The New York Times coined the term “duck syndrome” in an article about a seemingly “perfect” high school student named Kathryn DeWitt. In high school, she ran track, was a part of her state’s leadership program, took 8 AP exams, and graduated with straight A’s. The result? She accepted a place in the University of Pennsylvania’s freshman class.
At first, everything was going perfectly. She joined a fraternity, tutored local elementary school children, and joined a Christian group her parents are alumni of. But Kathryn came from a high school, and a world, where she was the top of the food chain. At Penn, she was one student amongst many extremely accomplished students, and she described how difficult that was to grasp at first: “One friend was a world-class figure skater. Another was a winner of an Intel science competition. Everyone around me was so spectacular and amazing and I want to be just as amazing as they are.”
Kathryn felt like she was missing out (side note: the fear of missing out, or “FOMO” is also a real issue brought on by social media that many college psychologists believe needs to be tackled in order to seriously address student mental health). Friends’ snapchats, selfies on Instagrams, and Facebook updates made her feel inferior. They talked about their brilliant internships and amazing parties while she was stuck attempting to finish the homework they did hours ago.
Then, in January 2014, fellow Penn freshman Madison Holleran ended her life by jumping from a parking garage. Kathryn was absolutely stunned. In a blog on Penn Mental Health a few weeks later, she would write “What the hell, girl?! I was supposed to be the one who went first! You had so much to live for!” At the time, Kathryn had bought a stack of razorblades and had her goodbye letters all written.
But, though depressed, Kathryn never took the jump. Today, she advocates for mental health treatment for those who need it and talks publicly about the generally unspoken culture of depression amongst young men and women like her.
Kathryn was one of many, many depressed students in top universities nationwide, swimming upstream in some of the world’s most competitive and cutthroat environments. In a school where everyone has always been high achievers– after all, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have gotten admission– people are constantly striving to be, or at least to appear, perfect.
At Penn, it’s called the “Penn face,” which is defined as appearing to be “effortlessly perfect,” all the while furiously struggling underneath it all. It’s called “duck syndrome” at Stanford, because a duck appears to glide effortlessly across the water all the while underneath it furiously paddles.
An op-ed by Jen Ehrlich in the Stanford Daily continued “We don’t talk about perfection because this is Stanford, and we don’t want to seem conceited or obnoxious. But the idea of perfection haunts us.” In a world where student mental health is a growing concern– due partially to the fact that it’s being addressed more by universities, who are putting in the time and effort to help figure out which students need help, and due partially due to rising depression and suicide rates– it’s important to address the very qualities in these high achieving students that make them so vulnerable.
Ehrlich highlights the very aspects of campus culture that make Stanford students paddle so furiously. “The adrenaline rush of getting an ‘A’ in a class, the honor of being elected president in your club, the triumph of landing the perfect internship or getting into the best lab… [Perfect] bodies because this is California, with shorts weather all year round… To take as many classes as possible because there are too many amazing classes to cram into four short years… I want to take every amazing class, join every interesting club, have an ideal romantic internship and maintain the perfect GPA. Isn’t that what everyone else here is doing?”
It’s time to talk about not being perfect.
Yup. Because getting a “B” on a class is a setback, not a failure. Definitely not the end of the world. It’s important to redefine what success means to you based on your abilities, and though comparing yourself with others is the easiest thing to do (honestly, it’s so easy), it’s important to remember that everyone is going through their own personal difficulties, and their social media (even their possibly constant Snapchat story updates) won’t reflect that.
A “B” won’t condemn you as a failure. Even an “F” won’t. Even multiple “F’s.” Seriously (and this goes to all of you high school students who may be seriously concerned one, or a few, bad grades will totally undermine your efforts for college admissions. They won’t.). Why? Because you care. If you’re reading this, and freaking out about a grade, just the fact that you care sets you apart, and will set you apart in the mind of all college admissions boards. While this may not mean you’ll suddenly be seeing Ivy League acceptances left and right, this does mean you will be successful in life, whatever your trajectory.
But you definitely won’t be successful in life if you’re mentally unhealthy.
If you’re worked to the bone by the time you graduate college, or even worse, high school, how will you survive working at a job? You won’t. If you aren’t spending enough time engaging in what you love, or, conversely, if you suddenly discover what you used to love isn’t something you’re passionate about anymore, it’s time to readjust your priorities. As Ehrlich said, yes, we all want to have it all. I know that I wish I could have more in my life everyday: I want better grades, I want to be better at my sport. I wish I had the perfect boyfriend (and so envy my friends who do, but I never think about all the work that goes into maintaining a wonderful and healthy relationship like that). I want to be skinnier. I want to land my dream job, in my dream city, and have a wonderful adult life. Sometimes I do get a bad grade and think that dream is lost.
But my college degree isn’t the be all end all. Graduating with a 4.0 GPA but driving myself into the ground in the process of achieving it doesn’t mean I’ll be happy or successful in life. At all. But being happy with achieving a 3.something while being able to spend time in clubs and sports that I like, and having weekends out with friends is.
It seems to me we spend all our time in college chasing our futures, and we think in order to chase a perfect future life, we need a perfect life now. So we keep treading and treading water like little ducks to do so, but we never think about even ducks can get really, really exhausted doing that all the time.
Today, take a break, take a breath, and let’s all cut this toxic culture of perfection from our universities, before we all drown.