Be like a duck. Calm on the surface but always paddling like the dickens underneath.
How often have we come across this quote: Be like a duck. Calm on the surface but always paddling like the dickens underneath. Attributed to Michael Caine, actor. For the common man, it is usually interpreted as, “You see someone sailing along effortlessly? He’s in fact really working very hard to stay afloat. And to move ahead. Working like the dickens.”
At Stanford, this quote is used regularly to refer to the hard work and constant effort required to stay afloat and to stay relevant in the day. It is widely accepted that pressure culture at the top universities greatly affects the students over time - as if admission wasn’t hard enough (hard as the dickens)! And once you reach the campus of your dreams, it hits you: everyone around you is a topper. In order to succeed amongst the best, the stakes have become really high, and you have to push the envelope as far as possible. That means endless late nights of hard work to cover course material and projects. Pulling 3 all-nighters in a row becomes the norm. And when amongst all this, you come across someone who seems to smilingly handle the stress, without one ruffled feather, then you are reminded of the Duck.
The “Duck Syndrome” is a term commonly attributed to the student culture at Stanford earlier, and now to most millennials. What exactly is the Duck Syndrome? Well, think of a duck gliding along the water. She looks very serene, calm and pleasant. Then, if you look under the water, she is paddling frantically.
Psychologists have delved deeper into the psyche of the Duck. As with teenagers, if one were to scroll through the social media feeds of their friends, or peers, their lives would look ideal. But you know that your best friend is struggling with loneliness, and you are suffering under thoughts of incompetence. Sounds familiar? Although not a formal mental-health diagnosis, Duck Syndrome has mostly been described in college or graduate students and refers to the situation in which the sufferer looks completely calm on a superficial level while in reality, they are frantically trying to keep up with the demands of their life. Because you have often thought to yourself: “but how can everyone else be so happy and bubbly while you’re struggling to stay afloat in a personal wave of inadequacy?”
This feeling of inadequacy is indeed widespread. It is a common factor amongst students in high-pressure situations, and also in the professional world. A lot of support is offered, right from Stanford’s blog The Duck Stops here which aims to de-stigmatise stress. That is the Duck Syndrome — too many students on the outside appear calm, cool, and collected while on the inside they are completely stressed out. It’s a “fake it till you make it” mentality.
Stanford also addressed it with a new interpretation (2012) on Stanford Daily:
“Stanford students may paddle furiously, but that is because we also have a knack for landing in turbulent waters. And we may believe constant paddling is necessary because it is what everyone else seems to be doing. But I wonder: is it possible to have a student body that can better recognize and seek out calm waters? Is it possible to have more students who don’t feel compelled to cross the pond when things are just fine where they are? Can we not only be calm on the surface, but calm underneath?”
But what do we really believe?
The stress and pressure to succeed is immense, everywhere, no matter where you go or what you do.
Moreover, not only does the term “The Paddling Duck” malign the easy-going nature of the Duck (in all honesty, what’s not to love in a duck) but also, it’s a conundrum.
- The duck is in its own habitat.
- It was born to paddle.
- The duck is afloat, not through any struggle, but because it was made to stay afloat.
The duck paddles, because that’s how it goes places.
In the end, the paddling duck is not the struggling duck. The duck was designed for paddling, and thus, it is not a struggle for the duck.
Similarly, do not fall into the trap of comparing your struggles to the successful highlight reel of another person. You were designed to face your challenges in your own way. If you want to “be like a duck”, be! Be to your environment, like a duck is to its own environment: at ease, floating, and paddling (not like the dickens) but steadily, in the direction of your choice.