The Stanford Duck Syndrome Applied to Startups

I just learned about the famous "Stanford Duck Syndrome" the other day from a friend who mentioned it over dinner. Intrigued by it, I came home to find several posts and articles explaining the phenomenon, which apparently is very common at the university -- and probably not just at the university! The best description I found was: "the image of ducks in a pond... while they appear to glide easily along the surface of the water, beneath the surface they are paddling like heck."

This imagery illustrates the sentiment of many students who were used to feeling like the kings or the queens of their high school classes only to get to Stanford, look around and see these super smart, super athletic, super everything students who seem like they have everything completely under control. The truth is, just like the ducks in the pond, the great majority probably work very hard to keep up those "perfect" appearances, stretching themselves thin to learn as much as possible, to do as much as possible and to also have fun along the way -- after all, it's college.

Is working hard a bad thing though? Is it something to be ashamed of? I believe it's completely normal -- and even expected -- especially if you are talking about extra-ambitious 20-somethings who want to conquer the world before they turn 30! Actually, if that's your goal and you are not working extra-hard at that point, then you are probably forgoing some serious potential.

How does this syndrome apply to start-ups? In an extremely competitive environment, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to downplay difficulties and cover up sore spots. The truth is that any start-up that is not having growing pains is probably not growing fast enough.

Just like it would be totally normal for ambitious university students to struggle while they try to balance all of the "Chinese spinning plates" at once without letting any of them drop (like a friend of mine likes to put it), start-ups that have big visions also have big challenges. Part of evolving fast is being able to quickly identify opportunities for improvement and tackling them early on. The process of continuous innovation, adaptation and disruption in a fast-paced and constantly changing environment is not easy.

In fact, entrepreneurs, like most college kids, get bored in their comfort zones. The day you hear a college student say that he or she already has life completely under control, or an entrepreneur say that everything is just perfect and the way it should be, then be skeptical. It's kind of like a married couple who never argues or a woman who can work, take care of the house, the kids, be beautiful and still keep her cool at all times! Most likely, beneath the surface, there is quite some paddling going on.