How many times a day do you ask someone how they are, and they respond with “good, but stressed,” “I’m so tired” or “I’m fine, but I’ve just been so busy”?
A bit too often, I’m guessing.
“Busy-ness” is glorified in our society, especially at Stanford, which is a microcosm of exceedingly high achievers. We wear our stress like a badge of honor, as if the busier we are, the more impressive we must be, and the more accomplished we must seem.
I am no exception to the rule. My response to the classic “how are you?” too often laments my packed schedule, stress or lack of sleep. It comes almost as a defense mechanism, as if I have something to prove.
The Stanford bubble can be a beautiful one, where we all are surrounded by the brightest and most inspiring minds for four years. But it’s obvious that this insulated bubble makes it all too easy to compare what we’re doing — and how we’re doing — to the others we know. We are constantly looking for a way to measure ourselves relative to what we see around us.
I’ve caught myself countless times in thinking, “Wow, that person is so much busier than I am. He/she is doing so much more … I should be busier, too.” I view their workload as an indicator that they somehow must be more fulfilled by what they were doing, and that I am therefore less so; I must not be nearly as successful and capable of accomplishing as much.
When we glorify stress and being busy, we normalize a culture where running ourselves ragged is not just celebrated but the norm. To not be busy makes you an outlier — someone that is not measuring up to the Stanford “standards.”
Being so hyper-fixed on my own stress and schedule is, in a way, selfish. It’s a way to be caught up in my own little world — a Stanford bubble of sorts, but on an individual scale. Instead, we should be encouraging ourselves — and just as importantly, others — to find a better balance in our lives and in our Stanford experiences.
There is irony in the fact that while we are taught at Stanford that we can choose to define success however we want, it still seems as if we are always sprinting in the pursuit of the next goal, reaching for the next rung on the ladder of achievement. We convince ourselves that everything we do now, every notch we put in our belts, will pay off when we are successful and achieve that next milestone (whatever we define that to be). But, as soon as we reach that goal, we rarely bask in that success because we must be in pursuit of the next one.
There is nothing beneficial about perpetuating a cycle where we don’t cut ourselves slack, a cycle that allows ourselves to feel guilt over letting something give. The Stanford duck syndrome may not be completely inescapable, but it’s important to realize that it certainly doesn’t make you a better duck just because you’re paddling faster.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to push ourselves, to challenge ourselves to do more or to be more. What I am saying is that we should challenge ourselves to analyze the reasons as to why we we are doing the things we do, and why we are reaching for the goals we are trying to achieve.
What would we do if instead of glorifying being busy, we glorified living? Glorified just being, and being with the ones we care about?
And what if we encouraged others to do the same?
It may not be practical to just drop all our activities in the name of being less stressed, but what we can do is re-evaluate. We can re-evaluate what (and more importantly, who) is meaningful in our lives. We can think about what actually brings us joy vs. what eats at us. We can re-evaluate what to prioritize by searching to understand makes us feel the most enriched. And we can re-evaluate our own personal definition of success.
We can change our rhetoric, even in small ways. The next time someone asks me how I am, I know I don’t have anything to prove by telling you I am busy. Instead, I might just ask you what you did for yourself to make your life feel a little fuller this week.
Changing the way we frame our lives doesn’t have to come at the expense of being real and honest with others about when times are bad or when they are good, but we can actively emphasize what we value in our lives over the clutter. And in doing so, we can not only change what we view as important, but we can influence others to do the same.
Contact Maggie Harriman at mpharrim ‘at’ stanford.edu.