The end of the rat race

Like most prospective freshmen, after getting into Stanford I found myself wading through Reddit to find out everything I needed to know about student life. What I quickly found were stories of burnout, of being left out and of feeling like social life was nonexistent at Stanford. I told myself that my Stanford experience would be different. After all, I had just watched three episodes of Cath in College, so I was already ahead of the curve. 

Once I got to Stanford, I began my quest to do it all. I joined The Stanford Daily, of course, and around a dozen clubs. For a while, there was a time where I actually was able to juggle it all. I quickly learned that you could indeed send When2Meets and organize club events in between PWR presentations. I didn’t even have a bike then, yet I was able to make it to meetings on time because of how no one here is on time. It seems like just yesterday that when I walked down Main Quad, I was able to wave hi to dozens of friends on their way to class. But whenever I had time to actually reflect, I always found myself coming back to the question of why — why I was committed to doing it all.

At first, I justified it to myself as a way to get to know more people. But, quickly it became clear to me that it would be impossible to meet and know everyone on a level that actually was meaningful. Later, I found myself telling myself that it was a way to leave a legacy. But that lie was quickly debunked as the years passed by and I saw that the friends and legends of years before me quickly became ghosts with each new class of students. Then, I told myself it was a way to keep myself stimulated and happy. But, by this point, the extroversion that I had faked my freshman year was already wearing off.

After campus shut down, this question only got louder. Why was I doing any of this, especially now that everything was on Zoom? Still, I stayed on the treadmill, chasing after something that seemed to slip through my fingers so quickly that I couldn’t even define it. 

It took a PSYCH 1 lecture to find the term: the hedonic treadmill effect. The hedonic treadmill refers to the tendency for individuals to constantly strive for more, to seek higher levels of happiness and satisfaction, only to find themselves back at their baseline level of well-being. 

When the pandemic forced me into a virtual world, I confronted the emptiness of my pursuits more directly. The Zoom meetings and lack of in-person interactions made it painfully clear that the external stimuli I had relied on for my happiness were no longer what they used to be. I soon began taking inventory of what brought me joy and what had originally brought me to Stanford.

As I made this transition, I found myself spending more time in a lab over at the School of Medicine. One of my responsibilities was testing the effect of gene mutations, as well as therapeutics, on motor coordination. My job was to perform the rotarod test: one of the most widely used tests in mouse models of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS and Huntington’s. Essentially, the mice run on a treadmill that accelerates slowly until eventually they fall off. 

A mouse with a condition like Parkinson’s will fall off more quickly than its disease-free counterpart. However, on occasion, you can come across a difficult mouse. The first time this happened, I was frustrated: why wouldn’t this healthy mouse run properly, despite having undergone the necessary training? 

After spending more time with this mouse (and gaining a bit more wisdom over the years), I now celebrate it. By refusing to run, the mouse had found a way to step off the treadmill, a skill that most of us have failed to master. I’m not saying that the mouse had somehow cracked the key to finding joy in the present. But this is also the same animal species that has inspired so many scientific and medical breakthroughs, so, you know.

Recently, I too have begun to embody the difficult mouse. Refusing to participate in the rat race has allowed me to have more moments to myself; to embrace gratitude more effectively and prioritize experiences that align more with my future goals. I no longer feel as guilty or excluded when I bump into friends with whom I definitely have not gotten a meal with for a long time. I’ve found solace in the simplicity of my personal growth and inner contentment. I’ve found joy in falling off the treadmill.

Now, as I find myself finally about to leave Stanford, I find myself reflecting on my past self almost in awe of what was done in so little time. All the dancing on tables, late-night conversations and singing down Palm Drive has become even more special. It turns out that leaving the rat race gets you a clearer view of the moments and people that matter.


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