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Ducks, Swans, and Finding Our “Peeps”

© 2023 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, September/October issue, 2023

A number of years ago, I interviewed a Silicon Valley CEO about what sparked passion and how it could be harnessed to make great things possible.  


“I think being around the right people matters,” he said. He proceeded to tell me about his teenage daughter, who’d been struggling. She was smart, but she felt like a misfit and couldn’t find anything that inspired her. Then she’d gone to a summer theatre program in Oregon. “We didn’t hear from her for a few days,” he said. “But then we got a text that said, ‘I’VE FOUND MY PEOPLE!!!’” The CEO laughed. “From that moment on, she was transformed.”


I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot, lately. Not just about finding passion, but about what brings out our best; allows our inner light to not only shine, but blaze forth joyfully in the world, making us more than we otherwise might be. More impactful, more capable, more self-confident, more happy. And I think that CEO was right. So was Peter Pan’s friend Tinkerbell, for that matter. We may not become what we’re around, but we’re certainly influenced by it. If nobody sees or believes in our light, it dims. But if we’re around people who understand, value, and believe in who we really are, our light grows exponentially stronger.


We don’t always have full control over who we’re around, or even our geographic location, of course. We go where our careers or families require us to go, and we rarely get to choose our work colleagues. And that can make finding our “peeps” more challenging.


For example: I’ve lived and worked in four different geographic cultures. I grew up in the Northeast, spent some time living in the South and Midwest, and then spent 19 years living in California before falling in love with an East Coaster and moving back east to support and create a family with him.


As a native easterner, you’d think that would be my comfort zone. But I never felt as if I truly “fit” there. Couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I moved to California, I felt like the daughter of that CEO … like I’d found my people. Not that there’s anything wrong with anywhere else I’ve lived. But the creative, upbeat energy in California resonated with me. In Los Angeles, instead of being odd because of my creative dreams and unusual resume, I was one of thousands of like-minded people. And in northern California, I was surrounded by adventurous, entrepreneurial souls who were passionate about new ideas and both exploring and changing the world. I also loved Californians’ approach to living and entertaining. And it was a fabulous place for a VFR pilot to fly.


But it wasn’t until last fall, when I reconnected with some of my West Coast colleagues after an absence of too many years, and felt something wonderful come alive inside me again, that I realized what I’d been missing.


“I know this is completely oversimplified, but in broad brush terms, it’s like the East Coast is a duck pond,” I explained to my husband. “Filled with all kinds of wonderful, beautiful ducks, like you. But it’s more  …” I thought back to my first job in California, and the clashes that ensued when corporate folks from D.C. showed up in Palm Springs (where every day was casual Friday), wearing buttoned-up blue, pinstripe suits. I struggled for the right word to convey the difference in culture, lifestyle, and mindset. “…Conventional. And I’m not conventional. I can swim around here fine, but when people look at me, they see an ugly duckling. Because I’m not a duck. I’m a swan. Like in the fairy tale. But the West Coast is a more of a swan pond. So when people there look at me, they don’t see an ugly duckling. They see a perfectly fine swan, like themselves.”


You can adapt the analogy to more finely tuned categories, of course. I have friends who’ve decided they’re geese. Or herons. Or some other kind of waterfowl. But it resonates on some level with everyone I tell it to. Because most of us have had the experience of feeling as if we’re in the wrong pond.


So what do we do if we find ourselves in that situation? I guess one option is to divorce our spouses, abandon our children, quit our jobs and retreat to a pond filled with birds more like ourselves. But for those of us who love our spouses, and love aspects of the pond we’re in, even if it’s not our natural environment, there are other alternatives.


The trick, once we do the work to figure out what kind of bird we are, is to come up with ways we can connect with other birds like us. Not all the time, but enough that: 1) we get a positive reality check that we’re not ugly ducklings (or swans, or herons), but beautiful and fine versions of whatever kind of waterfowl we are. And 2) we get whatever duck or swan dreams we have reinforced by others who intuitively see and believe in them. Our dreams are like Tinkerbell’s light. They’re fragile and ephemeral visions of possible futures. So it’s hard to keep believing in them if we don’t have someone to softly tell us, “You’re not crazy. I see it, too. I get it. And I think it’s not just possible, but a great idea.”


Think about what makes a swan a swan, or a duck a duck, and then think about how to get more of those elements in your life. Maybe it means more travel. Or redesigning your living space or lifestyle. Or putting more energy into building or maintaining friendships with people who seem to “get” you—even if they don’t live in the same time zone.


It’s also worth evaluating professional opportunities in terms of what kind of pond or bird companionship they offer. My nephew called me recently after presenting his doctoral thesis at a particular conference. He was excited, because he’d felt a kind of resonance there he hadn’t felt since his undergraduate days. “So, think about why that was,” I advised him. “Was it the people who presented with you, or were in the audience? Was it the conference subject? What in that group or environment made you feel as if you’d found your ‘peeps’?” Even if we don’t come up with a definitive answer, just asking the questions can lead to valuable insights.


In the end, it’s a balancing act. The world rarely meets all our needs in one tidy package. And that’s alright. Sometimes we grow the most when we’re forced to stretch and adapt to new ponds. But we grow best when we also have some colleagues or companions who can remind us that being different is okay. That we’re not an ugly duckling. We’re a fabulous, beautiful swan.

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