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What David Foster Wallace taught me about development

What David Foster Wallace taught me about development

Courtesy of a good friend of mine, I recently read this speech, by American author David Foster Wallace to graduate students at Kenyon College in 2005. If you have a spare 10 minutes, I wholeheartedly encourage you to head over and have a read. The central theme of Foster Wallace’s talk was that our “default setting” is to think that the world revolves around us, and therefore everything that occurs in our lives only happens because it has an effect on us. After all, we can only see the world through our own perspective, there are no other sets of eyes which we can use. However, Foster Wallace strongly advocated for the need to push past this, and to constantly remind ourselves that there are a whole number of other perspectives and lives going on, regardless of ours. Doing this, he felt, was a vital part of being a far better communicator, a far better writer, and most importantly, a far better human.

From a young age, Foster Wallace himself was tainted with the tag of “genius”. He was constantly praised for his achievements in class, on the sporting field, in his books. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, at the age of 24. Ten years later, his second novel, Infinite Jest, was published, and it now sits in Time’s list of the 100 Best Novels since 1923, putting him alongside authors such as Hemingway, Orwell and Steinbeck. Foster Wallace didn’t complete a third novel, however. At the age of 46, he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt. He had suffered through depression for more than 20 years, and it had finally gotten the better of him.

Although Foster Wallace may have been seen by many to be a modern-day genius, what he excelled in most was an absolute denial of this idea. He was exceptionally keen on the idea that he was really no different from anyone else, that he was not exceptional, and that the world continued to go on regardless of whether he was there or not. Listening to his own words, this realisation becomes immediately apparent:

“I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person … I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”

David Foster Wallace addresses students at Kenyon College in 2005.


For me, I think you could replace the word “writer” with “development worker” and it would still have the same effect. As a writer, Foster Wallace was able to connect with his readers in ways that other authors couldn’t, because he was able to speak from an everyman perspective. For those working in development, the same attitude can be adopted. One of the most oft repeated lines in development is that for programs to work, we need to get away from the model of donor and recipient, and move towards a model of empowerment, a model that values the voices of everyone, not just those with Masters degrees. From a purely practical point of view, there is no point coming into an area and forcing your ideas on others, if, once you leave, those ideas are not accepted. I believe we can take Foster Wallace’s recognition that we are not inherently any more superior, or any more important, and apply it to our field too.

Many of us live in a world that could easily make us think that we are the centre of it. We are often praised for our achievements, we often excel in what we do, and we are often told that the world is full of boundless opportunities, if only we apply ourselves. Of course, praise has its place when deserved, and can serve an important purpose, but it can lead to losing sight of where we stand in the big picture. Although many of us are put in places of privilege, it is imperative to understand the true meaning of the word “serve”.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of that concept was Gandhi. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi said (emphasis is mine):

“Service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”

In a short piece entitled The Nature of the Fun, Foster Wallace speaks of a similar parallel in the world of writing. He speaks of how initially, people tend to write simply because they think it is fun, until they are (unfortunately) recognised as having talent. After this point, it can become more about trying to write for others; for recognition, for adoration or for respect. Foster Wallace doesn’t only believe that this primarily serves the ego and vanity, it leads to, as he puts it “shitty fiction”.

I believe that by ignoring the true meaning of the word “serve”, we too can fall into the trap of “shitty development”. The following table, courtesy of How Matters, adequately illustrates this point:


Image courtesy of How Matters


We live in a world where it is easy to fall into the trap of the “default setting” that Foster Wallace described when speaking to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. All around us, we see examples of vanity and self-centredness becoming the norm. A recent analysis of modern day song lyrics showed that words such as “I” and “me” are more commonly used than ever before. Our obsession with Charlie Sheen and his obsession with winning, while amusing for 3.5 seconds, is a sad reflection on the pervasiveness of our voyeurism and the value we put on self-praise and chest-beating. And finally, my favourite study of recent times, women (as compared to men), who posted more photos of themselves and had the largest social networks on Facebook, are more likely to value their self worth according to their appearance, and use social networking as a method to seek attention.

As development workers, what can we conclude from all of this, and what is the best way forward? I think it involves taking the ego out of the equation, and removing that temptation to think that we are perhaps smarter, more special and more insightful than others. As tragic as Foster Wallace’s death was, there’s still a very important lesson to be learnt in the way he lived his life.


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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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5 thoughts on “What David Foster Wallace taught me about development

  1. […] arbitrarily, but seeing them as equals with something to contribute. I wrote more on this issue in this piece about David Foster […]

  2. […] Yeoh, the unfortunate recipient of my 140 character diatribes, wrote this wonderful piece on that looks at DFW from a ‘development’ perspective. Well worth a […]

  3. […] arbitrarily, but seeing them as equals with something to contribute. I wrote more on this issue in this piece about David Foster […]

  4. Sarah Termytelen

    Great article Weh. I’m going to go and read that speech, he sounds like an incredible person.

  5. I like your article overall, and I love it when people concretise the lessons they learn from literature and literary authors. But I profoundly dislike that table. Though the first two columns are good warnings, the third column looks to me like a description of a New Age missionary. Frankly, if I had a water engineer or government head of department that was daily wrapped in an “experience of mystery, awe and surrender”, I would run the hills. Most development is really basic, basic stuff. Good relationships between people is also basic, basic stuff. We know a lot about development from our privileged experience: we know what clean water, good food, safety, personal autonomy, and transport all look and feel like. We know a lot about good human relationships from our family and friends. Sometimes we help them. Sometimes we fix stuff for them. Sometimes we serve them. It’s not either or. But all of these are workaday, earthy, and grounded matters. The Institute for Noetic Sciences, on the other hand, was started in outer space. (Literally.)

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