Millennial Duck Syndrome: The Faked-Success Cycle That Hurts Everyone

While maintaining a cool outward appearance, many millennials experience grave concerns internally.
05/29/2017 05:07 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017
Credit: Caroline Beaton

A version of this article was originally published on Forbes. Sign up for Caroline’s newsletter to get her writing sent straight to your inbox.

When I leaped into self-employment a few months ago, I honestly didn’t know it would be really, really hard. Immediately after publishing my first Forbes article, “How I Became My Own Boss By Age 25,” I thought, “Check!” – as if being your own boss is a one-time event.

So when entrepreneurship wasn’t as effortless as I first thought, I felt like I’d failed. Finances were, oddly, the least of my worries. I was, and am, instead faced with a fear of inadequacy, hatred for networking and incompetence at all things sales on a daily basis. I felt like I’d skipped off a cliff.

“This shouldn’t be hard for me,” I think. So at brunch I say, “Yep, I’m living the dream!” My naïve belief that self-employment was going to be easy came from similar kinds of overcompensations and cover-ups.

Faking it until you make it is rampant among millennials. We post Instagram photos of ourselves laughing and drinking with our cool coworkers. #ADayInTheLife. By all appearances, we’re young, happy, and recently promoted. In truth, many of us are stressed at entry-level desk jobs with the weight of our own expectations and the reality that success takes time. We thought we’d be further by now.

It’s called the “Stanford Duck Syndrome.” One Stanford blogger explained, “everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.” For Stanford students, the duck syndrome represents a false ease and fronted genius. “Frustration, anxiety, self-doubt, effort, and failure don’t have a place in the Stanford experience.”

The same is often true for ambitious millennials in the workplace. We don’t discuss our imposter syndrome, our embarrassing conversations with managers, our angst-ridden boredom with everything we thought we’d love. Our crafted image of success and stability depends on stifling these normal human problems.

And our duck faces on social media and elsewhere actually fool people. Everyone thinks everyone else has it together. It’s a sad cycle:

Credit: Caroline Beaton

The solution for duck syndrome is implied in the analogy: make your face match your feet; voice your struggles. This article is my own attempt at this, and I hope it helps pry open hard conversations.

But there’s another implicit solution I don’t buy: stop paddling so hard. Paddling is how ducks move. If they didn’t paddle they couldn’t feed their ducklings and would die stagnant, never seeing where their feet could take them.

I wouldn’t trade my furious paddling for anything. “Stop working so hard” is like telling someone who’s out of breath to stop exercising. Working toward anything takes, well, work.

Instead, let’s aim high, fail forward and, for everyone’s sake, tell the tale.

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