Were You a Swan Raised by Ducks?

Were you a swan raised by ducks

Why is Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling” such a favorite fairy tale?

Why does it contain such meaning for so many?

How many of us were Swans raised by Ducks?

Fairy tales resonate with so many of us because they are universal examples of common situations in the “real world.”

In my coaching career I have often wondered why so many gifted children are raised by not-so-gifted parents. How has that served them?

Heading my list of gifted children are those who have what has been called “extra-sensory perception.” They see and hear and sense much more that others do. When they are little they have a tendency to think other people are not so nice and definitely not so bright. They don’t understand why those folks do not keep their promises when it is so obvious that that would be the right thing to do. These children wonder why others are so surprised when they say things such as: “I was just talking to Grandma,” and Grandma is dead. They have “imaginary friends.”

As little children they wonder why so much of what they say is received by grownups as weird, and why they are looked upon as odd, strange or even crazy. Many of these children have little knowledge of their early childhood since it was not a safe place for them. As a result they have become partially traumatized. Early on they experience anger and ridicule, and so they accept that there is “something wrong” with them. This is what behavioral psychologists call “Learned Paralysis.” The smart ones learn to keep their mouths shut when they see or have insights that may not be okay to the rest of their family and friends. They come to believe that these insights are wrong, inaccurate or simply BAD. The family religion might be used against them, and they may be told that people who see/hear/know such things will go to Hell.

This is the life of a Swan in the Duckyard.

But back to my question: “How did that serve you?”

The world inside the family has somewhat prepared these little Swans for life in the outside world. They already know that their words can upset others. They learn early what can be said in public and how it can be said without frightening or enraging others. They know how to remain silent and how to re-phrase their thoughts so they are “more acceptable.” They come to realize the hard way that everyone is not a Swan. This is usually brought home in high school when they fall in love with a Duck. I ask my clients if they have had their Duck yet, and most of them have a good laugh. One even said that she had had “flocks of Ducks.” A typical conversation between a Swan and a Duck goes like this: The Swan says, “But you promised!” and the Duck says “So?”

These are valuable skills to have throughout life. What concerns me is how these Swans feel about themselves in their mind and heart. Often, because of their sensitivity and upbringing Swans decide that there is “something wrong” with them and thus become willing slaves to the opinions and requests of others. They can feel that they are inferior to others, and often isolate for fear of more rejection. Some Swans decide to avoid interaction as much as possible. These are often found doing elegant and complicated work in computer software or playing musical instruments in a controlled situation such as an orchestra, or painting their emotions on canvas.

Rather than falling into the trap of judging the right and wrong of such circumstances, I prefer to ask these clients, “How has this served you?”


Swans usually have learned some valuable skills that serve them throughout their life, and they rely upon their skills to get along in their jobs and interact with others.

Swans have a great gift for multi-tasking, and are often in places where management of overly busy or complicated situations requires just this kind of ability. They are managers of schools for difficult children, they are in triage and emergency rooms in hospitals, they run offices and campaigns, and thrive in the hotel and restaurant businesses where “busy-ness” is the key word. Their poster child is the Air Traffic Controller. They are indispensable in their jobs and can never be replaced by the boss’s son or other relative because only they can perform these tasks with reliability, speed and skill.

These abilities are present because Swans are highly intuitive. They don’t have to over-think things, but seem to be able to successfully act and respond from their “gut.” Their extra-sensory perception allows them to manage several duties at once and make reliable and responsible decisions in the midst of chaos. They are the most employable people I know.

They do not escape the Ducks, however, and in a working environment God’s little joke is that most Swans have a Duck supervisor. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as the Peter Principle. Most Ducks are promoted high enough to be out of the way of the real work that is being done by the Swans, thus insulating Ducks from the patients/customers who might be damaged by their incompetence. Swans are assumed (correctly) to be competent enough to handle these supervisors gracefully.

Swans’ difficulty often shows up in a sort of low-grade impatience. Often they still have trouble dealing with Ducks. They find it hard to believe that the Ducks are not doing their obstructive behavior on purpose. They forget that Ducks are not wired the same way as Swans. Think of the Ducks as radios and the Swans as televisions. Swans simply have more wiring than Ducks. There is no mystery or magic to it—it is just what is. The extra wiring allows them to perform many duties simultaneously and well. The Ducks can’t help it. One would not ask a kitten to do algebra, and the same is true for the Ducks.

As a coach I give the Swans what I call Homework. First I challenge them never to finish anyone else’s sentences for them. Yes, the Swan knows all along what Ducks were going to say and, yes, the Swan already knows that information and, yes, the Duck is really slowing down the Swan’s pace at the moment, but that is the reason for the challenge. It may teach the Swan a bit of useful patience. I encourage them to think of the Duck as a “Living Altar,” just like seeing someone in a wheelchair often makes one stop a moment and feel gratitude that his or her life does not include such a challenge.

More Swan homework consists of rewriting their script in regard to Ducks. When, in the midst of some complicated multi-tasking effort the Duck arrives and sets the timing off-kilter, it is not skillful to rage at the poor Duck. I suggest that they “Pause, Center and Shift” their consciousness into neutral. I used to play a game as a child called “The Face in the Tree.” One would look a complicated drawing of a tree with many branches and try to see the face that the artist had cleverly inserted somewhere inside. That was the face in the tree. I suggest to Swans that the poorly timed entrance of the Duck is their “face-in-the-tree,” and that perhaps the duck was put there at that most awkward moment to remind them to get back into their Heart Center. The Heart Center is the truly efficient place to be. It is the center of kind interactions regardless of the “worthiness” of the person before you. Respect for others is an inside job. This is called “Unconditional Love,” and is the foundation of all successful relationships whether on the job or elsewhere. This life is not about how much work you can do, but how much time you can stay in your Heart Center. This lifts the level of the Earth Game to a higher platform, and allows the Swan to build self-esteem by successfully meeting this sort of larger challenge rather than just putting yet another Duck down.

I remind the Swans that their gifts are an addition rather that a subtraction to their life and encourage them to remember that their extra wiring is not a curse but a blessing and that they are really fabulous and wonderful beings!