In the vast sea of life, amidst its currents and mysteries, there lies a profound lesson in a simple encounter between two fish. A wise older fish greets two young ones, asking about the water they swim in. Puzzled, the young fish question, “What is water?”. This seemingly banal tale holds a deeper truth: the most obvious realities can often be the most challenging to perceive and discuss.

We draw these insights from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon University.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon University.

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Awareness and Choice

True personal development involves being aware and making conscious choices in how we perceive and interpret the world around us.

Consider the conversation in a bar between a religious man and an atheist in the Alaskan wilderness. The atheist’s experience during a blizzard challenges his beliefs, underscoring the diversity of interpretations rooted in personal perspectives. We all have our belief templates, often unintentionally shaped by our upbringing and experiences

Questioning Default Settings

Challenge our default, self-centered perspectives to understand the power of conscious thinking and avoid falling into unconscious routines.


David Foster Wallace’s words remind us that life’s daily challenges and routines offer opportunities for this conscious choice. In the midst of frustration and routine, we can choose to see beyond ourselves, acknowledging the struggles and stories of those around us. This choice is the essence of compassion, the fundamental principle of compassionate leadership.

Compassionate Leadership

Compassionate leadership entails being less arrogant, cultivating self-awareness, and choosing to understand and empathize with others.

Life’s true value lies in understanding the power of choice, recognizing our default settings, and consciously choosing compassion over self-centeredness. As we navigate life’s waters, let us strive to be the fish that understand what water truly is—a collective consciousness that acknowledges and embraces the shared humanity that binds us all. This is the essence of compassionate leadership.

Value of Conscious Choice

The real value of personal development lies in learning to exercise control over what we pay attention to, how we construct meaning from experiences, and how we choose to interpret the world.

Amidst life’s routine and challenges, we have the power to consciously choose our reactions. Instead of succumbing to frustration or irritation, we can actively decide how we perceive and respond to the situations we encounter. This ability to choose our perspective is a form of true freedom, a cornerstone of personal growth and compassionate living.