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Unintended consequences and the power of waiting – A story about a duck and a shovel

Not too long ago, on a beautiful sunny day, I found a family of ducks taking a leisurely swim in my pool. This is a bad situation on many levels, I thought. First, chlorinated pool water – not good, and second,  the baby ducks are so small they probably can’t get out on their own. I felt a pang of urgency to help them move on to better ground (or water).

There was nothing of obvious use in this peculiar situation and I went for the only thing available – a shovel. My grand plan was to gently slide the shovel underwater and use it as a mock stepping stone for when the ducklings tried to exit the pool. If I’m gentle and quiet, I thought, maybe they won’t even notice. Hah! Notice they did, Momma duck saw my arrival with shovel in hand as nothing short of a predatory heist to steal and eat her babies (a logical conclusion, I have to admit).

At first I just stood close enough to see if my presence would encourage their departure, and it did, sortof. Mother duck hurried out of the pool only to have unfold precisely what I feared. All of the ducklings except one made it out. The little guy was clearly unable to get himself out. I attempted my underwater shovel maneuver, which threw momma duck into a frenzy, producing a horrible tangle of wings, arms, quacks and screams, that very successfully got everyone’s feathers in a ruffle, including mine. To top it all off, the baby duck was still in the pool AND as a final defensive maneuver to protect her lone duckling, Momma duck had dutifully flung herself back in the water only to have all the ducklings follow her back in again.

Ok, I thought, time to reassess this marvelous plan. I backed off a bit to help lower the tension and anxiety. Momma duck exited one more time along with all but the one – again. This time, I waited; really not wanting to make matters worse and just not sure how to help. It was hard to watch the duckling struggle and momma duck, herself helpless, no doubt felt the same. Yet, after a few heart wrenching minutes  (really felt like hours but the clock said otherwise) the baby duck managed to get himself out and the whole crew waddled off, quite indignant.

Aside from an unusual story, many lessons can be had here, what I choose to take away is this:

Do what you can and if it’s not working, step back, not just to reassess but to watch the ripple effects of your actions unfold.

The true fruits of your labor may be in the unintended consequences. There are some things that are not in your hands to do, but you might be able to nudge, open a door, set things in motion, or terrify a duckling, all important pieces of the puzzle, even if it’s not the piece you thought you had in hand.

Is there any area in your life where it might be useful to take a breather and see what unfolds?