Imagine you are a duck. Seriously, imagine it. Imagine Yale as a pond, a big, big pond. Turn your little duck-head, and look with your little duck-eyes. Ducks paddle around you. You nod at one duck, argue with another in section. All day, on Yale Pond, your webbed duck-feet paddle beneath you.
One day, right before reading week, you look around at all the other ducks. How are they so serene, gliding through the water? That duck in the gym, barely sweating in her Lululemon top. Or that duck in the library, who nods as he types at a standing desk. Or the duck who gets blackout all weekend and then Amtraks to D.C. for a quick job interview on Monday. Look at them gliding through Yale Pond, and then back down at your webbed duck-feet beating furiously beneath you. You sigh a big duck sigh. How are these ducks so calm, yet so efficient?
The answer: The water conceals the duck armada’s feet paddling beneath the surface. And they’re paddling just like you.
The fable of the ducks on Yale Pond — imparted to me early freshman year by a FroCo — recasts the “Stanford Duck Syndrome,” a term coined at this West-Coast Yale with very similar ducks to describe campus stress culture. The syndrome focuses on the individual: “On the surface we’re calm and composed, even on top of things. Just below it we are working our butts off and kicking as hard as we can just to stay afloat.” Many adolescent psychologists use “Duck Syndrome” to better understand campus stress, depression and anxiety common among elite overachievers like us. The New York Times mentioned the Duck Syndrome in their 2015 piece “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” a reflection on campus suicides at elite schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania.
Perfection: That’s the key. At Stanford, Penn or Yale, stress comes from our social surroundings and the perceived perfection of our peers. We compare ourselves to one another, an inescapable vestigial organ of the “survival of the fittest” environment in which we were raised. It’s more prominent here, both because we believe Yale’s admissions committee granted us, specifically us, entry to this wonderful pond, and also because we believe the world will compare our resumes to each other upon graduation. Upon arriving, many freshmen unintentionally maneuver social interactions competitively, assessing peers as social competition rather than as friends. After leaving here, it will not abate; look only to Yale alumni metrics on LinkedIn. Not only are many of us trying to enter the same sectors, we’re often joining the same companies: Google, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey place first, second and third. Not to be tongue-in-beak, but it’s a Duck-Eat-Duck world out there.
Although proponents of the pond metaphor have the best intentions, they seek to assuage this problem by focusing on superficial solutions. Instead of comparing CVs, compare internal states! Think of the ducks around you — even if they seem better annotated, better showered, better ‘liked’ on Instagram, they’re just as tired, uncertain and worried as you. You just don’t know because you can’t see them paddling. Right?
Hypothetically, considering the entire pond helps us recognize each other’s internal states. But this perspective creates an environment of even more comparisons, focusing on perceived insecurities and weaknesses rather than our own purported strength. Pond-scoping hurts only us, rotting our stress into snark. Focusing on the pond covers social stress, but does none of the heavy lifting required to actually help us thrive.
Let’s return to the duck. In describing the duck as “kicking as hard as we can to stay afloat,” Stanford students tried, bless their hearts, but missed a fundamental ornithological point. Ducks do not need to kick to stay afloat. Instead, they float naturally, their hollow bones, little air sacs, the oil they secrete rendering the duck buoyant. The duck does not need to paddle to float. It just needs to be, and its body will do the rest.
Whatever natural buoyancy you have, remember that, and separate your self-worth from self-promotion. For some of us, that internal confidence comes from our faith or religious beliefs. For a friend of mine, it’s the conviction in her observational ability to describe the world around her. For another, it’s his music. We each have unflinching pillars in our lives, little Combray steeples around which we orient our meaning. Call it what you will — hollow bones and oil-secreting glands, perhaps — but we’re all going to be just fine. This is Yale Pond, after all, one of the most well-regarded ponds that delivers one of the best duck-educations in the entire world. Just don’t let stress quack you up.
Amelia Jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .