Stanford University’s gamut of academic obstacles forces many students into an unthinking, mechanical mindset.
As Stanford students, we never think about stopping. We’re always running — running code, running events, running sports practice and running practice exercises for our careers. The constant competition and camaraderie keep us on our feet. A collective runner’s high keeps us in the race. But that high only lasts as long as we run.
One winter morning last year, a fellow graduate student jumped from a balcony several floors above mine. He survived, thankfully. The event traumatized my girlfriend, who heard it all happen. For months afterward, when I would step out onto the balcony and shut the sliding door just a little too loudly behind me, she would open it again with fear in her eyes. Just to check. I dismissed her fears, feeling that I had no time to stop and ponder morbidities.
I still haven’t processed it. That would take time and energy, and all my time and energy are spent running grad student operations. The longer I’m at Stanford, the more I become a machine. I put existential concerns out of mind.
That’s because running Stanford University’s gamut of academic obstacles requires a mechanical mindset. For example: Last month, in the minutes leading up to a three-hour computer science exam, I made small talk with a fellow grad student. He said: “I hope they don’t make us think.” My machine brain understood. He meant: “I hope we only have to do math.” Calculations are quick, but it takes time to think through the implications of our decisions. Speed and efficiency are higher priorities.
Hundreds of us sitting in two separate auditoriums competed for scores on that exam. We were each trying to defuse a ticking time bomb, which threatened to blow apart our gifted and talented senses of self. Occasionally I forced myself to inhale, pick up my head, and look around at my peers. They were hunched over. The room reeked of human exertion. We were all on overdrive, taking an exam designed to award a gold medal to the fastest human calculator. At the end, I felt proud to receive just a participation trophy.
Competition at this level creates a feeling of limitless possibility. Stanford is an arena for pushing that limit. Who could possibly give up?
But competition at this level also makes us into unthinking machines whose only speed settings are “fast” and “broken.” How else could we just keep running when our peers fall off the pace and fall off balconies? Or when the community loses a beloved women’s soccer captain and teammate, like Katie Meyer, who died by suicide earlier this year? We’re so well-conditioned to run laps around this gilded track that stopping and exiting the race – or being threatened with disqualification, like Katie — feels like the end of everything.
Stanford has opted for a scheduled maintenance solution to its mental health problem. It’s self-service. When the Office of Community Standards informed Katie that her diploma would be placed on hold due to an incident six months prior, she was given a number to call. Students all have that number. While we’re running around, we can dial it in. Or we can schedule a psychological pit stop a couple weeks out. The university’s delayed response stands in contrast to the manufactured urgency of everything else on campus.
National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call, text or chat 988 to reach a crisis counselor anytime, for free.
The new three-digit dialing code is now active across the U.S., but the previous Lifeline phone number, 800-273-8255, also remains available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.
We could collectively stop for a moment to catch our breath and rest on our laurels. But all it takes is a whiz kid breezing by for the rest of the pack to pick up the pace. Performance is always relative, and the baseline keeps surging out in front of us.
Running after unreachable, unsustainable goals is not just Stanford’s modus operandi. It’s always been race day in the Bay Area. Back in 1983, Tom Wolfe wrote: “In the Silicon Valley there was a phenomenon known as burnout. After five or ten years of obsessive racing for the semiconductor high stakes, five or ten years of lab work, work lunches, workaholic drinks at the Wagon Wheel, and work-battering of the wife and children, an engineer would reach his middle thirties and wake up one day; and he was finished.” Current Stanford students, by comparison, are just hitting our stride.
Each of us here at this institution is sprinting toward a distant finish line. Keeping our eyes on the prize requires tunnel vision. What would it look like if we stopped more often to help others along in their course of study or to think through the course of life together? If we never stop we forget that we can. So, we keep running long after graduation, until we’re finished.
As long as Stanford prioritizes unending speed above all else, the university will provide world-class training in how to think with a one-track mind.
Jon Ball is a doctoral student in education data science at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.