary to experience flow and strengthen resilience.
Let me give you an example from this week in my life. I didn’t realize my headphones broke until the morning of a 10-mile run. Music combined with powerful speeches provides motivation and distraction from the rigor of my fitness routines.
Before leaving the house, I was sure that I would have a horrible long run. The opposite happened.
Not only did I run the entire 10 miles at my fastest pace this year, but I also added an extra mile. The rhythm of my feet on the pavement, combined with the fear that accompanied almost every speeding car, pushed me into a flow state. Without headphones, I experienced a deeper awareness of my body, mind, and environment.
The jog taught me that I do not need music to motivate me during exercise. I have internalized the role of fitness in supporting passion and purpose in my life. This mindset shift will prove beneficial in other endeavors.
With continued training in silence, a clear goal, and determination, we have the opportunity to strengthen resilient behaviors. Kotler's research supports that this is vital to impossible achievements.
If you listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while working out, try leaving your headphones or portable speakers at home. From this experiment, you may surprise yourself with your ability to persevere.
These are two valid cliché statements. Things are not always as they seem. You are stronger than you think.
Despite the wisdom of David Foster Wallace and his use of parables to encourage graduates and practice mindfulness, he committed suicide a few years after his famous speech. Maybe Foster’s awareness of the water went too deep, and he drowned himself in thoughts of unimportance. Who knows for sure what forced him to take his life?
There is more to our lives than what we think is possible. Appreciate this moment.
Right now, you are breathing and reading.