Duck Syndrome

When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, we used to have a term of endearment for other students: “duck syndrome”. A stereotypical “duck” is someone who appears calm and composed on the outside (above water), but behind the scenes (underwater) is frantically paddling to stay afloat.

Often on campus, you’d see students playing frisbee on the lawn, blasting music, or playing a daytime game of beer pong in front of their row houses. Only later in the evening would you see these same students huddled up in the library, falling asleep on top of their problem sets and chugging multiple red bulls to complete their term papers. The contrast was shocking.

I remember one of my classmates who came across to me as lacking direction. He didn’t seem particularly interested in anything in his classes academic and switched his major in his junior year. I would see him show up parties completely drunk to the point not being able to stand up straight.

I would later found out that this same person also had one of the highest GPA’s at Stanford. He’s since gone on to a very successful career, proving to me that my first impression of him was utterly mistaken.

This “duck syndrome” experience stands in contrast with another very ambitious classmate of mine, who I think of as the exact opposite of a “duck”.

I was sitting over dinner with a few of my classmates when one shared his life goals. He told us that aspired to become a billionaire by age 30, become a US Senator by age 40, and become President by age 50.

When he mentioned this, it triggered a lot of unspoken disapproval around the table. I remember thinking to myself: who does this guy think he is? Stanford is full of ambitious people who want a lot out of life, but somehow it felt jarring to hear this revealed by one of my fellow classmates. It was as if this guy had decided that he was better than the rest of us around the table, and that if one of us deserved to be President, it ought to be him.

I wonder if my first classmate - had he not been so successful at hiding his ambition - might look more like my second classmate. I also question whether personal ambition is really the positive attribute that our culture presumes it to be. If it were really that positive of an attribute, why would we feel a compulsive need to hide it?

The complete lack of ambition sounds even worse to me than personal ambition. In fact, those of us who don’t have much in the way of life ambition will hide this fact .

Having to hide our intentions, while sometimes necessary, is expensive. Is there a better alternative to hiding personal ambition or hiding a lack of ambition?

I believe that the answer may be in having ambition for others. When you have intentions that produce real social good, you earn the approval of others without having to hide who you are. Moreover, you feel motivated to put forward your best work because the impact of what you’re doing is far greater than just yourself.


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