Widgets Magazine


Musings on the syndrome of the duck

I have gone to Stanford for exactly a year now, and my report from the field indicates that the floating duck syndrome attributed to it is not a myth as I had hoped. It is real. Very, very real. Like, very syndrome-y. And as much as I hate it, I am a floating duck too. I want to look like everything’s dandy, because, well, who wants to look like an utter mess? Certainly not me! I want to seem well-adjusted. Heck, I want to look like a kid with a future in my pocket. Don’t we all? Don’t we all want to look like Stanford students? But that’s the issue, and I get it. See, I still have the vestigial organs from the kid I was in high school. The girl who did too many extracurriculars I didn’t love, who stressed way too much over a freaking B, who had no social life a) because I went to an all-girls school and b) because I was obsessed over that freaking future of mine. A lot of us, I suspect, were kids like me. Kids who put the future ahead of the present on their priority list, which is smart, but in other ways, stupid. Now that I’m at Stanford, you think I’d be over all that crap, right? And I am, in a lot of ways. But not all. The floating duck is my kind of vestigial organ. So to speak. Because that imagery is weird. It’s the mask I put on to tell myself, perhaps more than anyone else, that I got a future on my shoulders. Here I am at Stanford, surrounded by a bunch of kids who talk about the startup they’re making right NOW, or the internship they have this summer, or their plans to be famous or rich or successful that all feel so urgent, so impatiently desired … in a place like this, is there any patience for a future put off? The future is now — that is the status quo, and I’m into it. I’m going to wear my future on my face and suffer the present inside. Because that’s how I get by. By the promise of the future. And the problem with that, well … it’s easy to see. When you spend too much time grooming the future, you make the present unloved and shameful … and I realize now, all too helplessly, that the present I am burying will someday turn into that glossy dream of the future, except that in truth, that glossy future will be nothing more than the offspring of my crappy, neglected present.

  • Adam Johnson

    Alex, cool story. However, I would appreciate if you would stop spreading misinformation about the duck. For more info, see my column from earlier this year: http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/09/26/the-new-duck-metaphor/

  • daffy

    I agree that the duck metaphor as it may sometimes be used may not be accurate in the sense that ducks certainly do not paddle to stay afloat. However, it may be that originally (and even still) the metaphor correctly referred to the disparity between apparent duck motion above and below the surface. A duck glides gracefully by in the water, while beneath the surface, all is a flurry of motion. See, for example, this youtube clip:


    I’m guessing this metaphor got conflated with that of “drowning” — “drowning in work”, for example — since both refer to things done in the water, and hence some people now think of the hapless (apparently cement-booted) duck as trying to stay afloat rather than moving across the surface of the water.

  • Adam Johnson

    Thanks for at least agreeing about the staying afloat part. But your YouTube clip is of ducklings. If you check out some clips of mature ducks, their legs are not a “flurry of motion.” Thus your comparison is only correct if you think Stanford students are like babies (which may not be so far from the truth).


    I hope when you refer to the duck as hapless, that is referring to how people mis-characterize it. The duck is really a remarkable creature- not only can it thrive on land and in the air, but in water as well.

  • Alex Bayer

    Point well taken, Adam. Ducks are not to be taken lightly. In fact, I have experienced their savagery first hand, as one bit my hand when I was holding out a bread crumb. Of course, I don’t mean to slander these creatures. For though they are savage…my, what grace. What grace.

  • Adam Johnson

    Thanks for replying, Alex. But how would you feel if a much larger animal approached you to shove food you don’t like down your throat? Would you be such a savage for protecting yourself?