By Lenora Rand
For the last several years, Mylene and I, the co-founders of SmallGood, have chosen our word of the year.
We do this little ritual to help us both reflect and look forward, to check in with ourselves and with our business, and ask, “What did we learn this past year?” “What do we want to be true of us in the year ahead?”
We like to share this word, this intention, put it out into the world, and say it out loud publicly because we believe it’s a bit like saying “I do” at a wedding. Why do people go to the trouble to have a whole public ritual to say something they could just say to each other in the privacy of their own homes? Or could just say to themselves in the privacy of their own heads? Because saying those words out loud in front of witnesses carries more weight. It says you mean it. And you’re willing to be held accountable for it.
For 2023 the word we find ourselves drawn to is Unsettled.
For me, that word was partly inspired by the fact that I moved this year. I have been quite literally un-settled. My husband and I sold our house in the Chicago area – a house we’d been in for 28 years – and moved to Asheville, North Carolina.
It was a big move - one we had been thinking about for a while. We met many years ago in the Asheville area and had always loved it and thought it could be wonderful to live here. So, it was a move we chose, one we were happy about – happy that we both have work we can do wherever we live now and happy to be able to live someplace where you can see beautiful trees and mountains outside the window. And it rarely gets below zero. Or much below freezing for that matter.
But it wasn’t easy.
Packing up a house we’d raised our kids in, going to a smaller house, and letting go of much that we had refused to let go of for too many years – all those things you think you might need again sometime (Notebooks from college? Scarves you once loved from your scarf phase?). It wasn’t easy trying to figure out how to arrange the furniture in a new space, where to put everything, so it felt “right,” and where to make a space to think and create.
Or dealing with the quirks of a different house, switching insurance, finding doctors, and figuring out what to do with our garbage. Or having to use GPS just to avoid getting lost on the side of a steep, curvy mountain at night. Oh yeah, and meeting our first bear in the yard.
It’s been a LOT.
People started asking me a few weeks after moving here, “Are you getting settled in yet?“ And I’ve said, “Sure…pretty much…” because the boxes have been unpacked, the furniture arranged and rearranged, a handyman hired to fix things that the previous owners decided to live with but we can’t.
The thing is, though, I still feel unsettled. So many things feel unfamiliar and strange and unclear and uncertain…and not quite comfortable.
Like, I’ve noticed I feel more awake in some ways. More alive in some ways.
And I’m coming to believe maybe “unsettled” is a wonderful place to be – if we don’t fight it, try to fix it, and simply embrace it.
Mylene recently got the same message from a different source…funny how that works.
Allison Bengfort, a pastor friend of Mylene’s, recently told a story in one of her sermons about doing a recital with a friend and playing violin publicly again after a long time. Before the recital, she was feeling uncomfortable. A little scared. Uncertain. A friend asked how she was doing, and she told him, “I’m nervous!” And he said, “Yeah you should be."
What? Not the answer she was expecting – not the “Oh don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll do fine,” – words we often say to people in nerve-wracking situations – words, which in truth, often lead you to feel ashamed of your feelings and like you need to just “buck up” and shut up.
No, this “Yeah, you should be,” was validating, an acknowledgment that she was in an anxiety-producing, unsettling moment and her nervousness was totally appropriate. As Alison said, feeling nervous, or unsettled, can be a signal that we are doing something “vulnerable and exciting.” And that’s “part of growth and doing powerful things in the world.”
Unsettledness can feel terrifying. Fear of the unknown, Nicholas Carleton, a psychology professor at the University of Regina, Canada believes, is one of humanity’s fundamental fears – maybe even more powerful and disruptive than our fear of death.
Ema Tanovic, a psychologist who’s researched how people respond to unsettledness and “the unknown” has discovered it “… can intensify how threatening a situation feels.”
One way they studied this was: research participants were hooked up to electrodes that delivered a harmless, but somewhat painful, electric shock to the skin, and researchers measured their physiological stress responses. (By the way, this is why we never sign up for research studies.)
They found that "any element of unpredictability significantly increases people’s discomfort, despite there being no objective difference in the intensity of the shock. Participants show greater stress if there is a 50% chance that they might receive a shock, for example, compared to situations in which there is a 100% certainty that they will be electrocuted.”
So yeah, humans don’t like feeling unsettled. Uncertain. Unsure of the outcome. It makes us nervous. Very, very nervous.
Jakub Kriz for Unsplash
This is hard since according to the cultural trend spotters at Sparks & Honey we’re living in an “era of uncertainty.”
That feels true, doesn’t it?
o Inflation is soaring around the world. What does this mean for all of us?
o Russia and Ukraine are at war – and who knows how that ends. And how it makes the world different along the way.
o The US Supreme Court overturned abortion rights this year, leaving many women without options, and leaving most of us with questions about the Supreme Court. Will all kinds of hard-won rights start flying out the window?
o There are record-breaking heat waves. Droughts around the world. Massive flooding everywhere. In Pakistan, absolutely unprecedented and devastating floods that months later have left an estimated 10 million children in desperate need of life-saving support. Will 5 billion people really face water shortages by 2050 as the U.N. warns?
o Racism continues to spread. Gun violence, especially in the US is running rampant. As Everytown for Gun Safety reports: Every day, more than 110 Americans are killed with guns, and more than 200 are shot and wounded.
o And Covid just keeps changing, morphing, adapting. While deaths from Covid in the U.S. went down this year, they didn’t go to pre-Covid levels. Most people stopped wearing masks, but will we ever feel really safe again?
o Plus, there’s the economy. Most economists, who don’t usually see eye to eye, seem to agree on the one word they would use to describe how things look for the US economy in 2023: uncertain. Not good news if you run a big company or small business or social enterprise or a nonprofit, that is for certain.
I’ve got to say, all this uncertainty, this unsettledness is very…unsettling.
Yet the truth is, real change, adventure, transformation - begins there, in that place where things are unsettled.
No great discoveries ever happen without someone feeling unsettled about the current state of things. No great change ever happens when people are complacent and willing to settle for the life they have.
Robin Jonathan Deutsch for Unsplash
Transformation begins with stirring the waters, with making good trouble, with things being uncomfortable and unsettling. It’s like how unsettling metamorphosis must be for the caterpillar…but it’s necessary for it to become a butterfly.
When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it takes all of its experiences and everything that lives inside itself and transforms into a beautiful creature. What people don’t always notice is the metamorphosis - the isolation, the discomfort, even the pain. - Terryca Taylor, Memoirs of a Butterfly: Letters to a Caterpillar
Yes, unsettled can feel like a scary place, but as Brene Brown has said, “Anxiety and excitement present the same neurologically. In studies, those who labeled it as excitement had positive experiences. Those who labeled it as anxiety had negative experiences.”
So that’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of 2023, so aware of the uncertainty in our world, so aware that we don’t have all the answers, so aware we can’t control what the year ahead will mean for our personal lives or for SmallGood. So aware that we need to choose how we will deal with it.
Moritz Knoringer for Unsplash
Will we embrace the unsettled, open ourselves to it, and get excited about the possibilities of it? Or will we let fear get the better of us? Hold us back? Push us into making the “safe” choices. The “tried and true.”
One of the things Mylene and I talked about a lot when we first started SmallGood was that we didn’t want to settle for how things had always been done before in big agencies. And since running our own company we’ve continued to talk about not settling…not settling for what’s easiest or the way it’s been done before – even for the ways we’ve done things before. But it’s been almost 6 years since we started SmallGood.
It seemed like time to recommit ourselves to not settling. Not settling for what’s easiest. Not settling for less than our best. Not settling for obvious solutions. Or no solutions.
Not settling for the insidious belief that we are too small to make a big difference in the world.
We’re holding on to Unsettled as our word for the year to remind us to embrace the uncertainty, let unease be our teacher, let bewilderment be our friend, and let unsettling be a door opening. Maybe even the beginning of a transformation.
Aarn Giri for Unsplash