When personal and professional collide

Feb. 6, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Almost anyone who knows Stanford knows about “duck syndrome,” a phenomenon that sweeps across campus year after year. Like a duck floating atop water, students often feel the need to look calm and happy on the surface while paddling through their work furiously underneath. Before coming to Stanford, I thought duck syndrome was a myth. During my first quarter here, though, I learned it was anything but.

In fact, I became that duck.

Every weekend, the time would come for people to go out — to party, have fun and relax. And every weekend, I would be aware of the midterm I had coming up, or the essay I had to write by Sunday at midnight or whatever else. Yet, I still felt the need to join my peers — to avoid being the only one left out and stuck at home doing work. So I’d go out and come back the next morning, stressed and hurrying to finish my assignments, fighting hard to stay afloat academically.

For most of my first quarter, I was aware of what was happening, too. I already knew about duck syndrome before attending Stanford, so when I got here and started classes, I was able to pinpoint exactly what was happening. The issue I ran into, though, was how to stop it from happening. I began to wonder: What was it about college that led to duck syndrome when I hadn’t even heard, let alone experienced, such a thing in high school?

Soon, the answer occurred to me: In college, the line between personal life and professional is blurry, and, as an attempt to resurrect the solid line that existed in high school, students can very well fall ill with the plague that is duck syndrome.

In high school, students are able to attend class, head home to do homework and then continue their home lives as usual. The relative simplicity of the high school schedule makes it easier to keep personal life and academic life distinct from one another.

On the other hand, college presents a challenge when trying to separate these two aspects of students’ lives. Freshmen are forced to learn to balance their budgets and their course loads, discover how to live on their own and form new friendships all according to both their personal and professional lives — while living on a campus where both lives exist fluidly.

College is a liminal state between leaving home and going out in the “real world.” Students live where they work something that, in general, doesn’t happen in high school nor once they start their careers. Friendships are formed both in the classroom and at social gatherings. Meetings for extracurriculars occur during “personal time,” when students aren’t focusing on classes and, in high school, would be focusing on their social life. The fundamental truth is that these two formerly distinct lives become one and the same during the college years; trying to separate them will most likely result in further confusion and fatigue.

For the entirety of fall quarter, I was battling to lead one life at a time without having one interfere with the other. If I wanted to spend time with my friends, I had to leave my work behind for the night, and if I wanted to work, I had to leave my friends. It felt like everything I wanted to do socially took time away from what I wanted to do professionally, and vice versa. In short, I was struggling to answer the question of how to keep my professional life separate from my personal life.

As an attempt to answer this question, I turned to the people who could empathize best— my peers. But as each student failed in turn to offer a definitive cure, I began to understand that when it comes to separating personal from professional life, there really is no “how.”

You just don’t.

I asked my classmate Lois Williams ’22,  “When you’re stressed, what do you do?” While I was expecting an answer like “take a break” or “spend time with friends” or anything that just gave a distinction between social and school life, Williams gave an answer that was obvious and yet still shocked me.

“I usually make a plan of action… and start going down the list,” she told me. “I’ll also talk with friends who are taking the same classes to relieve stress and to know that I’m not alone.”

There it was: “friends” and “classes” in the same sentence. There was no need to distinguish the two like I had expected to find; instead, they corresponded, and, honestly, the reason why makes sense. In college, our personal lives and professional lives are inextricably linked.

Perhaps the best thing college students can do to relieve this extra pressure, then, is to find a balance.

Especially at universities with academics as rigorous as Stanford’s, there likely will never come a time when thoughts of work are completely absent from students’ minds. There will always be another midterm that has to be studied for or another essay that has to be written. And, as with most colleges, there will always be another party to attend or another coffee date to be made with that cute Tinder match. Trying to find a balance between the two can be hard, but once it’s established, life as a whole becomes significantly more enjoyable.

Once again, though, I ran into a problem: if separating personal life from professional life in college just wasn’t possible, how, exactly, could college students find a balance between the two?

As Williams pointed out, sometimes balance involves morphing your personal and professional life into one. This combination of work life and social life often manifests itself in little gatherings of students in the common spaces of dorms, working on their coursework together whether or not they’re in the same classes. In fact, some of my closest friendships have been established this way. Spending time with my friends in the context of my workload actually has proven to be more of a bonding experience than hanging out with them in the presence of alcohol, loud music and sweaty bodies.

At other times, though, that “balance” doesn’t necessarily mean living both lives at once. Rather, it can mean sacrificing certain parts of your life for other parts— and that doesn’t always mean sacrificing a Friday night out in order to finish work that isn’t due until Monday. Sometimes, it can mean sacrificing time that you would use to work on classes to go out and talk with people. As Crystal Chen ’22 said, students can find “great value from socializing with other people.”

College isn’t just about learning the course material and getting a degree (although that is, hopefully, why we’re all here). College is also about learning about yourself, about others and about the real world. A lot of the time, you can discover more about those aspects of your life from social endeavors than from academic ones.

However you find your balance, though, make sure to do self-checks— maintain awareness of how you’re feeling and, if need be, how you can make your own life— or lives— better. And, as Chen says, “make the most of each [life] and do not sacrifice all of one for the other.”


Contact Damian Marlow at ddrue ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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