Graduating from the Default-Setting

The emergence of groups of interns in our offices marks the beginning of a new season—it’s graduation season and the time has come for high-school and college students alike to don their caps and gowns and prepare to walk across a stage to lay hands on a long-sought piece of paper marking the successful completion of their formal education. Before this ceremonial conclusion can occur, these students, along with their friends and families in attendance, will listen to a commencement speech likely filled with lines of inspiration, noting the students’ accomplishments and looking ahead toward a bright future of boundless opportunity. This past weekend I listened to such a speech while attending my cousin’s high-school graduation in Lakeland, Florida. The speaker who addressed my cousin’s class admitted to not remembering a single word of the commencement speech from his own graduation and acknowledged that these students were unlikely to remember his words in the years to come. Aside from this admission—I don’t recall anything this speaker said, nor do I remember who spoke at my own high-school graduation or what presumably encouraging messages he or she shared. However, a particular graduation speech, delivered by one of my favorite authors to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005, and subsequently shared online, has stuck with me since I first heard the words spoken in a video on YouTube.

In his address to Kenyon College’s graduating seniors, David Foster Wallace shared a message that, while not inspirational or all that encouraging, is extremely important nonetheless. Wallace spoke to these seniors about the monotony of day-in, day-out living: the tedious, oftentimes boring routine of adult life that most of us are all too familiar with and graduating seniors have yet to experience. Upon completing our education and entering the “real world,” we experience an existence in which we wake up, drive to our challenging jobs, work a long day, drive home, make dinner, clean up, and get ready to repeat the whole thing over—over anAverage Adult Dayd over and over again, while somehow finding time to buy groceries, clean the house, take care of the kids, hit the gym, go to the dentist, service our cars, etc. Throughout this routine of everyday living we place ourselves at the constant center, and this self-centered approach that Wallace calls our “default-setting” has us automatically programmed to view those around us as being in our way. In this tedious existence, the petty frustrations brought upon us by the people we encounter too often stand in the way of our happiness.


How often do petty frustrations form a roadblock to your pursuit of happiness? How often do these annoyances occur in your work, affecting your productivity and job satisfaction? Our jobs are challenging, and we will all encounter computer or printer problems, late nights in the office, difficult clients, feeling unappreciated, dirty dishes in the break room, or those people who don’t read your e-mails, have loud and obnoxious personal conversations when you’re trying to focus, or make you cringe when you catch them clipping their finger- or toenails at their desk. Decide.pngWhile these grievances are an inevitable circumstance of work life, the way we respond to them, Wallace asserts, is entirely our decision.
In every instance we have the ability to operate apart from our “default-setting” that automatically pits others against us and holds life’s irritations to be great injustices. Instead we can acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe. We can approach others from a place of compassion and understanding, even when we find them rude, obnoxious, or cringe inducing.

While this may seem like moral advice, it isn’t. This call for a greater awareness in our thinking is a means of navigating life’s waters so that petty problems are pacified in our minds before they become infuriating. It is a disciplined effort that we can choose to not become bogged down by the monotony of day-to-day life and the unavoidable frustrations that come with it. Our personal happiness, our satisfaction in life and in our work, hinges on our willingness to reach beyond our automatic, “default” way of thinking, and open ourselves to a more conscious, controlled way to address problems as they occur.

Wallace’s message was not the typical inspirational speech most of us have come to expect from a graduation commencement. While he may not have left the Kenyon College graduating seniors feeling encouraged to take on the world, he nevertheless provided the students with an important message, a message that applies not only to young professionals entering the “real world” for the first time, but those of us who have lived the reality of adult monotony day after day, year after year. Wallace’s words have stuck with me longer than those spoken at my own graduation commencement, and will likely stay with me longer than any future graduation speech I hear, while serving as a constant reminder that the way I think about life’s petty frustrations and how they affect me is entirely my decision to make.

-Michael Porter, Marketing Coordinator
PCL Construction Services

Referenced speech / video:

This is Water by David Foster Wallace



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