The ugly duckling and the tale of innovation

Flicts, by Brazilian author Ziraldo, or the children’s book of my life: the story of the ugly crayon in the 12 colour box, the beige that doesn’t belong in the rainbow, the shade no one uses, and, therefore, the last one to be finished. Leftover coloured pencil, a rejected colour par excellence, but that ends up being the colour of the Moon.

We’re all acquainted to at least one of the versions of The Ugly Duckling fairy tale: the story of a bird that doesn’t seem to fit his family of ducks. No matter how much he tries to be accepted by the group, by unsuccessfully imitating his surroundings and trying to mix with his peers, he ultimately fails and ends up being mocked and abused. Growing up in such environment naturally causes the ugly duckling to feel very little about himself, until one day, finally, he meets another group that accepts him and treats him well. That was his “true family”, as the ugly duckling was not a duckling at all: he was a swan.

One of the many interpretations of this tale is through the scope of belonging. Sometimes, we are indeed in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s no way we can succeed in such environment. This is the aspect explored by the psychologist Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her underground classic Women Who Run With The Wolves: for the author, the ugly duckling is one explanation of the myth of acceptance, in which the “ugly” duckling is treated as such merely for being different, and thus declared unacceptable among the other ducks. The pressure of the community is so strong that even the ugly duckling alleged mother ends up by stopping to care for him, which causes him to feel isolated, rejected, and unworthy.

Many events of our time could be explained by this children’s tale, as we are indeed immersed in societies that tend to fear the different by othering anything that does not belong to the domain of the same. French philosopher François Jullien will explore, in De L’être au vivre, that id-entity could be broken into idem entity, as in “same” and “existence”. The rejection of the other (and the Others…) thus lay in the phenomenon of alter entity, alterity, from “other”, “alternative”, “changed”, and “existence”. The mechanism of othering what is different, what is alter instead of idem, is the very foundation of social illnesses such as racism, religious and cultural intolerance, xenophobia, and so on.

But what I wanted to discuss is way more simple than those big social issues, which require a longer reflection than the brief space of a blog post. It was a silly insight, which sparked during one of my frequent walks through Millwall Dock, where one can see ducks and swans swimming in relative “harmony” through one of the branches of the Thames, in East London. I caught myself thinking that the reader of The Ugly Duckling should not forget that the choice of animals to built this fable is not innocent, considering that this is a tale that sprouted in a Western culture context. And in this context, swans are higher in the hierarchy of animals than the ducks. Ducks are considered ordinary, clumsy, rather ridiculous; while swans are admired, seen as elegant and sophisticated, a symbol of Venus, the goddess of love, and all that comes with that — grace, beauty, poetry, music. So it is not mistaken to assume that, for Westerns, swans are “better” than ducks, and yet, in the tale, the ducks couldn’t recognise that “superiority” of the ugly duckling, because they were so concerned about his difference.

That got me wondering, that, although from the outside, as humans, the reluctance of the ducks in accepting a swan looks quite foolish and ignorant, from the inside, like a duck inside an all-duck society, the swan was not better or worse: he was an alien, an intruder, an outside threat. The fear of the threat is so great that there is no space for other judgements. Which leads me to ask: if we lived in a world where only ducks lived, how would we feel when we first saw a swan?

It is not so hard to imagine such world (and how it feels to be the swan) when we look through the myth of innovation that invaded the 21st-century job market. More than a myth, innovation became a fetish. We are so in love with the world, we sometimes ignore what it actually means — from the dictionary, “featuring new methods; advanced and original; introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking”. Original (another much loved word), in its turn, being “the earliest form of something”.

That is the part when things become tricky, because if something is to be considered, indeed, new, original — innovative, chances are it might be something we never saw before. And one must not get carried away by the tale of innovation and believe, naïvely, that “we recognise true innovation when we see it”, because, on several occasions, innovators are the new swans. We like innovation, but not that much.

The system we live in still rewards copying, in a way, more than it does innovation, and building true innovation is still the most difficult process someone can go through. In a world order that allegedly loves innovation, but is still too attached to “the way things have always been”, being a true innovator may still be synonym — as it was for the Shakespeares, Van Goghs, Nikola Teslas, Henry Millers, etc. — of being mocked, abused, rejected and, most importantly, penniless. Unable to find their “true families” in their day, they are doomed to be recognised much later, when society finally evolved into understanding what they were trying to do. And worst: romanticising those, in a desperate effort to repair the harm they suffered for being misunderstood.

We still read, every day, job specs requiring “highly innovative individuals”; and most of those vacancies are not being filled with those. Chances are, those individuals are the ones striving for work, not able to find a company where they “fit”, and day after day, they lose hope that will ever happen.

Perhaps, we do live in a world of ducks, be it in the job market, in education, or even in society and politics. The waves of intolerance we apprehend in our current scenario may be the proof of such: we are more worried about othering, boxing, cataloguing what we see, instead of opening up to the new — new ideas, new cultures, or even new people. The other culture, the other language, the other food, the other skin shades, the other Gods, they all have in common the value of unknown, of alterity. And innovation, while it is not out there and recognised, belongs to the same place, which is among the things we still have to know.

How many more swans will have to go unrecognised, until we learn how to be better, more accepting ducks?