Walking to Work with The Ugly Duckling

“I shall come and sing for you, so you may be joyful—and thoughtful.”

H.C. Andersen, The Nightingale

Uglyduckling_1 “The Ugly Duckling Goes to Work” by Mette Norgaard, PhD takes on some of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and illuminates the reader with lessons how to create work-life balance in postmodern times. Being a leadership coach, and in honor of her fellow Danish, Dr. Norgaard unsheathed the sharpness of H.C. Andersen’s seemingly simple folk tales and set it free to cut readers deep into the core.

Experience once more with renewed poignancy the bedtime stories we have loved back when we were carefree children, and remember that inside of us is a strange wisdom from youth waiting to be rediscovered:

The Emperor’s New Clothes mocks snobbery and shows us how our ego can turn us into fools. Clad in our power suits, we become more concerned with our image rather than ourselves. The corporate culture fuels us to be blind to self-awareness and personal beliefs and encourages us into accepting only what executive management would find meritorious.

The Ugly Duckling’s story of rejection and growth allows us to realize that “when we heed our longing, we grow into our swanlike nature.” Many of us in the workplace can relate well to the feeling of being discriminated against for not fitting the mold. Yet, it is within our power to choose to leave bitterness behind and to uproot negativism from our system. Once this is accomplished, we can begin to assert ourselves in order to find out where we belong and how we can best fulfill our purpose.

The Dung Beetle’s self-absorption and delusions of grandeur teach us that an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses is the first thing that permits us to get past frustrations and propels us to succeed. This does not mean that we should suppress our faith in our competencies. In contrast, the free-agent reality is that in the global market, the proliferation of downsizing and offshoring should encourage us to grow and learn continuously. It is self-deception to hold on to fantasies of lifetime employment and linear career paths, feeling as if the world owes us something. “Freedom is a wonderful thing!” As free agents, our only security is in establishing a strong professional identity from mastery and building relationships.

The Nisse at the Grocer’s is a tale of two tensions: between practicality and idealism, action and contemplation, standard of living and quality of life. A good book, a moving film, a motivational speech, or a weekend trip can make us want to be writers, artists, teachers, and missionaries. While it is true that the grocer provides us with porridge with a large lump of butter, it is the power of truth, courage, compassion, and beauty that makes us creative and happy. Inspiration, however, is oftentimes short-lived, as one realizes that it may not keep a roof over one’s head. Each of us is a work in progress, and the story displays how the confused nisse has managed to keep a balance. “The more you integrate, the wiser you will be.”

The Fir Tree is a tragic tale of one who has never really lived. The little tree was in a hurry to grow up and anxious to shine so soon. It lost its roots even before it was cut down. The fundamental to a happy life is the ability to be aware of and appreciate the moment. Oftentimes though, we defer our realizations and pleasure until the next target is met and until the next deadline is over. The question is not “Should we stop making plans?” The question is “how often do you postpone your life?” Savor the moment. Seize the day.

The Nightingale awakens at it enchants. It tells of a plain little bird that touches the soul with its songs, deriving its strength from nature, meaning, and freedom. It comforts both fisherman and Emperor, an equalizer. It does not concern itself with gold slippers, titles, and applause from the Emperor’s court, since fulfillment is a reward on its own. Each one of us has a song. It is that which we care about enough to make us want to excel. It is that which we love to do so much that the act alone satisfies us. Find your song, and sing it with all your heart. According to Dr. Norgaard, this shall push us to go beyond perfunctory performance and to give genuinely of ourselves.

Reading “The Ugly Duckling Goes to Work” was a timely pursuit for me this weekend. This should be in every working person’s bookshelf—a collection of timeless fairy tales for adults bursting with depth and meaning. Humorous and insightful, this book is a refreshing detour from our efficiency and productivity driven lives. Not only did Dr. Norgaard do justice to interpreting our cherished tales and making them valuable tools in our contemporary adult life. Her candor at sharing her personal application anecdotes and those of people from her neighborhood gives the material added ingenuity and bonds the storyteller, the story, and the reader. The Ugly Duckling Goes to Work (Wisdom for the Workplace from the Classic Tales of Hans Christian Andersen) is an endearing read. I’m certain that H.C. Andersen would have been proud.


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