Widgets Magazine


Thinking about Stress at Stanford

Here’s a conversation I overheard late last quarter. It was in an Econ class, if that matters:

“Hey, how’s it going?” asked one.

“Oh, you know, Week 10,” replied the other.

“Tell me about it, I’m so tired.”

“Me too, I have so much work.”

I stopped listening then, both because I remembered that eavesdropping is rude and because I already knew how the conversation would continue. These are the conversations we begin to have after every Week 7, when “Oh, you know, midterms” has been used up and “Oh, well, it’s only Week 2” has faded into a distant memory. These are also the conversations that make it difficult to stop and breathe, to take a break, to catch up with old friends, to be stress-free at Stanford.

I don’t think that the exchange I heard was particularly consequential—it’s likely that the participants were mild acquaintances who felt obliged to chat after accidentally making eye contact. But think about how many similarly trivial conversations we have found ourselves in, waiting for a latte at Starbucks or in line at the post office. They play out according to the script penned by our collective consciousness, lines we can recite with ease. Through sheer repetition, the throwaway comments we make about how tired we are or how much work we have create and reinforce a Stanford culture in which stress is a norm.

As a result, we tend to treat stress as a form of currency. In the same way that one might wear a bulky gold watch, one remarks on how he simply has no free time anymore. Stories of extreme procrastination dazzle like luxury cars—impressive, oft-discussed and totally unnecessary. And to not have stress, well, it might be time to accumulate some more, because the last thing one wants to say in response to “I’m so stressed out” is “I’m doing just fine.”

Of course, I don’t mean to belittle or ignore the very real stress that students, myself included, regularly experience. Stanford can be extraordinarily demanding, and at least once in our academic careers we can all rightfully claim the feeling that the very ground that holds us up is crumbling. I can’t help but feel, though, that we enable a significant amount of stress by acting as if that stress is to be expected. In doing so, we embed procrastination, overloading on units, and staying up late into the Stanford work culture. Because the student body perceives these behaviors as normal, it is incredibly difficult to push the culture in a healthier direction. The language of “Oh, you know, Week 10,” rich with assumptions and expectations, limits us to one point of view.

It’s a fiction we build for ourselves and repeat in our heads. If I am stressed, then I must be doing something right. If I am stressed, then I must deserve to be here. Even after we have shrugged off that freshman year angst, risen above the sophomore slump and left behind our exhausting teens as a junior, we doubt it. In a world of intangibles, we quantify stress in order to compensate for that uncertainty, and in the process we compare and aggrandize. During Week 10, Dead Week—the week in which we die under all of the pressure—we die so often that it makes us feel alive.

I’ve made it this far without mentioning the elephant-sized duck in the room, but it’s bound to be on your mind. The Stanford Duck Syndrome, like so many other terms that have been mythologized and repeated so often that they barely hold meaning, understates the truth. Duck Syndrome is now so ingrained in our culture that it both draws attention to struggles we face, academically and personally, and implies that we must struggle. Making a diagnosis does nothing to cure the illness and yet we have stopped there.

Week 2 may seem either too late or far too early to think about how we act in Week 10. But if it is indeed small conversations and accepted habits that are the building blocks of our stress culture, then we must be conscious of that starting now. There is little the administration can do to help, because this is a problem we students made for ourselves. We, in our dorms, in our houses and in our apartments, decide how we approach our work and how we talk about our struggles.

The onus is on us to do the difficult work of writing a new script to talk about stress. This new script should strive to give detail and nuance to those feelings, to conquer them by facing them honestly and compassionately. It should leave space to listen, without comparison and without jealousy. Most importantly, it should allow for the possibility that, today, we have no stress at all.

  • thanks

    Thanks matt, another astute, insightful, and thought-provoking article…