Underneath the "Best and Brightest" Mask.

December 10, 2020

Condensed version of an essay I wrote for PWR 1 (The Feature Article) at Stanford

I’m quite skilled at masquerading my pain— I wouldn’t be at Stanford if I wasn’t. In a university self-described by “areas of excellence,” my “excellence at struggling” counters Stanford’s excellent collection of Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Genius Grants and Turing Awards. To be a Stanford student means to be “the best and the brightest.” We feel pressure to succeed at all costs, to prove our worth in this exclusive club. Signs of struggle jeopardize our membership and reaching out requires distracting someone else from their pursuit of excellence. It’s much easier to hide instead. During this quarter of “Stanford Online,” hiding has never been easier. Like thousands of schools across the United States responding to COVID-19, Stanford jettisoned key elements of the traditional college experience this Fall quarter. “Zooming to class” no longer meant zipping across Escondido on a bike— it meant logging into lectures, scrolling through chats, and staring listlessly at a gallery wall of strangers’ faces. The mundanity of remote education revealed the pandemic’s destructive force, but also provided convenience. In high school, I concealed my feelings behind self-deprecation and wry smiles. Nowadays, muted mics and cameras-off do the trick with much less effort. But, for the past few weeks, I wake up to toe-curling, knee-huddling nausea that threatens my disguise. Even though I go through the motions (show up to class, finish homework, and eat and sleep if time permits), I feel haunted by the ghost of my unfulfilled potential. This ambiguous dread destroys my motivation and affects my academic performance. I go to my family doctor who runs glucose, hormone, and metabolic tests that confirm inconclusive results. “It doesn’t appear physical. Perhaps you are dealing with too much stress,” she says. My stomach drops even more— how did she see me so clearly? Is my mask fading? Is the only person I’m fooling myself? I leave the doctor feeling even worse for she has signaled the end of the masquerade. Alarmingly, Stanford duck syndrome (characterized by someone appearing to “float” along on the surface while paddling frantically underwater) has heightened during remote learning as students know even less about their peers. We only see the highly-constructed online realities our classmates choose to present. A recent article in the Stanford Medicine Magazine featuring the Director of Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety even suggested that the pandemic had “sounded the mental health alarm.” As I log into lectures and see members of this virtual masquerade dwindle everyday, I wonder if my classmates feel the same. Has the toxic “grind or die” atmosphere driven our health off a cliff? Perhaps the pandemic has chipped “the best and brightest” mask we hide our mental health behind, forcing us to realize that none of us know what “the best and the brightest” actually means.


“I feel so alone,” says anonymous Stanford ‘24 frosh who I will call Talia as she tries to characterize her first quarter at Stanford. Her voice crackles into nervous laughter. “My mental health has never been worse.” If anyone belongs to “the best and brightest,” it’s Talia. “My Stanford Stats: Perfect SAT and 5 Extracurriculars” headline her viral Medium article and YouTube video. To her audience, she epitomizes the crème de la crème. But, like me, her college experience has caused her to question her status. “I’d be lying if I said this quarter has been easy. I’m overwhelmed,” she tells me. As a Stanford undergraduate attending classes virtually, Talia’s schedule is quite monotonous. At 10am, she wakes up and attends her first math lecture over Zoom. She hops into her PWR class right after. Computer Science, Introduction to Engineering, THINK, and a one-unit wonder round out the afternoon. After completing five back-to-back Zoom calls, Talia works on problem sets. At 9pm, she rewards herself with her first meal of the day, which is usually a bag of cheetos. She quickly returns to her computer, finishes homework, and heads to bed around 5am. Even though she lives with her family, Talia will often go five or more days without in-person social interaction. “The pandemic has completely changed my view of work-life balance. I felt this pressure to ‘take advantage’ of online learning and sign up for 22 units. I guess the pandemic scared me and I signed up for as much work as possible to distract me from it,” Talia remarks. We have seen the adverse effects of significant societal events on academic pressure before. During widespread labor union strikes that disrupted Wisconsin college campuses in 2011, a Canadian university concluded that students experienced anxiety from having to meet the same academic standards in an uncertain time. A recent study of 7,143 Chinese college students demonstrated that the psychological impact of COVID-19 included a 25% increase in anxiety symptoms because of new academic routines. What’s interesting, however, is that as a result of these academic disruptions, students like Talia feel the need to study and achieve even more. On May 22, the International Journal of Psychiatry published a letter from concerned Canadian psychologists stating “an emergency online learning format exacerbates academic stressors for students including the pressure to learn independently and succeed independently.” Since September 14, Talia’s Medium account and YouTube channel have been dormant. As someone who reached viral popularity from sharing college advice, Talia has chosen to hide her first quarter experience. “I don’t know… I feel like if anyone sees me burn out, I’ve failed. I’d contradict my own brand if I publicized my struggle.” To Talia, being “the best and the brightest” simply means outperforming and overworking. Performance outweighs mental health and the feeling of burn-out equals achievement. Many of us, including me, believe the same thing and have put the idea into practice during online learning. As Talia demonstrates, because no one on Zoom can put a check on our workaholic mentalities, we’ve reached a breaking point. “My life is unsustainable. There has to be another way,” says Talia.


“I find that this quarter has gone quite well for me. I have no complaints about my transition to Stanford,” notes another Stanford ‘24 frosh who I will call Sara. Similar to Talia, Sara signed up for more units than Stanford’s recommended amount while balancing 15 hours of work at a local supermarket a week. They’re both part of the same elite merit scholarship class. If they appear so similar on paper, why do their mental health experiences vary so significantly? The “Stanford” answer is purpose. When you talk to Sara, she describes a clear professional goal of becoming an aerospace engineer. According to Stanford School of Education professor and psychologist Will Damon, those who succeed at high-levels identify a purpose so powerful that they easily tolerate demanding work. Stanford has even looked to purpose as the solution to student dissatisfaction by offering courses like “Designing Your Life” and “Finding Purpose.” In those classes, students learn that the workaholic mentality underlying “the best and the brightest” does not disappear, it just becomes more endurable when motivated by momentous intentions. By this logic, Sara has found her purpose and the subsequent feeling of fulfillment. While this certainly makes sense, not many young adults have discovered what Damon refers to as “their larger generalized intention to accomplish something meaningful and consequential for the world beyond the self.” Even Sara admits, “I’m lucky to know my purpose. Not everyone does.” Thus, purpose can feel as burdensome as “the best and the brightest” title. So what really accounts for Sara’s success? To me, it’s something even simpler than purpose: self-care. “I start my day by going outside and meditating. At 10am, I log into my lectures and take my notes for a few hours. After completing my homework, I call my friend for an hour and talk. Then, I get eight to nine hours of sleep,” Sara says of her daily routine. Sara’s self-care stands separate from external achievement. Her investment in herself does not accompany shiny trophies or a letter grade. “For me, I’ve realized I have to prioritize myself. Not to the extent it will help me be an engineer or the extent it will help me be a good student. I do it because I have to live with myself, so I better make sure every aspect of me is healthy.” Sara suggests a very simple idea: to take care of ourselves. But perhaps, it is the hardest thing we can do. We must question our deep-rooted priorities around performance and outcomes to make room for this proposed “self-care.” As many of us begin to truly consider our mental health as a priority and dispute deeply held values associated with our self-worth, we need the help of others.


It’s October 10th and World Mental Health Day. I’ve just failed a math midterm and had a prolonged panic attack on my bathroom floor. My mind spirals. Why did I fail? Am I a failure? What does this even mean? Is my life meaningful to me? As my mind circles, I remember an Approaching Stanford email reminding me that Bridge Peer Counseling would be open today. I’m a sentimental person so I take it as a sign. I click into the counseling center within a few seconds and begin explaining my thought spiral to the counselor at the end of the line. She listens to me for several minutes, taking notes and acknowledging my thoughts with “hmms” and “oks.” When I finish my soliloquy, the Zoom room goes silent. “Your feelings are valid and I thank you for sharing them. This is the beginning of a long journey. Are you ready?” Am I ready to take off my “best and brightest” mask? To redefine success to include mental health and self-care?

I pause. What might it look like to start challenging an institutional culture I bought into and succeeded at before remote learning? Does Stanford want the best and brightest at the expense of healthy students? Can both coexist? These are the harder questions I will be discussing with my counselor as we start our weekly meetings.