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Posted: June 25, 2013

Seeing what’s hidden in plain sight

Dropping your inner monologue

Kathleen Quinn Votaw

The “capital-T Truth” is hard to find. Mainly, because it’s buried deep in our minds under our personal life experiences, beliefs and perspectives. Author David Foster Wallace argued that education offers the path to the big “T,” should we choose to take that path. His 2005 commencement speech, “This Is Water,” at Kenyon College in Gambler, Ohio, was rated “The Speech That’s Most Likely to Survive” by The Atlantic.

An official video of Mr. Wallace’s speech was recently revived on the Internet and then removed, after 5.2 million views (although a “still” version is available on Youtube). After seeing the video, I feel compelled to share his wisdom during this graduation season, eight years later. His message is as meaningful in the workplace as I hope it was to those young graduates.

Naturally, you are at the center

In a nutshell, what David Foster Wallace said is this: You are the absolute center of your universe. To be deeply and literally self-centered is natural, and it’s your default setting. Whatever you are experiencing—your hunger, your pain, your desires—that’s your reality, and your immediate needs should determine what happens in life. It’s extremely difficult to ignore the constant monologue in your head, after all, you’ve been listening to that voice since birth.

Use education to look beyond yourself

This is where education comes in, according to Wallace. It teaches you how to exercise control over how and what you think and what you pay attention to—making you just a little less arrogant than your natural self. Education makes you aware and able to see what’s in plain sight all around you. In other words, other people’s needs and desires, life experiences and points of view. What do you choose to believe about other people, and how do you treat them as a result? What’s really important?

Bring empathy into business

By this point in the video, my mind moved to its second most natural place, the business world. I wondered what happens to our selfish and arrogant selves once we get out into what Wallace calls a “comfortable, prosperous, respectable” adult life. Understandably, it’s hard to move out of that mode. But, once we do, we move from selfishness, “tiny skull-size kingdoms,” to empathy—a concept that’s not found enough in business.

If every educated business person took Wallace’s words to heart, business would naturally become less about money and profits; about wanting, achieving and displaying. It would be more about paying attention, awareness and sacrifice. Or in the words of Wallace, “caring about people in myriad, unsexy little ways.”

What would that look like in the workplace? Well, there would be less to criticize or complain about. Along with what was said, we’d hear what wasn’t being said. We’d learn to see things from different perspectives, and make people feel understood. We’d say what we feel, giving others the freedom to do the same. We’d respect one another for our diversity. We’d talk to, rather than about, one another. We’d be more interested in relationships than our egos.

This is what life is like in the “best places to work,” which are invariably also among the best performing companies. In choosing to treat their people well, they automatically become some of the most profitable. David Foster Wallace would surely say that these companies hire people with a “real education” that shows them the path to the “capital-T Truth.” May every graduate, everywhere, also find that Truth and take it wherever they go.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of Golden-based TalenTrust, a Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm that helps companies accelerate their growth by hiring exceptional talent. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.


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Readers Respond

So YOU're saying, that some David Foster Wallace guy is saying, that empathy is a trait acquired via education? I'm not so sure... Might actually be the opposite except (possibly) for Philosophy and Divinity majors. 5.2 million viewers may have been self-serving narcissists who wanted to hear someone tell them that they're good people? By Incredulous on 2013 06 25
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