Li: Can Ducks Float?

Yes. Yes they can.

by Lucy Li | 9/26/17 1:00am

I’m sure most of us at Dartmouth have heard of the Stanford Duck Syndrome — it’s frequently mentioned around campus, although rarely actually discussed. For those of you who may need a refresher, the Duck Syndrome gets its name from the fact that ducks appear to wade calmly through water, but underneath the surface they’re frantically paddling to stay afloat. When referring to people, we’re talking about those divine humans who seem to be flawlessly succeeding in every aspect of their lives, from looking well-dressed to getting 4.0’s to being a charismatic and talented leader all at the same time, while internally trying not to drown just to meet the demands of life.

But can ducks float without paddling? Because honestly, their little duck legs are so small, they must be exhausted from all that paddling and they really seem to be doing just fine on the surface. If they get tired of it, I can’t tell.

So I asked Google, and here’s what I found: Ducks can float without paddling. How’s that for a game changer?

It turns out that ducks have a special gland called the uropygial gland which produces an oil that they spread all over their body to make their feathers water-repellent. Ducks’ feathers can also trap air, which helps them stay buoyant in the same way floaties keep us above water.

So basically, the entire conception of the Duck Syndrome in itself is founded on a lie. If ducks don’t need to keep paddling frantically to stay afloat, we don’t need to either.

It’s taken me two years to figure this out, and I’m still struggling with it, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at Dartmouth is that in order to do more you have to do less. What this means is that you can’t go at 100 miles per hour and expect to sustain the same level of quality, drive, efficiency and, most importantly, happiness during week five of the term as you could during week one. Take breaks, and take them regularly. Risk lower performance on one assessment so you don’t end up so burnt out later in the term that you tank or risk your health to do well. Most importantly, value your time off, and if you can’t seem to find time for it, make time.

This term is my first truly difficult term since last fall. After that term, I was blessed with an intentionally easy winter term to avoid a repeat of my freshman winter plagued by seasonal affective disorder (among other diseases), a spring term in Barcelona and a truly lazy river-esque sophomore summer. But now that it’s my fifth on-term in a row, my classes are as demanding as they are awesome, I’m trying to propose a special major, I need to find an internship for the winter, I’ve stumbled upon incredible opportunities that I could never say no to, half the people I love on this campus are abroad, the food lines are insane and I have minimal time to myself. I’m definitively burnt out.

Screw ambition, right? No, don’t screw ambition. Ambition is awesome, and it’s the reason why so many of us worked so hard to be here. We all love ambition, and this may partly account for why the Duck Syndrome exists in the first place.

So if ducks can float and be just fine, so can I. I still find myself saying no to opportunities to have fun and relax, two phrases I find fairly difficult to relate to right now, but I realize that it’s entirely up to me to say yes and make time. There is an unfortunate irony in the fact that today I said no to going to the river with a friend while doing reading for a class that was literally telling me to say yes to life. This reading, a chapter of “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up” by Patricia Ryan Madson — an interesting title for a book assigned by a professor, I might add — outlines 13 maxims of improv to apply to real life. The first maxim is simple: Say “yes.” This means forgoing the schedules and restrictions we set for ourselves, saying yes to everything and accepting all offers. The author adds that she isn’t encouraging a “Yes Man” attitude that led to the absurd events we see Jim Carrey act out in the movie of the same name — we should obviously exercise common sense. She does, however, want her readers to realize that saying no is a form of blocking out inspiration, and it’s how we get stuck in a cycle of closed doors, rigid schedules, pessimism and lost faith. Making time to be a real person who eats, sleeps, enjoys being with friends and occasionally exhibits sloth-like behavior does not mean that your ambitious self is slacking off; it means that you’ll find more opportunities to be inspired and excel in the domains you care about and love.

So do any work you can at home in your pajamas (and also in a hot pink robe with bunny ears, if you have one like I do) once it’s late. And do it on the couch. Don’t get all your dinners to-go so you can eat it while doing work in the stacks; eat with friends every now or even while you call your mom. On the couch. Order Domino’s when you need to, not just when you’re drunk. Sleep for 11 hours straight every week or so. Take your vitamins. Go to the river or watch a movie with your friends. Ask your friends to go to the river or watch a movie with you. Don’t go out if you don’t feel like it; go out if you feel like it. Recognize that if you don’t come home from the Black Family Visual Arts Center or Thayer or Sudikoff or wherever until 4 a.m., you have the right to make up the sleep.

Maybe you do all of the above already. Power to you, and don’t be afraid to hide it. Maybe none of that works for you, because my Dartmouth experience is solely my own and the ways I stay sane won’t work for you — it’s not supposed to. But if nothing else, remember that if ducks can still float when they’re not paddling and sharks don’t actually need to keep swimming forever to stay alive, then we all can too.