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Duck syndrome and a culture of misery

Stanford duck syndrome. Almost everyone knows what it is. We’ve probably all felt it at some point. Seeing people around you effortlessly glide through their lives, acing exams, landing internships and turning up at parties while you feebly trudge through your four p-sets and three projects on your nightly four hours of sleep can be difficult. Of course, you genuinely love seeing your friends and fellow students succeed, but how can everyone else be so happy and bubbly while you’re struggling to stay afloat in a personal wave of inadequacy?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the stress culture here is something I didn’t exactly expect when coming to Stanford. I had heard of schools such as MIT, UC Berkeley and Harvard turning into stress-filled pressure cookers as time went on, but Stanford was always supposed to be the “happy place,” right? Stanford was the palm-tree paradise, the pinnacle of student happiness, bathed in perpetual sunshine as if blessed by the heavens. My friends at other colleges always joke, “at least you have grade inflation at Stanford.” However, the reality is that everyone here is so brilliant to the point where you feel the only way to belong is to subject yourself to extreme, unhealthy habits in the name of academia with the promise of a better résumé. The Stanford stress culture definitely exists, even if it is a little more hidden than at other high-profile universities.

Sometimes, I wonder if students here are genuinely happy. We put on a brave face and a wide smile when we go to our classes and see our friends, but on the inside, the pressure is slowly tearing us apart. During one of my first weeks at Stanford, I had a talk about this with some other kids: It sometimes feels like the Stanford experience is shrouded in a cloud of superficiality. I think it really helped to talk about this, and I encourage others to engage in this kind of discussion. What’s really going on inside everyone’s heads? Are people what they seem?

The duck syndrome and the culture of misery are a strange combination, and a seeming contradiction. While everyone seems to be smoothly moving along, everyone also seems to be simultaneously working themselves to death. A close friend of mine described it as “duck syndrome culture, where everything is effortless,” and “workaholic culture, where you grind or you die.”

This sort of polarity is so hard to describe, but it’s most visible at the extremes. I remember coming back to the dorm after a late night out, and seeing another close friend hard at work on computer science. She looked exhausted. As she dozed off periodically, we implored her to go to bed. But she refused. After some more prodding, we gave up. The worst part is that this is quite often a normal occurrence. No one is guilt-free. I remember yesterday working on my hardware for a CS project, being so exhausted I could pass out with my friends telling me it was time to sleep, but just thinking, “I just need to do one more line of code!” Even today, I skipped breakfast and took a very late lunch just to go to CS office hours, much against my body’s wishes.

This workaholic mentality is only exacerbated by the duck syndrome. We see so much achievement and think that the only way to even come close to catching up is by working ourselves to death. A few weeks ago, another close friend of mine had pulled two all-nighters on her birthday weekend to work on a project. That Sunday night, we noticed her face was flushed and she looked exhausted and overworked. One of my other friends remarked she looked sick, so we took her temperature: 102.1 degrees. We tried our best to force her to rest, but the culture of misery struck again – she refused.

It’s a testament to this toxic “grind or die” atmosphere at universities that, even in the face of major illness, we put the pedal to the metal and continue to drive our health off a cliff. It’s not like this is a conscious decision to be miserable, but sometimes it feels as if taking care of our own health is a guilty pleasure. I talked to someone who said that they felt almost sinful for sleeping in one day. We subliminally equate feeling burned out to being a good student.

This has no doubt been stated many times, but the only solution is self-care. During NSO, Stanford did its best to imprint in our minds that taking care of ourselves is the most important thing at university, but much like the other information at NSO, it seems to have been lost on everyone here. We need to take a harder stance towards emphasizing the fact that “pulling three consecutive all-nighters” isn’t a badge of honor, and that it’s okay to try to sleep nine hours a night. As a student body, we need to combat the culture of misery and remember that many other people here are having a hard time. I think the Stanford University Places I’ve Cried Facebook group is a great idea; we need to show that it’s okay to be sad. Services such as CAPS need more exposure, for the sake of student mental health. At the same time, we have to note that feeling bad is not a contest, and it’s silly and unhealthy to try to derive pleasure from working too hard or being tired all the time. As a community, we need to look out for each other. Health comes first, always.

 

Contact Tiger Sun at tgsun ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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