Community//

Stress, Success, and Duck Syndrome

Why effortless perfection is an illusion.

Photo: Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash
Photo: Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

My fingers flew across the keyboard as I typed the final sentence of my essay. It was nearly silent on the ninth floor of the library, except for the A/C humming across the hallway. Two espresso-filled coffees later, I watched the sun rise from the window as I pulled yet another all-nighter. The birds chirping outside signaled the endless hours I had just spent meticulously writing and editing. My body was like a machine, pushing through exhaustion to churn out word after word.

This was just one of the many all-nighters I pulled during my undergraduate career. As a first-generation college student, I held myself to a high standard and was determined to not let a single opportunity slip through the cracks. I was a hardworking “A” student juggling two degrees and dozens of extracurricular leadership positions. As a result, I was successful, continuously earning awards, scholarships, and recognition. Underneath it all, I was often stressed to the bone.

If you have ever found yourself in the middle of a library or office feeling totally exhausted and overwhelmed, I see you. High achievers like us simply want to do well. We want to find success and show the world that we have it all together, even when it doesn’t feel that way. We strive to appear calm and collected, but on the inside, we may be on the verge of collapse. 

***

During my senior year of college, I realized that I had fallen victim to the perils of stress. For years, I would race from lab meetings to a cappella rehearsals, barely remembering to eat. I was fueled by caffeine, adrenaline, and the demands of my self-imposed jam-packed schedule. Frequently, perfectionism would rear its ugly head and the pressure to perform well in all arenas felt crushing. I was calm on the surface, but underneath, I felt frantic, as if my machine-like existence could break down at any moment.

Years later, I discovered a term for this. Stanford University calls it duck syndrome, a phenomenon commonly found in college students, especially those at Ivy League institutions. Like ducks, students appear calm on the surface, yet paddle frantically underneath just to stay afloat. Although duck syndrome is not a formal diagnosis, symptoms mimic workaholic tendencies, and often appear in students who value success and overwork themselves at the expense of their physical and mental health. 

Duck syndrome is often ingrained in campus culture, even when we do not consciously realize it. In 2003, Duke University reported that many women on campus felt pressured to appear “effortlessly perfect.” The University of Pennsylvania even coined their own version of duck syndrome, calling it “Penn Face.” This sparked the Penn Faces resilience project, a storytelling platform designed as a way of deconstructing the Penn Face — the idea that students must appear “busy, happy, and successful” at all times. After the death of Penn freshmen Madison Holleran in 2014, The New York Times explored the tragic link between suicide on campus and the pressure of perfection. These vignettes only skim the surface of a pervasive cultural issue that we must continue to recognize and work to prevent.

Duck syndrome can lead students to feel tense, anxious, depressed, and inadequate among their peers. In addition to the stress of a college environment, these struggles may be especially prevalent for students whose families excessively emphasize achievement. If you feel as if you are constantly being tested, and that everyone around you appears more successful with seemingly little effort, you may be struggling with duck syndrome.

If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. Like hot tea kettles ready to burst, many college students are dealing with similar challenges, even if their calm demeanors suggest otherwise. You may consider talking with someone you trust about what you’re experiencing, exploring counseling, or connecting with a campus support group. While there is no direct cure for duck syndrome, leaning into community can be a powerful tool for reminding us that we are not alone. 

***

When I reflect on my undergraduate experience with duck syndrome, I remember how every all-nighter brought me closer to nailing an assignment, but pushed me further away from my optimal well-being. Whenever I encounter a college student today, I share the same advice I wish I would have listened to years ago: Slow down. Take a nap. Don’t forget to eat. Breathe. College goes by in the blink of an eye, and you won’t remember much if you don’t learn to take care of yourself. 

After all, ducks need their rest, too.

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