Widgets Magazine


Don’t just do something, sit there

I watch my friends’ mouths move as they talk about their summer internships, jobs and salaries. College juniors deny four-digit summer salaries for five-digit ones. Frantic engineers ensure that they are taking the right computer science class to jumpstart their careers. We switch majors; we switch back; we stress; we don’t change anything.

These perpetual cycles of indecision, fear and pressure have worked tirelessly to marginalize what we love. The things we enjoy become batty old grandmothers not taken seriously and relegated to nursing homes. Income takes over. Questions pour through our sweet, little overworked brains systematically disassembling our innate systems of judgement with the efficiency and skill we have worked so hard and spent so much money to instill.

Few things give me as much unadulterated pleasure as watching onions shimmy in a skillet, beads of olive oil making them shine like they are in a Pantene commercial. I love cooking, but every attempt I have made to do something with it (besides, of course, cook) has resulted in even more feelings of inadequacy than the initial burst prompting me to act. Last summer, I haphazardly started a food blog. I fretted about names, slapped together some fonts, and ended up with a mint colored empty webpage. Looking at it gave me instant anxiety. Naturally, I did not cowgirl up to writing the first post until three weeks later when, after doing nothing for a month and a half, I dragged myself to the grocery store to buy ingredients for an overly complicated avocado toast concoction. Six days later, I wrote the piece and published it. Looking at the webpage again, my anxiety was barely mitigated. I did not see the fairly decent photographs, I saw empty space. I saw the mountain of posts I would need to upload in order to get anywhere. I saw, and continue to see, the reflection of a lightbulb on the table in the photos I took on my mom’s camera, and yearned for the majestically matte marble countertops of the food blogs I check daily.

The answer to this dilemma seems obvious. Don’t sit there and think about it, do something. Do more. Do the most. The most applauded narrative is that of the person who works the hardest, does the most, and acts in such a high quantity that they grasp success to the highest degree. Despite being surrounded by Stanford’s canary palm trees and red-tiled roofs that have birthed some of the most supposedly successful examples of intense doing, I can’t really do that much when the inertia of my body pulls me toward whichever cushioned surface and YouTube streaming device is nearest.

Until spring quarter of my freshman year, I believed my lack of motivation to be a voluntary curse. When I returned to my room at night, I would stare at the painted plywood ceiling and think about my roommate who was taking all of the hardest classes and succeeding, and my RAs who seemed to own Stanford, knowing all the right opportunities to take advantage of – and being smart enough to have them available. It seemed I did not even fit the adage of the Stanford duck; I was some sort of dead duck, sinking while everyone else floated. As I descended to the bottom of the water, I had no choice but to accept the defeat the Stanford ducklings push so relentlessly to avoid.

The duck analogy does not convey just how strong the urge to struggle under the water is. Everything around you tells you to try harder and do more, and that if you fail, it is your fault for not trying hard enough or doing enough. When you give up, the sinking feels like forever, but it ends. After many days of slogging through classes I didn’t know why I was taking and sweaty bike rides, I woke up and immediately noticed the effervescent tangle of trees outside my window instead of thinking about which assignments remained incomplete. In my state of mixed metaphors, it felt like I had hit the bottom, and it was surprisingly sandy.  

In a commencement  speech no doubt much better than the one I will listen to in 2019, David Foster Wallace waxes philosophically about fish. He recounts, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

I would like to extend that allegory to the quintessential Stanford ducks. We are, as Lin-Manuel Miranda said in another commencement speech, “painfully aware of what is at stake,” of how all the ripples of our own actions might possibly affect us and the world. But our world trains us not to see what is actually there, hidden in plain sight. I don’t know exactly what the water is, but I am thankful that I know it is there.


Contact Ariel Kaufman at akaykauf ‘at’ stanford.edu