Where do you have space to be messy?
At a time when the world feels the most chaotic and unpredictable, the pressure to publicly show how we have it all together has never been stronger. The amount of accessible options of “how to be” has never felt greater.
The same portal that you receive a notification about a new natural disaster, political upset, a celebrity death, a new birth in the family is the same portal that you record yourself being in this chaotic world. Whether the camera is facing out or facing in or scrolling through your feed to see other people’s latest moments, the presence of the witness is constant.
What is the repercussion of only seeing content that has been curated and crafted? Of seeing alternative realities, other lives you could be leading, at any given moment?
And during times of big change, this portal (your connected device) is a tool that can help you make yourself known to yourself or make you feel estranged.
What other options do people have for figuring out who they are? Who they want to become? And how can you even begin to explore this without the space to try on different ways of being?
I seek answers to these questions along with new and old friends through a little side project that has big heart — Messy.
The Power of the Witness
A couple months ago I observed the power of a different kind of witness — not digitally performed but the old school witnessing of another human’s presence.
I was hosting Hustle Fest, a conference designed for professionals who were eager to move from full-time work to self-employment. To attend Hustle Fest, you had to physically show up and be present in a room with a bunch of people you didn’t know. 100 attendees and career coaches and volunteers moved throughout eight hours of content and social breaks.
As the day was winding down, attendees came up to me and told me how much they benefitted from the experience. Tired but with full hearts, coaches and volunteers hung around to grab food together afterward. I got the sense the conference could be logged as a success.
A few days after Hustle Fest, I realized how much of an impact it really had on the attendees. My co-producer Jillian and I started receiving emails full of gratitude — long paragraphs detailing out what they enjoyed about the day and how good they felt about their foray into self-employment walking out of the experience. One person told us that Hustle Fest had ‘changed her life’, she had met new clients and had the time and space to clarify what her professional superpowers were and how to talk about them.
I was taken aback. I thought Hustle Fest was a great event, but I didn’t realize it would warrant such strong praise. What had we done to elicit these strong testimonials?
I scanned my memory for the moments of the day where people seemed to come alive. Energy was at an all time high when people were sharing with each other in pairs and small groups. At Hustle Fest, this required people to share their biggest vision statement of their freelance career. They got to practice trying it on by introducing themselves to complete strangers as their highest aspirational self. The account manager got to be the creative strategist she’d been endeavoring to be. The brand strategist for health care companies got to be the brand strategist for mission-driven small businesses. The strangers listened and validated their aspirational selves, not knowing them otherwise.
It was strong evidence that when people are trying to move into a new identity their evolution is greatly aided by having someone else see them as that new identity and affirm them verbally or in practice through action. In the same way that seeing a bunch of comments and likes on an Instagram post can be validating, the acknowledgement of strangers and being witnessed in person boosts people’s confidence in their own potential and life’s possibilities.
I began to wonder if I could design interactions for people in times of transformation in a way that helps them progress into a new sense of self.
Change vs. Transformation
During this time, I was anticipating a big change myself. I was applying for jobs after two years of running my own business. I was in the same process of being asked to articulate who I was to other people in a way that made me comprehensible and convincing.
After a series of rejections and being ghosted by leads, I stepped back to reassess.
I had just been abruptly broken up with by someone that I felt was really the first person I’d dated with a vulnerable open heart. Receiving rejections for jobs on top of feeling romantically rejected led me to the familiar idea — maybe it’s time to move back to California.
I started to try the idea on. I shared it with some people, gauging their reactions and my own reactions to their reactions. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t leaving because I was trying to escape feeling abandoned.
One night, I lit a candle, poured myself a beer and opened up my computer. I pulled up the photos on my computer and began scrolling back to the time I first arrived in Brooklyn 4.5 years ago. I began to map out all the chapters of my time in NY.
In one big sitting, I was trying to understand where I had been to help me see if I was ready to go.
After a couple hours of charting out all the apartments I’d lived in (6 different places!), the jobs I’d had (5.5 jobs!), the partners I’d had (3 serious partners and 7+ shorter episodes) — I was struck by how much change I had undergone or put myself through in under 5 years. A lot had happened.
The photos served as visual reminders of all the chapters and helped bring back an emotional memory of the time.
I realized that amongst all these chapters of change, there was a distinction between two halves. At some point around 28, I began to become more aware of the thought and behavior patterns that incited all of these changes. It was around this time that I started seeing a therapist, that I decided to quit my stable job and see if I could start my own business, and that I was grappling with what it meant that the grand majority of my girlfriends were getting engaged or dating someone they felt certain they would marry. I didn’t know the concept of “Saturn Returns” then, but I was living it.
The crux of the distinction between these two periods of time were based on a shift in my willingness to take responsibility for my feelings and actions and trying to understand where my thought patterns came from and believing that I could change them. It didn’t happen overnight. It was the subtle shift that happened over time, spurred on by a confluence of factors.
I summed up these two halves as ‘change’ vs. ‘transformation’. In my early 20s all the way up until 28-years-old or so, I was just seeking external change. I was looking for the right city, partner, job — the right set of conditions — to land so resonantly with me that I could stop looking. After enough chapters, enough heartbreaks, enough changing of my mailing address, I realized: this isn’t working. I’m not feeling that any of these changes is making me feel settled in the world or in myself.
Remembering the quote about lunacy being defined as doing the same things over and over expecting different results, I knew I had to change my strategy.
This wasn’t some crystal clear “ah ha” moment that came to me in the middle of the night. This was something I intuited and made small but impactful choices in a very non-linear, non-prescribed way.
For example, doing the research and taking the initiative to find a therapist I liked was not something I did thinking “I’m going to start a process of inner work and mindfulness”, I just knew that I was not feeling satisfied and that seeing a therapist was a resource that I hadn’t opened myself up to yet.
Sitting with my scribbled notes, I realized that regardless of whether I decided to leave New York and return closer to family and old friends in California, I could continue to find a sense of being grounded and calm if I trusted in myself. No external conditions were going to make me “happy”, I just needed to make a decision to help me find logic to guide my next actions. But the grounded-ness I had been so desirous of, was something that I could only cultivate for myself.
I have since decided to move to the Bay Area and am a few weeks into a UX design course. I am not viewing San Francisco or UX design as a be all end all for me. I can now see these as mere stepping stones on a path that spirals and has no particular destination.
Change is the Only Constant
This reflection exercise helped me step back and understand my own distinction between times of change and times of transformation. I wondered how other people understood these concepts and if they were experiencing a similar kind of coming-of-age phenomena. Were my peers all undergoing a Saturn returns? And what were they doing to get through it?
Over the course of two years running New Women Space, I met so many people who identified as being in transition. NWS is a community space where primarily women and QTGNC identified people come together in person to celebrate, to learn, to heal and affirm and be affirmed. The majority of our community are millennials. Our programming and open co-working hours attract a mix of freelancers, business owners, and those with traditional work hours. Regardless of birthplace, current employment status, race, gender, financial standing, etc. — change and transition was ever-present.
So I started to see that transition is something that millennials and Gen Z and beyond are going to have a more intimate relationship with. Many millennials are trying to remix or completely rebuke norms of the Baby Boomers and even Gen X.
Without a clear road map, millennials are being left to construct their own, to pick and choose what feels right to them. And so we see the search for mentorship, a surge in spirituality in place of a trust of organized religion. We see people trying to construct new chosen families and new hybridized careers. And we’re posting and sharing about our own process incessantly.
* * *
Distilled: The ingredients that led to the problem statement that I am trying to examine through this Messy project are:
“new normal = constant change” + “pressure to share evidence of a put together life” + “decline in intergenerational communities and social structures” = a lot of loneliness in the anxiety, depression, and even victories of personal transformation with little space to vulnerably stand in the not knowing and the not having everything put together.
The hypothesis that I am testing with Messy is:
“the power of the witness” + “the creation of space to be messy” + “the support of others who are going through similar processes” = healing that comes from feeling less alone in the process, of feeling that there are set practices and considerations that help, and the permission to be where you’re at
It was my hope that the interview process itself would provide healing for participants. Having me listen to their story, capture it, and share it with others, was a way to feel seen and heard by one witness or many.
It was my hope that the interviews would surface obvious themes of the major components of transformation that the majority of people experience.
It was my hope that I could create a resource that would help my generation undergo periods of big inner work and growth.
I conducted 25 interviews, not all will be published and more are on the way. I already have confidence that all three of these hopes are possible. I am already starting to see big trends emerge (what you can see on the site as “variations on a theme”).
I am struck by the level of self-awareness that people are bringing to the questions I ask.
I am struck by how many people have brought up anxiety and depression.
I am struck by people’s openness to share their stories with me — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I have a sense that people are longing to be listened to.
I have a sense that people are trying to be patient during times of change but are also looking for answers, sometimes looking for shortcuts.
I have a sense that there is a tension present in that people are trying to become more of who they are and that the key to doing this with more ease and grace is to love yourself no matter what stage you’re in.
Hypothesis: The answer is love and acceptance.
Love yourself, accept yourself for who you are and where you’re at, and you can show up in the world more confident, calm, tolerant, and ideally open up enough space to be able to help others.
Loving yourself isn’t something someone else can do for you. But it also doesn’t have to be something that you do alone.
I feel growing resolve to design a resource that can serve as a comfort to those doing the challenging work of changing the way they see and show up in the world.
I have ended most interviews with the question — “What would you say to someone who was feeling stuck in the process of transforming?”
And the most common response I received was — “Just be patient with yourself. Sit through it. Don’t try to force anything”.
It is not my aim to create a resource that comes with the pressure and expectation that if you use or do “X” that you will be able to speed up the process “Y” amount. I am trying to take a ‘yes, and” approach: YES, you can’t rush transformation, things will unfold over time AND, you can help yourself in the process by feeling connected to a larger collection of people who are becoming their own butterflies.
No, no one is going through the same exact transitional time as you. Yet, there are similar feelings and experiences throughout other people’s experiences that can act as guides and guardrails for any given individual.
Growing faith that this is a part of my life’s work
For me, the process of being the witness and conduit for people to share their messiness has been incredibly inspiring and fulfilling. It has made me feel less alone in the process. I have benefitted from the wisdom each individual shares with me.
I have also been made aware of the state of mental health of the people that appear rather high functioning and bright in everyday life. If everyone is quietly battling with some form of anxiety, fear, comparison, depression… what does this mean?
I can’t help but see this is as incredibly senseless. Why is everyone working through baggage and trauma? Is that just life or is it something about this particular point in time? Why does affluence and intelligence have no bearing on suffering?
Years ago, I set my mind to create a community space because it seemed like the most compelling answer for how to help people feel human, connected to others and alive. I continue with this mission of how to help people feel well, this time with new experiences under my belt, the learnings from running my own community space, and my burgeoning UX experience designer perspective.
I hope that you feel comforted by some part of this project and continue to follow along as the messiness continues. There is much more to come.