Some thoughts on Victor Hugo’s exhortation to ‘Be like the bird’

Today, I came across a quotation from Victor Hugo that made me pause. To me, it read like an exhortation to trust yourself and it made me wonder if I still do.

Here’s the quotation:

When I looked for the source, I found a wide variety of English translations. I came up with the one above because I wanted something as close as possible to the original text.

Here’s the original French version. Let me know if you have a closer translation.

Soyez comme l'oiseau, posé pour un instant 
Sur des rameaux trop frêles,  
Qui sent ployer la branche et qui chante pourtant,  
Sachant qu'il a des ailes 

Translation questions to one side, I find this a powerful image. These days, I often find myself sitting in my garden watching the birds and being amazed not just at their grace and skill but at the joy they seem to take in it. Well, all except the wood pigeons who have no grace but who seem always to be blessed with an unassailable contentment.

Victor Hugo’s exhortation to us to be like the bird and not just to know that our capabilities keep us safe in apparently unstable situations but to rejoice in that knowledge, resonates with me. I retired from being a management consultant four years ago. Mostly, I don’t miss the work. Much of it was tedious, the hours were long and I was too often away from home. Yet I do miss those infrequent but vital moments when I either proved I had wings or I crashed to the ground. Being faced with a blank piece of paper and having to come up with a winning idea, getting to the end of a long, combative meeting and having to produce a summary that would create a way forward, delivering a workshop that left everyone exhausted but also excited and hopeful, answering a challenge from a client during a competitive selection process and knowing that the answer I was about to make up would win or lose the work.

It wasn’t that I was addicted to the risk. It was that I knew in my bones that, for me, there wasn’t much of a risk. It didn’t matter that what I was standing on wouldn’t take my weight. I had wings. Even in the life of a consultant, there was much joy to be had in that.

I’m not a consultant anymore and nor do I want to be. I’m too old, too tired and too jaded to go back to that life. Yet I miss those performative moments. I miss needing to spread my wings. If retirement means never feeling the branch bend beneath you then I don’t want to settle for it. I lack the wood pigeon’s capacity for complacent contentment. I need…. well, if I knew the answer to that, I’d be out there, bending a branch or two and singing.

Still, as I used to tell my clients, formulating the right question is the first step in finding the right answer. (Yep, I really got paid for saying stuff like that and, of course, getting people to believe it and be energised by it. Sigh…)

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