Campus Life me vs. me

On floating and drowning ducks

I would not like to be hosed

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The only ducks who can float truly effortlessly are rubber ducks, and the rest of us can only pretend.
Gloria Lin — The Tech

This week, as MIT Confessions slowly regains its true form — that of wildly hosed students voicing their frustrations — I have also been feeling like I am slogging through piles of work. The sheer amount I stare down is so daunting, it often feels impossible. Now, if I were on campus, I would probably feel the same way, except I would have snacks from Verde’s, my friends, and their decidedly better taste in music (did I get called out by not one, not two, but three friends who saw Christmas songs on my Spotify log? I decline to comment). 

The “floating duck syndrome,” coined at Stanford, describes how every student there appears to be graceful and still, while furiously paddling beneath the surface. It’s generally an illustration of how toxic it can be when everyone pretends that they are fine. People will work themselves to exhaustion just to look like they are on the same page as everyone else. 

This culture is slowly being chipped away, and I, for one, am glad to see it. Being able to admit when you’re not equipped to solve a problem and then being able to ask for help is one of the greatest skills, and one that I am still working towards. And from an overall population standpoint, breaking down these walls of superiority can do wonders for everyone’s mental health.

At MIT, we pride ourselves on being a supportive community, because attending MIT will chew you up and spit you out. We all recognize that, no matter what course we are or how well our high schools prepared us, these four years are harder than anything we could even imagine. Vocalizing our exhaustion makes each other more human and brings us together. After all, suffering creates bonds; just ask anyone who’s psetted in Stud 5 until daybreak.

At the same time, I sometimes wonder if we’ve gone too far. If we’ve horseshoe-d this thing. Now, comparing how hosed we are is another competition altogether. The ability to function on five, four, or two hours of sleep, while taking 90 units and being on exec for seven student organizations, is a coveted accomplishment only for the most resolute. In a place where things are hard enough as it is, we shouldn’t be showing off how much harder we’re making it for ourselves.

Maybe it’s because there are so many amazing opportunities at MIT that we would be remiss to let them slip through our fingers. Maybe it’s because we all believe in the fallacy that, no matter how hosed we are, we will be able to make it through. Either way, I am calling this new phenomenon “drowning duck syndrome.” The contest for the duck who can cross the pond most serenely has become one for the duck with the biggest splashes.

I’m not sure if it’s the coronavirus situation, the upcoming election, or that I’m an elderly junior, but I’m exhausted thinking about all the things I used to do. Last year, I would wake up at 5 a.m., contacts still in, lights still on, and in complete panic more often than I’d like to admit. Back in February, at a Ballroom Dance Team post-competition team dinner, I was telling a grad student about the three meetings I still needed to go to (all later than 8 p.m. on a Sunday night), and he just chuckled and said, “I too thought I was invincible as a second-year in undergrad.”

I always feel two-faced when I urge others to take care of themselves, to take fewer classes, and to drop extracurriculars, when, in the back of my mind, I still think that I am capable of doing everything. It’s not that I don’t want them to be competitive blank applicants, but I genuinely believe that they would be happier without the stress. Somehow any concern for my own mental and physical health never really existed. And I guess that’s how everyone thinks, so we all just plow forward with too much on our plates.

Will there ever be a proper balance between concealing and exposing our struggles? Probably not. Even if it’s unconscious, we’ll always be trying to one-up each other. However, I think being transparent more easily allows for discussion and change, and I’ll always be grateful to have the chance to be at MIT.