The Ugly Duckling
Change. Everybody talks a good game about change. Chrysalises of hopeful futures hang on every Christmas tree. They partly open in gyms and in clinics and in journals. Then about March, they fall slain by the struggle like early buds that freeze in an untimely spring snow. The “failures at change” have a pint of ice cream to console themselves and return to “what was” having given up becoming the butterfly.
Why don’t more people succeed at elemental change? The truth is that change is not easy. Change is difficult. I believe it is the “ugly duckling effect” that many find so challenging.
Say, what? The “ugly duckling effect”?
Are you familiar with the tale of the ugly duckling? Allow me to revisit that story with you. I am telling my version of the tale I learned from Hans Christian Anderson.
A duck was going about her duty one season setting on eggs. She did what ducks do; what she had always done with all the clutches of eggs she laid season after season. However, this brood she was setting was unusual because one of the eggs seemed to be a little different. The mother duck ignored that difference and kept setting; kept going about her duty.
Right on time, as they did every season, the eggs hatched. One by one the little wet heads poked through their shells and in minutes they were all blow-dried in the spring air into bolls of yellow fluff with yellow beaks and feet–except for one–a boll of grey fluff with a skinny black beak and wide, black feet. The mother duck was puzzled. She dismissed the “different” duckling as just a freak of nature and led them all down to the water for their first swim. They all swam beautifully, though she wondered why the little grey duckling dipped her head into the water so long. And her voice! She did not give a melodic “quack” like her brothers and sisters. It was more like a “honk” with a little broken squeak on the end. Ugly voice.
As time went by, this “different” duckling grew taller than her nest mates; even her walk was different: more upright off the grass. Such big feet she had. One day, her nest mates’ yellow fluff began to fall off their bodies and juvenile feathers appeared, showing the mark of their species. Their sister did not have that distinctive stout neck and low, compact form. She was grey and gangly with a long neck, longer wings and a black mask across her face. “If you aren’t the ugliest thing we have ever seen!”, they hissed at her. “You’re hideous!.” Then they poked her; bit her and drove her out of the ducks’ area. The gangly, grey duck shuffled away to the next pond alone.
As the ugly duckling paddled silently across the water, she was startled by a family of neighbor birds. She hid in the reeds and watched them parade by. Behind some of the magnificent, white feathered adults were the fledging teens, preening themselves of their grey feathers. Behind some of the adults were small, fluffy grey hatchlings. “Ducklings?”, the ugly ducking thought. She looked at her reflection in the pond and saw that she looked like them. Immediately she swam up to the ones who seemed to be her own age and hailed them. They drifted around her and giggled in their harsh voices, “You’re not a duck! You’re one of us–a swan. You must be our lost sister”.
They invited her to float down the stream with them. Eventually, she met her original nesting pair who were thrilled to see the daughter they thought was lost a season ago.
When fall came, the ugly duckling’s juvenile feathers were all shed and in their place were the feathers of an adult swan. She was all white except for a slender, black beak and a black band across her face, the mark of her family.
I told this tale to say this: sometimes job seekers change something about themselves to “repackage” or “reimage” themselves. It is part of a “reinvention” movement to craft a younger, stronger, more active, smarter, more up-to-date image. People who are not in a job search mode tend to laugh behind their hands and roll their eyes heavenward at all this metamorphosis, I have read. No tea and sympathy from folk who think about the unemployed once per week–when the “unemployment figures” come out in the news media.
We job seekers change hairstyles and glasses. We color our hair. We buy new clothes (an inside change has really happened when we start to revamp our wardrobe). We “get work done”. Many of the changes have stages. This takes time.
We head straight into change. We begin to “shape shift”. The stadium of friends and family seems to be smiling and cheering for change in the beginning. It feels powerful when we first trot out our dreams and intentions, but that first rush of success does not last. Actually going through the process of change is a long, lonely stretch of road. Change is not a sprint, but a marathon we find out. Change exacts its fees in patience and pain. These are the “ugly ducking” days.
The hard work of change is largely solitary and unrewarded. The unprepared become discouraged and fall away in the early stages. They who persist longer become tempted to relax the standards when the change regimen begins to actually challenge established patterns and habits. Believe me. I know whereof I speak having made many, many attempts to loose “baby weight” since 1985. The “baby” is married now, but the weight is still there and has gained company.
The real work of change is a period of discomfort in increasing intensity. There is so much pull to fall back into the older, more familiar and comfortable. This is why “change” is so popular initially, but so hard to really get done. This is why people tend to put off necessary change until forced to by outside events. At that point change mounts a coup and snatches the command position instead of being managed and controlled with dispassion, strength and mindfulness.