Brain Pickings

David Foster Wallace on Ambition, Animated


“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”

On March 4, 1996, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate sat down with David Foster Wallacecultural critic, articulator of the ineffable, tragic prophet of the meaning of life — to talk about Infinite Jest, the 1,079-page, three-pound-three-ounce novel that catapulted Wallace into literary fame. Now, the wonderful folks of Blank on Blank and animator Patrick Smith have teamed up with PBS Digital Studios to bring Wallace’s wisdom on ambition, education, and writing to life. Highlights below:

Like Neil Gaiman, who famously admonished, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving,” Wallace cautions against the lose-lose mindset of perfectionism:

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.

Like Sister Corita Kent, Wallace sees learning and teaching as intertwined:

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student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student.

Pair with Wallace on true heroism and why writers write.

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