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The Ducks of Stanford University

The Ducks of Stanford University
Published on Mar 4, 2024.

In my last year at Stanford, I was a writing tutor in a dorm of freshman. Nic was one of my students, and before he killed himself, he was the most promising writer in the building.

He used to come to my office hours with pieces that were so full of life, with a staggering voice for an 18-year-old, that I had nothing to say to improve them. I don’t think he came in for feedback anyway. He really just wanted to be friends, because he was alone and despite having arrived at the sunny paradise that is supposed to be Stanford University, he just didn’t fit in.

The other freshmen in the dorm more or less fit the shining image of Stanford kids. They would go biking and skateboarding and frolicking around campus, always smiling and talking of the "amazing" things that happened that week. A visit to the bookstore becomes a story of serendipity - "you wouldn't believe who else from the dorm I ran into". Busy with this performative exuberance, they act like life is perfect, like now that they've made it to Stanford, all their problems are behind them and all that's in front is an unobstructed path to the blissful land of success. And they don't even have to try.

Nic wasn’t like this. He was a Hispanic kid from east LA with none of the coastal surfer look that was popular on campus. He was almost always wearing a beat-up leather jacket, a size too big, probably his dad’s. When I saw him, on the edge of this group or that, he'd be laughing along at a joke someone made, but his eyes had that look like they were searching for something more.

Over Christmas break, just three months into college, Nic went back home for the holidays and took his own life. When we got back to campus in January, the residence dean gathered a handful of dorm staff together in his cottage. I remember when he broke the news, everyone looked at me, wondering why a kid who just made it to Stanford, whose life was clearly set for success in front of him, would do something like this. Why?

I had an answer, but not the one they wanted. Because in that moment, I wasn’t wondering what was wrong with him. I was wondering what was wrong with everyone else.

Three years earlier, I had arrived on campus as a freshman myself. And like Nic, I found myself suddenly alone.

I didn't fit in with the theater of happiness. The beaming smiles, the constant cheering, the dressed-up positivity – it all struck me as fake, and I couldn't get myself to go along with it.

To me it was odd that no one talked about studying, ever. No one mentioned a test or paper they bombed. No one talked about how hard a class is (except the chemical engineering students who are known to be masochists).

People are always hanging out, like they have nothing to do. In the common areas, or in their dorm rooms, where doors are left open to welcome in their neighbors. They are always available to socialize, because they don't need to study that hard, or at least that's the image they project.

I wasn't like them, and I felt it. Within a few months in my freshman year, I had reached a place of deep darkness. By winter, I fell into such a depressive funk that I went whole weeks without seeing the sun. I’d roam the hallways of the deserted dorm, playing pool by myself, like a ghost come while the rest of the students are asleep.

I managed to muddle through the next couple of years but in my junior year, I cracked. One night, my long-distance girlfriend broke up with me. She was my last remaining human connection, and that night I decided to drink half a bottle of tequila and go for a drive. There’s an exit off the highway behind Stanford with a sharp hairpin, a deadman’s turn, and I took it at 80 miles an hour. My Honda Civic slid across the road into the steel barrier between the bridge and the highway below. For a moment, it hung in the air, the left side rising off the ground, looking like it might just flip, but then it came back down, I came off the bridge and stopped the car. After a long moment of silence, I drove back home. Slowly.

Three weeks after Nic’s death, another Stanford student took their own life. A 23-year-old graduate student downed sleeping pills and tucked herself into the trunk of her car. Another suicide in a matter of weeks. The university went into crisis mode.

As the university conducted a mental health investigation, a pattern began to emerge. In interview after interview, students revealed that they were secretly depressed, but they hid it. And they did this because of the pressure to be a duck.

It's an open secret, they said, that Stanford students are like ducks. On the surface, they're calm and happy, placid as can be, but underneath they're paddling furiously to keep up. It's a double life, projecting effortless success while hiding the late hours, sleepless nights, the Adderall, just to keep up. Kids act like they don’t care or worry, like they’re pleasantly surprised by their academic success, like all this comes naturally and they don’t even have to try. But that's not the truth.

The Stanford duck syndrome, as it's called, is a popular enough trope now that the university's official Student Affairs office even has a website on it. In fact, many students struggle with this deep impostor complex.

Of course, they don't talk about this. Just like they don't talk about anything else that breaks the illusion of perfection.

I began to wonder – for kids so smart and accomplished, why pretend? Why act like ducks? Why need to appear effortlessly successful, when that's not the truth?

Right across the street from Stanford is Palo Alto High School, one of those classically Californian campuses where the buildings are made of sandstone and the classrooms open onto outdoor arcades. At first glance it looks like a mini Stanford, and for many of the students who go there – the children of Silicon Valley’s elite – it’s a reminder of their goal, their only goal: to get into Stanford.

Except they also have darkness. Every so often, one of the kids from Palo Alto High goes over to the tracks of the Caltrain, the commuter rail running up and down Silicon Valley, and jumps in front of a train as it hurtles down. Palo Alto – one of the richest towns in America – has a teen suicide rate 4 times the nation’s average.

Last year (yes, this is still going on), a girl from Palo Alto posted a video on YouTube explaining why her friends were killing themselves. It’s the expectations, she said. The expectation to be smart and get straight A’s and - most of all – go to Stanford.

Growing up, these kids hear a constant refrain from their parents about how important it is to go to a good college. The kid notices how their mom praises the neighbor’s kid who got into Princeton, and dismisses the older sister who only made it to UC Davis. “Well, at least one of them is going to a good school.” The kid notices the judgement that is applied, notices who gets praise and recognition and admiration and love, and who deserves criticism and self-worth. They are loved, they believe, to the extent that they are one of the smart kids.

And, here’s the key thing, the kids start to believe smart is something built-in, like having a big nose or being tall. Partly because they’re kids with simplistic models of the world, and partly because the world they live in – the teachers who put them in “gifted and talented” programs, the parents who praise them for being smart, the school administrators who give them award after award – reinforce the idea that some kids are just smart, they’re born that way and it’s just the way it is.

This is what psychologists call the fixed mindset. Psychologist Carol Dweck, who wrote a book on it, says that kids who do well academically at a young age, and get praised by adults for it, tend to think that the reason they get praised is because of something intrinsic about them. Over time, it becomes a noose around their neck.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves— in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

Over time, “smart and successful” becomes their identity. This is what they must be, first to get love from their parents, and later to have social status among their peers. And "smart and successful" means you shouldn't need to try. Because you were supposed to be born with it.

A few hundred years ago, the Puritans believed something similar. They believed that those who would make it to Heaven – whose souls would be saved – were predestined at birth. These were the "elect", and either you were part of the elect, or you were not, and there was nothing you could do about it. Throughout their lives, Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God's favor or anger.

This is what the fixed mindset does to you.

Of course, those who grow up in the modern world, and especially the kind who end up at a place like Stanford, are as far from Puritan beliefs as you can get. They dismiss religion as a pile of mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus superstition. They don't need silly things like salvation. Or so they think.

But human beings are human beings, and the psychological needs that religions developed to fill – such as the impending inevitability of death and what to do with life before then – still remain.

For the kind of kids who make it to Stanford, success is their form of salvation. It plays the same role. To them, success is a measure of their worthiness, of how valuable they are as human beings.

Where Puritans believed that inherent virtue leads to salvation, the elite academic class believes being smart (their form of virtue) leads to success (their form of salvation). Like the Puritans, they also believe it's fixed from birth – either you are born smart, or you are not.

When you grow up believing you are part of a special elect, and that the reason you are special is because of some inherent trait, there can be no chink in the armor. If you are successful, you need to be effortlessly successful. If you are smart, you need to be always and everywhere smart.

The Stanford duck syndrome is a manifestation of this perspective. The pretense of perfection is necessary upkeep, for one's own psychological story. But deep down, what kids are experiencing, what they don't talk about, is a modern-day version of Puritan angst. What if they're not actually as smart as they let on? What if they don't end up successful? What if everyone finds out?

Part of a series on Stanford