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Presenting the Obvious: A Strategic Interpretation of David Foster Wallace’s, “This is Water”

Posted by | Fuld & Company

It’s commencement season, a time of celebration and anticipation of what the future will bring. While attending graduations this weekend, I was reminded of the one speech that broke the mold; David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, later published in book form in 2009 as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Wallace centers his comments around a parable:

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?”

Quick to clarify his thesis, Wallace explains, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” He appeals to graduates and non-graduates alike to remember that “you’re not the center of the universe,” “you are what you worship,” “freedom is sacrifice,” and “be aware of the world around you.”

The parable turned my head, causing me to reframe his entire address within the arena of strategy and risk management.

As strategic risk management professionals, we attempt to be the older, wiser fish. Urging younger fish to see the reality of the world around them, even at the risk of being seen, at best, as eccentric acolytes. Once we bring that most critical attribute of awareness to those under our care, namely our clients, we can begin to address the sub-texts to help them decide how to thrive in their specific reality, in their particular body of water.

Some examples of how helpful this parable can be for us strategic managers:

  • This is Reality. The value of Wallace’s guidance, and the value of our jobs, are pinpointed in his observation that, “the obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” How often have we struggled with a client, pointing out a risk or threat that is obvious to us outside the water, but unseen by those swimming along?
    • Recently, advising an executive regarding his company’s security profile, I was frustrated by my client’s refusal to accept basic recommendations such as providing security escorts to the parking lot. His inability to see, or accept, that the city’s murder rate had increased was the equivalent of the young fish asking “what is water?”
  • Assumptions are often Wrong. Investing in an initiative requires us to make certain assumptions: market demand, partner reliability, government stability, resource supply and so forth. Using assumptions, we run spreadsheets, conduct surveys, assess inventory, and come to conclusions that drive our decisions. Yet, we often fail to remember that those conclusions began with imperfect assumptions and led to imperfect decisions. And as Wallace advises, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” The water can make our hypotheses, and our decisions, murky.
    • Ed Balls, former chief economic adviser to the U.K. Treasury, suggests asking yourself, “what are the assumptions which are actually underpinning our decision-making so that we can challenge them.” Failing to consider what water you’re swimming in results in a false sense of security.
  • Exercise Choice. This decision-making process, best done with the assistance of an expert who’s not swimming next to you, empowers you to choose. Business is about allocating resources, but that cannot be done with a business-as-usual mindset, especially in the realm of foreign initiatives.
    • After conducting a war game simulation for a chemicals company, we advised direct and immediate activity to thwart two foreign competitors’ aggressive product development. Our client, a conservative age-old conglomerate, agreed with the assessment of risk, but paused. And lost ground in the marketplace. Executives behaved as was their habit within the cautious culture, underscoring Wallace’s advice to protect against “operating on the automatic, unconscious…natural default-setting,” and instead make conscious choices.
  • Learn How to Think. Wallace’s thesis speaks to our ability to think critically. “Learning how to think means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to.” A risk manager’s dream, bringing a client to awareness of the reality surrounding them. Awake clients allow us to recommend protective actions that are seriously considered and not discounted.
    • Those who forego ‘learning how to think’ suffer from unconsciousness. Like the two young fish, they swim without knowing their environment and are subject to eddies, currents, waves, typhoons. In the real world that translates to facing risk at every turn. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Putin signed a law limiting foreign ownership of media assets to 20 percent, alarming the world’s largest media companies such as Conde Nast and Hearst Corporation. Paying attention to the water, thinking proactively, may have raised preemptive options for these companies.

Many of these comments are not new, nor extraordinary, but they are important to avoid risk. Wallace himself notes that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.” Our clients face risks across the globe and our job entails bringing them to the awareness that these risks exist and that our expertise can help them avoid or at least mitigate the threats. Alerting them to the reality of the water in which they swim, we can give them the freedom to be attentive, aware, disciplined, and safe.


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