Articles, Blog

David Foster Wallace on Ambition | Blank on Blank

August 14, 2019


[Music] David Foster Wallace: You know, the whole
thing about perfectionism. The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your
fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything
results in— It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous
and perfect it is in your head for what it really is. And there were a couple of years
where I really struggled with that. [Music continues] David Foster Wallace: I played serious tennis
when I was a child. I played it enough to start to feel like it was beautiful. Leonard Lopate: You were 17th in the United
States Tennis Association Western Section when you were 14 years old… David Foster Wallace: That sounds very impressive.
That’s a regional ranking and it means that I was probably 4,000th in the nation for my
age group. Leonard Lopate: But could you have been better?
Was it a matter of choice that you didn’t pursue it? David Foster Wallace: I perhaps could have
been somewhat better. One of the interesting things about playing competitive sports as
a child is that you confront your own limitations rather starkly at a certain point. For the
first couple of years I was very good and was regarded as promising. And then after
I developed for two or three years it became very clear exactly how good I was going to
be, which is I could probably be a good college player but that I was never going to have
professional potential or anything. Leonard Lopate: And so you passed up on it? David Foster Wallace: I didn’t pass up on
it. I kept playing. But there’s a difference between training. I mean the people who seriously,
seriously play devote their lives to it sort of the way monks do. I mean you don’t date,
you go to bed at a certain time, you eat certain ways, you practice 10-12 hours a day. And
I mean, the difference between practicing three hours a day and practicing 12 hours
a day is everything. And I certainly never— I never trained seriously after the age of
16. Leonard Lopate: Were you also, at that point,
attracted to other things, like writing? David Foster Wallace: I wasn’t all that
attracted to writing originally. I read a great deal. My parents read a great deal.
I do know that as my interest in tennis waned, my interest in academics increased. I mean,
I started doing my homework in high school and discovering that it was somewhat fun.
And then in college I barely even played on the team because just classes were much more
interesting. Leonard Lopate: But then there’s also the
drug factor here, which plays a major role in this book… David Foster Wallace: Yeah. [Music:] David Foster Wallace: You know, it’s real
interesting. I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought
I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde
or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever
learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point,
whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate
to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention
in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever.
All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad
school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they
don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher,
I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now
I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me. Leonard Lopate: And you’re probably further
victimized by all of this because certain kinds of students will gravitate to your class.
And those are people who think that they’re kindred spirits. David Foster Wallace: Yeah, in a certain way.
Although the only way that I’m well known at Illinois State is that I am the “grammar
Nazi.” And so any student whose deployment of a semi-colon is not absolutely Mozart-esque
knows that they’re going to get a C in my class, and so my classes tend to have like
four students in them. It’s really a lot of fun. [Music: ] ///end///

100 Comments

  • Reply Eric September 12, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    His voice is unbearable

  • Reply MyEnemy September 14, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    It's weird hearing the interviewer, Charlie Rose's voice altered in this clip.

  • Reply Griffin September 15, 2017 at 4:15 am

    I still struggle with this

  • Reply Julian Blake September 16, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    I find 3 things funny in this interview: 1. The interviewer bringing the drug factor out the blue in the middle of a totally different topic. 2, The fact that FW considered annoying and frustrating reading people who write only to show off that they're clever, and you see a lot of arrogant comments in this video, by probable FW followers, who seem to be doing precisely that. And 3, the fact that Foster Wallace, of all people, Foster Wallace is saying that it is annoying to read such people. The irony there!

  • Reply Don L September 18, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    Let's listen to a man who once tried to push a woman he loved out of a moving car about why being clever isn't admirable, Hah! And a grammar nazi? People are into pedants in art because their self obsession and idiosyncracies create interesting microcosms of coherent work according to the details of their predilections but careful expanding it to advice in general.

  • Reply Don L September 18, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    So perfection is the enemy of action/ then isn't a corollary "suicide is the enemy of life?"

  • Reply Nip Nip Nip September 19, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    So….just a normal bloke then.

  • Reply Randell Porter September 21, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    When I first looked at the title of this specific video, I thought it was going to be some kind of huggy, kissy crap. It turned out to be very much worth listening to. Thx

  • Reply Leksi Wins October 4, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    He sounds like a total asshole with his grammar obsession; Keeping people from taking his classes by terrorizing them with semicolon usage is counterproductive to actual learning.

  • Reply Nx Doyle October 6, 2017 at 2:05 am

    David Foster Wallace was brilliant and tortured, so when he killed himself it appeared, as it so often does with tortured brilliant people, that the two always sat together until the last day, when torture wrested control and forced the issue. So in the final analysis, people take the brilliance end of the shoelace and the tortured end of the shoelace and tie a nice bow.

    I have the torture, but not the brilliance.

  • Reply Tiger H. Lore October 6, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    Sometimes I have tons of ambition. Other times I have none. I’m “ambitidextrous”.

  • Reply Autonomous Thought October 7, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    what the fuck, the beginning part about being a perfectionist was very interesting and the beginning of something profound, then it was cut off and nothing else in the video logically followed it at all

  • Reply Jesse .Sutton October 9, 2017 at 3:08 am

    "And then there was the drug factor." "Yeah…"
    Completely chicken shit to include this sound bite. Address it or don't address it, but to drop it in and edit around any actual acknowledgement (or lack thereof) is cowardice.

  • Reply Anarchon October 11, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    I have/had (not sure yet) the same problem, I saw it written somewhere and it encapsulated it so perfectly.

    Paralysis through analysis.

  • Reply PariSitic Pictures October 13, 2017 at 12:27 am

    The older I get, the more I realize my parents are stupid……..

  • Reply MickyAvStickyHands October 18, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    So basically every pot head I went to highschool with thought they were this guy.

  • Reply Dylan Ullman November 3, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    I love the moment at 1:56 where he adjusts the microphone haha. I giggled

  • Reply Blasko xx November 26, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    This is what those wanna be writers in coffee shops want us to think they are thinking, but they're not.

  • Reply mike olsen December 28, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    amaerican søren kierkegaard

  • Reply SomethingSoOriginal February 3, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    This has nothing to do with ambition

  • Reply _Sensei_ February 13, 2018 at 12:29 am

    bgrought here by Mammoth

  • Reply Eric Peeper March 6, 2018 at 10:16 am

    I'm always humbled and humiliated reading Wallace. I cannot begin to imagine how chaotic it was inside his towering intellect. May he rest in peace.

  • Reply jorge a. moreno aldape March 15, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    i think DFW was the last greatest writer. After him i dont think there is any worth reading new book.

  • Reply Julian Gioia March 19, 2018 at 12:52 am

    He sounds like a low-pitched PsychicPebbles

  • Reply Chad Eklund April 17, 2018 at 4:24 am

    this is terrible, but I hope someone becomes interested in DFW

  • Reply Daniel Macovei May 8, 2018 at 12:11 am

    Anybody have any luck finding more music by the musician?

  • Reply Tony Walton May 9, 2018 at 1:12 am

    DFW was cool. no introspection. well, some introspection

  • Reply Fooey Yu May 12, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    David Foster Wallace hung himself because he wanted an A+ in 'Suicide'.

  • Reply Hexspa May 14, 2018 at 9:59 am

    Wait; he's a teacher?

  • Reply Main Street Workshops May 29, 2018 at 8:02 am

    this guy was a fuckin loser.

  • Reply Stephanie Da June 6, 2018 at 1:08 am

    the office

  • Reply Toyman Blood June 12, 2018 at 9:25 am

    The retrograded became the grammar nazi.

  • Reply The Cardinal_ June 15, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    This seems to be eternally in my sidebar as I come back to it consistently over the years. His thoughts on perfectionism are so vivid it chokes me up. If only Id heard this sooner instead of learning the hard way.

  • Reply ConservativeAnthem June 17, 2018 at 6:01 am

    Killing yourself is a kind of perfectionism

  • Reply RottenDoctorGonzo June 21, 2018 at 1:18 am

    hipsters' guru.

  • Reply OH Global June 28, 2018 at 4:00 am

    What a soft voice. Wow.

  • Reply aluisious July 22, 2018 at 6:54 am

    It's bizarre to post a video about ambition 5 years after the guy speaking killed himself.

  • Reply Andrew Stith August 6, 2018 at 4:54 am

    Some dumb dead nigga telling us about ambition

  • Reply chloe 121 August 11, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    Never related to the intro more than anything in my life. Such a perfectionist that I don’t do stuff unless I do it perfectly first time.

  • Reply Kelly Pagano August 18, 2018 at 3:42 am

    Well.. an interesting guy. There are thousands of words I could use to describe David Foster Wallace, but I can’t come up with a better one than (interesting).

  • Reply abarronboy August 28, 2018 at 3:41 am

    Such a difficult person that you want to understand.

  • Reply Alexander Eriksson September 2, 2018 at 10:49 am

    "If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high you'd never do anything."

    "…any student's deployment of a semi-colon isn't absolutely mozartesque knows they will only get a C in my class"

    I would've hated him as a teacher.

  • Reply Stoned Wallflower September 5, 2018 at 1:09 am

    I have no ambition. I used to want to be an artist or a writer, but now… I haven't painted anything in a year, and I am terrible at writing.
    I have no passions, only interests, and nothing I could turn into a career.
    I don't want to stay in school, but I'm also afraid to drop out. Mainly, I just want a big change in my life, because things have been steadily declining since… Well. It feels like my whole life. I think that the only way for things to get better is to try a new approach. Put myself in a different situation. Is it the right thing to do?

  • Reply Hannah Maxfield September 14, 2018 at 2:54 am

    Misleading title

  • Reply a moon October 5, 2018 at 7:20 am

    I had to look up onanistic. Was not expecting that definition lol.

  • Reply Rey Falero PapaRey239 October 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm

    Basically he had no ambition to pursue what he may have been great at . …- Juneidys Falero

  • Reply Batou November 3, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    thank you for this !

  • Reply Ruchi Khanna November 26, 2018 at 8:55 am

    He looks better in sketch.

  • Reply Chuckie Waitt December 9, 2018 at 12:11 am

    I haven't really read his books, but based on this interview and what I've heard of him this guy seems pretentious as fuck

  • Reply Matthijs Borgdorff December 12, 2018 at 5:13 am

    Was anyone else really disappointed when Jason Segel got the role of DFW in the movie about his life: The End of the Tour?
    I still haven't seen the movie because I can't stand that dude.

  • Reply Point Less December 19, 2018 at 1:31 am

    could really do without the music..

  • Reply raharu000 December 22, 2018 at 4:23 am

    Lose the music.

  • Reply Anton Leimbach January 9, 2019 at 1:34 am

    No comments about Infinite Jest? It’s sad that so few people can read anything longer than a text message.

  • Reply Son of Bukowski January 19, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    brilliant mind

  • Reply Best Version January 22, 2019 at 12:06 am

    Thank you so much for the animation. I'd never have been able to follow this interview without the visualization of every single point made.

  • Reply Good Taste of Music Club January 23, 2019 at 10:02 pm

    Music name anyone?

  • Reply Billy Begley January 30, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    god i wish he was still alive to comment on everything today. he predicted so much with infinite jest, it's uncanny reading it this decade.

  • Reply SWEAT! January 31, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    my friend called me a david foster wallace slut

    another acquaintance told me i look like david foster wallace

    someone else told me i look like a serial killer

  • Reply Adrien Roy February 6, 2019 at 4:37 am

    BRING THESE BACK!!!!

  • Reply ezakustam February 14, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    It sounds as if the interviewee at the end of the video needs to heed the advice of the interviewee at the beginning of the video.

  • Reply James February 22, 2019 at 2:52 am

    Ambition is unnatural. DFW sounds very all right in this. I commend him for caring about his students' punctuation at that level. The semi-colon is unnatural. Maybe that is the bit about ambition. Why am I watching this? Why am I commenting?

  • Reply Morad [HB] February 22, 2019 at 11:17 am

    __ ._ ._. .__. …. .. ._. _ …

  • Reply Nick K March 30, 2019 at 3:39 am

    this whole bit on not being overly clever, then: "one wrong semi-colon, bad grade 4 u!"

  • Reply Azola Wentula April 1, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    Great writer there is something special about moon in virgo's ability to analyse and put that i analysis into practical use. Simply not matched. 2022 anyone.

  • Reply Michael April 4, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Can we talk about how nothing here had to do with ambition or? Wallace would be appalled

  • Reply Ceasar Rex April 29, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    He talks like me.

  • Reply Brometheus 322 May 21, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    Rest In Peace, sir

  • Reply Cheeseatingjunglista May 23, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    wish he'd died sooner, loser junky shit

  • Reply n June 12, 2019 at 7:03 pm

    I like this animation – great job 🙂

  • Reply vemtrmz June 16, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    Dis dat gui form dE oFICE

  • Reply visenburg June 19, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    rip the young god

  • Reply Scott Kelly June 23, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    amanda i think has become invisible

  • Reply Stan Mann June 27, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    I wish I hadn't researched his private life. I don't like thinking about him being a broken human being.

  • Reply Alex Dombovic June 28, 2019 at 1:53 am

    About half way through Infinite Jest. Sad we couldn't have more of you DFW

  • Reply nameless one June 28, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    God I love the sound of this man's voice. It soothes me like a lullaby.

  • Reply Alex Petrovich June 29, 2019 at 2:49 am

    There wasn't much meat to this.

  • Reply Rampart June 30, 2019 at 9:42 am

    Vice the ad concerning David and Goliath: No other sources in the world suggest that Goliath was blind, or even nearly blind. David's choice of weapon was a slingshot. With the right-sized rock, plenty of weight and stopping power, a slingshot in the hands of an warrior who is calm, level-headed and passionate about killing the enemy is a very lethal weapon—especially when you aim and land that shot right between the eyes. You don't need to go toe-to-toe with a slingshot, you can kill a man if you nail him right between the eyes. Damn sad about David Foster Wallace. His fidelity to perfectionism and his obsession with literary theory drove him mad. A lesson there, for young writers, especially those who are bound and wed to the academy.

  • Reply Alan Cham June 30, 2019 at 9:56 am

    I liked this video and conversation. I didn't think it was very much about ambition though.

  • Reply James T. West June 30, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    love the jazzy blend with animation and a message of self-awareness; great post

  • Reply TheBshwckr July 1, 2019 at 1:43 am

    DFW: Look at how much of a student I became.

    Interviewer: "There's also a drug factor that plays a lot in this book."

    DFW: "th- yeah."

    lmao, way to kill the mood.

  • Reply bosix 91 July 1, 2019 at 7:22 pm

    Ryan renolds could play him in a movie

  • Reply News & Documentary July 2, 2019 at 2:02 am

    I like how he disagreed to the questions mostly until he said yes to the drug question.

  • Reply Logan Revesby July 4, 2019 at 7:59 am

    Grammar: A postiori that thought it was a priori.

  • Reply Steve Haag July 5, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    He sounds so smooth and sure and articulate and engaged. The presentation here and graphics are very fine.

  • Reply EuphoniaPooch July 6, 2019 at 2:18 am

    Could have been titled better

  • Reply Tatsujiro Kurogane July 6, 2019 at 10:45 am

    What he is saying is that if you think too much you get hung up

  • Reply The Watchtower July 8, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    How do I find a reason to live when David who is such a better man then me?

  • Reply Nathan Swigg July 11, 2019 at 5:46 am

    no hes a grammer nazi? yuck

  • Reply gerry s July 12, 2019 at 4:51 am

    His writing isn’t impenetrable as much as it is boring as fuck

  • Reply Chrizzie 78 July 12, 2019 at 7:23 pm

    I don't know what I like, but I know exactly what I hate.

  • Reply H- TOWN July 14, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    I am grammar nazi as well. Kinda sucks because of people.

  • Reply Benno von Archimboldi July 16, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Holy fack . This is not only really intriguing to listen on an "intellectual" base but also in the way his voice sounds so damn smooth.

  • Reply Yelerib July 17, 2019 at 6:49 am

    Good writer
    Absolutely terrible person

  • Reply lil garbage disposal July 17, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    The CIA funded hugely influential writing programs to sway popular opinion about what constituted good writing

    http://www.openculture.com/2018/12/cia-helped-shaped-american-creative-writing-famous-iowa-writers-workshop.html

    "Good literature, students learned, contains ‘sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.’"

  • Reply Dan Toledano July 22, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    The way you take interviews and segments from conversations of diverse creative people and put them to drawings is inspiring.

  • Reply Dom Kilon July 24, 2019 at 12:50 am

    I love Infinite Jest, but every time I recommend it to a friend, they can't stop complaining about his run on sentences.

  • Reply MapleMilk July 24, 2019 at 7:42 am

    This man sounds exactly like KaptainKristain

  • Reply Autochron July 25, 2019 at 6:47 am

    Personally, I never felt frustrated by works that try to show me how clever the writer is. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think I enjoy reading clever things, even ones that beat me over the head with cleverness, and I'm having trouble articulating why. Anyone else want to chime in on why they either like or dislike works like this?

  • Reply Tatsujiro Kurogane August 5, 2019 at 6:08 am

    It's so sad that he reached the end of his rope. He was very articulate about these knotty issues, which is eerily prescient…………….almost ironic, even

  • Reply Curious Carpenter August 6, 2019 at 11:36 am

    Perfectionism is what killed David Foster Wallace. He ended his own life because he felt like he couldn't write as well as he would have wanted anymore.

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