When Simone Biles pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics, she cited a case of the “twisties.” Like most Americans, I had to look that up. Turns out, the “twisties” is the term gymnasts use to describe the feeling of losing the mind-body connection that allows them to (mostly) safely fly, flip, and twist through the air. Now, I’ve never been a gymnast, and I won’t pretend to imagine what the GOAT was experiencing. But I can certainly relate to feeling that sometimes something that you’ve trained for, something that you’re highly skilled in, feels suddenly foreign, wholly unfamiliar.
It’s destabilizing. For Biles, that destabilization was a significant risk to her physical health. But for me, that feeling tends to blend in with the chronic instability that comes from modern life. Like many people, I’ve often taken a when-then perspective on stability. When I’m making more money, then I’ll feel more stable. When we’ve hired more people, then the business will be more stable. When I get a big break in traditional media, then audience growth will be more stable. I wait and wait for that feeling of steadiness and safety.
Instability, it seems, is our current collective condition. As a culture, we have a case of the twisties.
I won’t pretend to have a solid grasp of the physics behind gymnastics. But I do know that in any gymnastic skill, there are both stabilizing and destabilizing forces. Gravity poses a continual risk to the rotation and inertia that can stabilize a skill. And inertia and rotation can turn into a destabilizing force if they’re allowed to go too far.
The same is true in life and business. We’re met with both stabilizing and destabilizing forces every day. We might be destabilized when we receive notice that a client is moving on, when there’s an unexpected tax bill, or when a team member is sick. Or, we could be stabilized by hiring a new team member, meeting a sales goal, or finding a predictable marketing strategy.
Last week, I started thinking about stability when I heard Tressie McMillan Cottom interview Louise Seamster about student loan debt. They talked about how debt generally, and student loan debt specifically, has changed the character of American citizenship. As consumption has become the predominant way we contribute to society (think: Buy American, Shop Local, Support Neighborhood Restaurants), our debt is a way to demonstrate that contribution.
Debt, of course, is a significant destabilizer for so many of us. And the fear of debt keeps many small business owners from taking risks that could help them grow their companies into more sustainable, stable ventures. Further, debt—and the lack of social and economic stabilizers that often precipitates it—burdens Black and POC consumers more than white consumers. While debt is destabilizing, it’s more a symptom of profound existential instability.
Seamster said, “a lot of people confuse their lack of stability with needing more wealth.” Oof. That stopped me in my tracks. Literally, I halted my afternoon walk, pulled out my phone, and jotted it down to come back to later. I have confused my lack of stability with a lack of wealth. I have twisted my business’s lack of stability with a lack of revenue. While certainly money in the bank, a low-rate mortgage, and an absence of crippling debt can make one feel financially more stable, it doesn’t make up for disconnection from the community or being chronically underserved by those in power. Many forms of stability simply can’t be bought.
To return to Simone Biles for a moment, we shouldn’t confuse her lack of physical stability during the Olympics with a lack of skill or talent. She was suffering from a host of psychologically destabilizing forces, as well as the physical destabilization of putting her body through an extra year of training after many gymnasts her age would have retired.
Similarly, financial stability is only one dimension of stability. Important, yes—but not totalizing. We can also experience stability psychologically, socially, physically, and temporally. Honestly, this makes me think about 30 Rock and Jack Donaghy’s Six Sigma Wheel Of Happiness Domination. If you know, you know. Like Jack, you can have your financial stability watertight, but if your psychological or social stability is all leaky, you could end up quitting everything and sailing away to find yourself.
Financial stability is only one dimension of stability in business-building, too. A business generating massive revenue or attracting big investments can be utterly unstable at its core. One needs to look no further than Silicon Valley to know that’s true. Businesses also need operational, market, and social stability too.
Whether in life or business, we’ll likely experience both stabilizing or destabilizing forces in each area. Ideally, there are far more stabilizing forces than there are destabilizing forces. But that sense of stability is harder and harder to come by today. For most people—myself included, there are far more destabilizing forces at work than stabilizing forces. Life feels out of balance, wobbly. So we end up reaching out for some steady support in any way we can.
One way my little family reaches out for stability is with an appreciation for cozy. Personally, I’m more of a fan of cozy’s cousin—comfy—but I get the appeal. My daughter has a bedtime ritual of pulling back the covers on her bed, crawling in, and pulling the covers back up around her chin. Then she says, “Ooooh. Coooozy.” Our two new cats are into cozy, of course. And even my husband loves cozy. He spends his evenings knitting, relishes putting on a new pair of thick socks, and makes the bed a particular way to experience the pleasure of tucking himself in.
Cozy is how we describe the embodied stabilizing power of home. It’s a physiological trigger for the stabilizing forces of rest and relaxation. Feeling cozy is feeling held and supported. Safe. And cozy has been having a moment. Well, many moments. Even before the pandemic, chunky knit blankets, giant wool scarves, and anything related to the Danish concept of hygge populated stores from West Elm to Target. For years now, “cozy” has been in demand.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton recently explored how the cozy aesthetic has taken over Instagram and specifically the momfluencers she studies. Jezer-Morton sees a connection between the desire for coziness and the uncertainty that fills our lives. She writes, “What if our obsession with coziness has grown in step with our growing feeling of collective precariousness—economic, environmental, social?” Of course, no amount of knitting or napping will solve the fundamental problems destabilizing our world. But each time we reach for a favorite blanket or light a candle, maybe we reclaim just a bit of the stability we crave.
When I was a kid, I imagined that stability came with having a career. I didn’t expect a whole lot out of life. It’s not like I imagined European vacations or multiple homes. I never expected to make much money. But I did imagine myself with a house, a steady job, and a low-anxiety lifestyle. As I started to finish up college, I realized that stability wasn’t as easy as just making it through a bachelor’s program. Even when I decided to go to grad school and prepare for a career as a professor, I realized that stability wasn’t a given. In fact, nothing in that life was a given—so I dropped out of grad school before it began.
I took a full-time job. I thought a full-time job equaled stability. But it wasn’t long before I realized that wasn’t the case either. My job paid very little, and while the benefits were better than average for the industry, I couldn’t get by on my own.
My whole generation—the much-maligned millennial generation—was told that good grades, a college education, and work we loved were the keys to a fulfilling life. What we weren’t told was that a fulfilling life wasn’t necessarily a stable life. Nor were we told that stability might only be available to a lucky few thanks to the increasing financial burden of health insurance, retirement, and housing foist on individuals.
“Traditional” employment is no guarantee of stability today. When benefits have decreased, and responsibilities have individualized, most career paths promise no more future stability than doing your own thing. So we’ve opted to take a risk on entrepreneurship or take an entrepreneurial approach to a more traditional career. We forge our own path, cobbling together what stabilizing forces we can. Often, that boils down to following the money—confusing a lack of stability for lack of wealth.
Being business owners, we fall into the same trap: confusing stability with revenue. More revenue, more stability, less chance of everything careening out of our control.
Unfortunately, in the pursuit of revenue, we often voluntarily perform destabilizing activities. We take on more work than we can reasonably complete. We take on clients who don’t share our values or treat us well. We pursue new idea after new idea. We focus on the wrong metrics. We try to move faster and outrun precarity. Our Instagram feeds fill with the performance of success (and all the props it includes). Every waking moment turns into an opportunity to seize stability.
This isn’t the making of a stable life. It’s a life with no margin for error, no flexibility, no wiggle room. It’s not just our schedules or our finances, either. It’s feeling like we’re always on, always available to calm down a customer or weigh in on the latest headline. Every new idea we have or trend we can take advantage of becomes a question not of strategy or vision but of the potential for feeling like you’ve finally got your two feet firmly underneath you.
Guy Standing, an economist who coined the term “the precariat” for the class of people who suffer this instability, wrote, “the precariat has no occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives. This creates existential insecurity…” Constantly rebalancing the stabilizing and destabilizing forces in your life leaves little room for crafting an identity or narrative outside of constant work.
I know this all sounds pretty despairing, even desperate. But I think it’s important to name this collective feeling and describe the socioeconomic muck we find ourselves wading through as business owners. Because if we haven’t named this problem, we can’t ask better questions about it. We can’t discover real solutions.
The question that got me writing about stability was simple: What do I need to feel stable? My hope was to develop a checklist—or Wheel Of Stability Domination—that I could use to consider changes and new commitments in the coming year. That question led me to another question: What even is stability in the 21st century?
Ultimately, that’s how I landed on recognizing stabilizing and destabilizing forces in life and business. A stable life isn’t one that’s checked all the boxes. Stability isn’t a state that’s ever attained without some wobbling and readjustment. Stability is what it feels like when the stabilizing forces in my life or business outweigh the destabilizing forces. A stable life—and a stable business—is one in which we’re finding a sustainable balance between these two opposing forces.
But I do still find this definition lacking. It’s so… individual. It’s tempting to think that a “you do you” approach to stability will be good enough. But one of the destabilizing forces we all face (though not to the same degree) is a lack of societal stability. The individualization of stability has brought us to an unstable point in our history and culture. Perhaps a thriving culture, community, or marketplace needs a shared definition of stability—not to tell us what to do with our individual lives and work but to shape the way we care for each other.
What stabilizing force can we contribute as citizens, creators, and business owners to the community? How can the way we work and relate push back against pervasive destabilizing forces? As I continue to mull over these questions, I’m starting to realize that “stable” is a lot like “balance.” We tend to think of balance as a steady, perfect equilibrium. But balance is wobbly by nature. Balance isn’t stillness. It’s gentle corrections and internal nudges.
It follows that a stable business is not one where everything is steady, predictable, and unchanging. A stable business is one where we can trust the course corrections. It’s a business that’s maintained by incremental improvements and gradual change. And a stable community is one that supports its members in leveraging stabilizing forces while mitigating destabilizing forces.
When we get a case of the twisties, or a destabilizing force rushes in out of nowhere, it’s not cause for panic. We can find stability again.