David Foster Wallace On Ambition

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

Leonard Lopate

Interview by

March 4, 1996

Original interview aired on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show




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.

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.


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. 

Jason Bitner