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?”

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

It rained in the Bay Area most of the weekend. The inner organizer in me shined at the vastness of opportunity to focus on our home. The time was ripe to puppy proof our house for the arrival of our puppy tonight. When we moved into our house in July, everything had a place. Or an original place. Over time, I saw how the system I created did not support the actual living taking place in our house. As with anything, we started with what we knew. The original system looked a lot like that in our previous place. We hadn't adjusted to our new place - one with more space and far more storage. In 6 months, I had planned to adjust things dozens of times. Yet I wasn't very compelled. It was working good enough. The forcing function of welcoming a puppy into our house helped to initiate the change. I will thank Frito when he arrives tonight.

The clouds broke long enough Sunday morning to head to the farmer’s market. Again, still living in an old routine, I ventured across town to my old neighborhood to snag my produce. Unlike the house organization I had been putting off, I choose this part of my old routine. And it will stick. Until the almond croissant that motivates me to get to the market expands to more places.

Anytime I go to the market, I do a quick cruise by all the stands to see what is available. The first thing that stuck out to me yesterday was the abundance of leeks. In no time, I was planning and shopping for a potato leek soup to make during my afternoon at home. My day began to feel like it had a rhythm and purpose - everything falling into place. The rain held so I could do my shopping. I snagged the last almond croissant. Being surrounded by community energized me. Nothing could disturb my stride.

Until, I popped into Whole Foods on my way home to grab stock. It was Super Bowl Sunday before the game kicked off and there was a madhouse of long lines. One item and a painfully slow line. After my initial dis-ease of having left my phone (and thus reading material) in the car, I settled into being in line. I noticed the people around me. People attuned to my availability, as is almost always the case when I am not distracted by a tiny device. Small conversations unfolded. I made jokes with the person next to me in line. I saw often the checker was barely acknowledged by the customers in line. An oddly lonely job considering the sheer volume of people they serve each day.

As I approached the register, the checker began chatting with me. Telling me about the day and what people were buying for their game day food. In honesty, I was initially annoyed. Things were moving slower than I had anticipated and in no time I was blaming her. I started to think about what she could do to make her job more efficient. Her chattiness becomes the reason for the slow down (again, in my mind). But I caught myself. I saw the way my anger was washing away the easeful day I was experiencing less than 30 minutes earlier. As a leader responsible for my own world, I chose differently, and decided  to engage with her further. She seemed curious about what people were making for the game. “The rainy day felt perfect to stay at home and make a soup,” I suggested.  “I realize that is literally the exact opposite of what you are doing, working harder on a Sunday.” I pleased myself in acknowledging her circumstances. Her eyes lit up. “Girl, I have been unemployed for 5 years. Sure I volunteered to stay engaged. And I could pick up occasional work, but none of that helped me pay the bills. I am so thrilled to be here today. I have a lot to be grateful about.”

In an instant, I was a young fish swimming in water. The exact thesis of David Foster Wallace’s beautiful essay, This is Water. It is so easy to forget the self-centered nature of our experience. The allure of assuming our experience is everyone else's experience. In that moment, I could not imagine who would not want a home bound soup cooking rainy weekend day. I assumed the checker was servicing people and holding onto dread at having to do so. I even began to feel bad for her - all before I had even thought to check in on her experience.

Had she not had the courage (yes, courage) to share her actual experience, I would have missed the gift she offered. In an instant, I realized I was swimming in water without recognizing it.

This, of course, is a small example AND this happens all the time. How often do we assume we are all in the same water? How might that assumption stifle the people around us for sharing their actual experience? Where are we implanting our self-centered view of the world onto others? When are we being a young fish?

Working with a coach grants the opportunity to see when we are swimming in water and when may not see it. It provides a gift to uncover the self-centered nature of our lives and to see where it gets in our way.

Interested in coaching? Get in touch.

To read or hear David Foster Wallace’s entire commencement speech, click here.