There are these two young fish swimming along. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” 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?”
This is a parable that was popularised in a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace in 2005. (Check it out here, it’s really good). “The point of the fish story”, he says, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”.
Though in a slightly different context to DFW’s speech, the phrase “this is water” has popped into my head quite a few times recently — enough for me to start paying attention.
I think it’s because I’ve had a bunch of experiences and thoughts over the past few years that “this is water” neatly ties together. They center around the idea that our worldview is shaped by our environment, in often invisible ways.
Invisible is the key word here. Abstractly, we can easily acknowledge the forces at play — our culture, our upbringing, our unique childhood traumas. But concretely, it’s hard to know exactly how each of these has molded us.
It’s hard to see the water that we’re swimming in.
I think a pivotal moment in my social development was around age 15, when I realised that everyone’s basically the same. This became my mental model for interacting with other people — “do unto others…”. (I assume everyone went through this).
The pivotal moments since then have all been realisations about the ways in which people aren’t the same.
Every so often, something happens (usually not very dramatic) that reveals some fundamental difference between me and someone else. It puts me face-to-face with the fact that this person has lived a completely different life to mine, and alarmingly, has a completely different mental model of the world. In our minds’ eyes, we’re literally living on different planets! This is really scary!
(This feeling is like a slightly weaker version of what Blake Ross describes in this great essay — realising, as a 30 year old, that he’s one of the very few people in the world who can’t visualise things in his mind.)
Once this mini-crisis is over, these moments are really great — they’re a rare chance to see specifically how I’ve been shaped differently to someone else, and in the best cases, also why.
These moments help me see the water I’ve been swimming in.
Family, I’ve found, is a pretty major water parameter. My default assumption is that other households operate the same way as mine (why wouldn’t they?), so it’s always fascinating to get a glimpse of what other families are really like. If not through first-hand experience, even just hearing about other peoples’ family dynamics is endlessly interesting — their relationships with their parents, siblings, and so on. For me, this topic is kind of a “cheat code” to having really engaging and illuminating conversations with almost anyone, anywhere.
Of course, there are a tonne of other water parameters — gender, race, country, language, part of country (e.g big city vs small town). Lots more, and intersections of all of these. I’ve had the chance to paddle in some different waters, through living with different groups of people and in different places. Some I’ll never get to swim in — I’ll never know what it’s actually like to be female, or to be white, or to be gay.
But part of why it’s valuable to spend time with different people is that it gives you a glimpse into their experiences, which can tell you a lot about your own. This, for me, seems to be where most personal growth comes from, and I’m trying to build more of it into my life.
To be able to see my own water better, here are a couple of things I’ve recently been thinking I should do at some point:
- Live in a non-Western non-predominantly-English-speaking country for at least a year or two
- Serve in the military for at least a year or two
The military one is tough because it seems like a total no-brainer — a completely different culture than I’m used to, completely different people than I’m used to (I don’t know anyone in the military) — there are surely valuable perspectives to be gained. I can’t think of a good reason not to try to do it at some point, but I know I won’t. 🤷♂️