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The Secret to Being Great at Marketing is Staying Awake

By Kate Faigen

An “off-day” at work is hardly uncommon. Even tireless employees find themselves fighting to stay awake (albeit only on occasion, of course.) Whether it’s a lack of sleep or coffee, this sort of slip-up is inevitable. But what about staying awake in the figurative sense – or what self-reflective genius David Foster Wallace called “daily consciousness”?

In Wallace’s genre-bending 2005 commencement speech “This Is Water,” he ruthlessly discusses the importance of “staying awake” throughout the oftentimes mundane maze of our day-to-day routine. Call it the Art of Choosing, if you will: exercising control over “how to think and what to pay attention to.”

I admit to harboring a slight bias toward this speech (it was delivered at my alma mater, Kenyon College), but the very real way in which I lean on its words in moments of destructive self-obsession bears no correlation to my college pride.

It might be foolish to assume that everyone has at least once walked down a busy street or convenience store aisle and thought irrationally to themselves, “Dammit, this idiot’s in my way!” Is it crass to think that most, if not all, people have these instances of selfish delusion? Either way, I stand by my inkling that our “default setting,” as Wallace perceptively coins it, is to believe entirely that we are the absolute center of it all.

Think of the point in the day in which you have to complete your most tedious task – maybe it’s taking that heap of laundry you’ve let rot in your bedroom corner to the laundromat, or riding the subway after a long day of work among a slew of screaming kids and aggravated adults. In both of these scenarios, according to Wallace, we operate on a sort of selfish autopilot, unconsciously believing that our “immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” 

No, these are not life-and-death situations, but that’s not the point. The point is that even in our wickedly fortunate lives, the monotonous “day in, day out” of adulthood can meld into something menacing. And if it does, our hope of staying awake and aware of the real life-and-death matters throughout the, well, inexplicable boredom, is only possible by exerting true compassion and feeling for others – and not just ourselves.

The angry adult might have bumped into you without an apology because he’s rattled from having just lost his job. The stranger put her laundry in the last two washers in the laundromat right before you got there after an agonizing day at work because she too had a long and defeating day, and needs to get both her and her children’s wash done. And while none of this may actually be the case, Wallace’s untenable gem of wisdom states that it could be. As the captains of our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” we have a crazy and vast freedom to choose the angle with which we discern the little events that dictate our days.

In the same vein, our professional work is constantly informed by our inner narratives, how we choose to perceive and make use of any particular occurrence. While marketing masters are particularly adept at inhabiting other worlds, a.k.a. the brain of a brand, one’s own disposition influences the content one creates for someone else.

There’s a reason why close-minded marketers are few and far between. Imagine taking on the role of brand storyteller with an inability to relinquish preconceived notions. How can you relay a brand’s genuinely original message if you’ve already written it in your head? Here at Woden, we pride ourselves on our ability to wholly encapsulate the “why” of a brand, even if said brand doesn’t address our personal interests or ideals. We let go of our biases, stretch our minds, and observe – and this is all done with an empathy that can be practiced in one’s day-to-day.

As I walk indignantly along the crowded street or store aisle or office hallway, I have to stop to remind myself: maybe I was in that idiot’s way. Maybe, dare I say it, I’m the idiot. This is a simple example of a common occurrence, where we remember that we’re not the only ones who must maneuver the physical and emotional clutter of “day in, day out,” and that everyone has a story.

What am I getting at here? I wouldn’t blame you for thinking “trivial bullshit” or “what the hell…?” immediately. After all, what does thoughtfully analyzing a meaningless event really have to do with great marketing? The answer that I have found for myself is this: when I step outside of my head, I am more likely to understand what’s going on inside of it – to grasp why I’m feeling the way I am in a given moment and recognize that I can choose to feel differently. This is how I recalibrate my perspective. Just like reading a news article or a piece of fiction surges open internal creative latches, freeing myself from self-centered thoughts makes me a dependable and sound storyteller. And that’s what any brand needs.

Wallace opens his speech with a story about fish swimming alongside each other. One fish asks, “How’s the water?” to which another fish replies, “What the hell is water?” His point: what’s obvious is often hard to see.

In terms of marketing, staying true – completely, unabashedly true – to a brand and its singular message has as much to do with creativity and expertise as it does with genuine human connection. How can we connect with others if we’re trapped inside of ourselves? And how do we relay a story that grabs people on an inexplicably visceral level? We tell ourselves many moments of every single day: “This is water. This is water.” 

Kate Faigen is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.