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Duck Syndrome

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What do ducks and high-achieving Bay Area students and workers have in common? Arifeen Rahman says it’s more than you think.

At Stanford the term “Duck Syndrome” describes students struggling to survive the pressures of a competitive environment while presenting the image of relaxed California chill. Imagine a calm duck gliding across a fountain. Underwater, the duck’s feet are paddling furiously – against the terrifying possibility that it may sink or even worse: be revealed as trying too hard.

This year, I collected stories from my classmates about how we were all complicit in being ducks. I was not immune. Last year, on a trip to Lake Tahoe, I sent my friends pictures of our gorgeous mountain lodge. What I didn’t tell them was how I snuck away at 6 am down to the ski lift just so I could use the WiFi to complete my many assignments.

As I heard stories from classmates of the ridiculous efforts we took to hide how hard we were working just to stay afloat, I realized it couldn’t be limited to Stanford. Duck syndrome is a disease of relative success and the need for it to appear effortless to the outside world. I believe there‘s a silent epidemic in the Bay Area – where high stress careers meet high expectations of living the Silicon Valley dream. Social media only heightens the pressure to present the most sanitized, glamorous versions of our lives to public view.

Recently, I asked a new San Francisco transplant in tech how he was doing. “Everything is great, I’m really happy here,” he said. But the pained look on his face spoke otherwise. I wondered why he felt the need to present the front. But I’ve been just as guilty.

Combating Duck Syndrome means admitting we are vulnerable. It’s terrifying. It can feel like defeat. There’s a lot to live up to in the epicenter of innovation and eternally good weather. Maybe one day we’ll have the courage to allow each other to see that we are not alone.

Until then, Bay Area, know that we are all frantically paddling away alongside you.

With a Perspective, I’m Arifeen Rahman.

Arifeen Rahman is a student at the Stanford School of Medicine and a manager of the Cardinal Free Clinics.


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