“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” – David Foster Wallace
“If we buy into the hypnosis of our limited potential, we’ll be stunted little beings. If, however, we can plant ourselves in the spaciousness of our vast potential, watch out.” – Brian Johnson
A man filled his bathtub with water for his fish to swim in while he cleaned their tank. After he had finished working, he returned to the tub to get the fish and was astonished to find them swimming in a tight group.
Even though they had the entire tub to explore, all of the fish were huddled in a small area about the size of their aquarium. They weren’t contained by any physical barrier, but a life spent in the fish tank had impacted their natural desire to swim.
A version of the story above appears in The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo. Nepo recounts how he, and his friend with the fish, were struck by their timid behavior. Observing the fish caused them to investigate their own lives, asking “In what ways do we shrink our world so as not to feel the press of our own self-imposed captivity?”
Much like our values, we often inherit pre-conceived ideas about what is possible or normal from our family, faith, or the community we grow up in. “Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school,” reflects Nepo. “It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous. […] I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank.”
What tanks have you created that might be holding your back?
Life Outside The Tank
Life in the tank limits our potential, but luckily, we’re blessed with the ability to step back and examine our self-imposed barriers. Doing so comes with the realization that we don’t have to stay in the tank. With the courage to venture outside, anything is possible.
Ultimately, moving outside the tank means having the courage to explore and being willing to change our surroundings. “An undersized flowerpot keeps a mighty tree root-bound [and] a little fishbowl keeps goldfish tiny,” shares author and speaker Alan Cohen.1 “But place the same tree in an open field or the fish in a lake, and they will grow to hundreds of times their size. Unlike the tree or goldfish, you are not dependent on someone else to move you. You have the power to move yourself. You can step into a broader domain and grow to your full potential.”
What does your environment look like? Where do you spend your time, and who do you spend it with?
Are you ready to grow to hundreds of times your size?
Take A Step Outside
Going outside the tank can be scary, but we don’t have to do it all at once. A goldfish doesn’t swell a hundred fold the instant it gets placed in a lake. It happens bit by bit, day by day, moment to moment. And often, days or weeks or years after we uncover some of our self-imposed limits, we run into others and repeat the process.
It’s a never ending journey.
Personally, I’ve been in and out of tanks my whole life. I was blessed with parents who hosted foreign exchange students, and encouraged my siblings and I to explore other ideas, countries, and cultures on our own. (Including a trip which resulted in me meeting my wife : ) For college, I travelled from a smaller town in Ohio to the East Coast to study at Harvard – where I felt so far outside my comfort zone that I often thought the admissions department had made an error. And a few years ago, I was inspired to start writing and sharing it with the world, but even after I hit “publish,” I didn’t tell anyone.
Enjoy The Water
In 2015, David Foster Wallace opened his commencement address to Kenyon College with a different short story about fish:
Two young fish swim past an older fish who says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ After swimming on for a bit, eventually, one of the younger fish looks at the other and asks, ‘What the hell is water?’
Whether we’re exploring life inside or outside the tank – let’s make sure to enjoy the water.
“The real value of a real education […] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ … ‘This is water.’ …” – David Foster Wallace
Check out the full transcript of Wallace’s address, or enjoy the video below.
- Why Your Life Sucks by Alan Cohen [↩]