If you read my blog regularly, you know I love finding a new word that has a special, unique meaning. I have written past columns about bricolage, JOMO, mentern, and sprezzatura. Today I have another discovery to share with you – “zozobra.” It is a Mexican Spanish word that means anxiety – anxiety of a specific kind.

I found the word in an article in the Chicago Tribune on November 3 by Francisco Gallegos and Carlos Alberto Sanchez. They explain that zozobra is the anxiety that results from being unable to settle into a single point of view. It is related to the Spanish verb “zozobrar,” which means to wobble or capsize. It is a feeling of instability, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity. It may result from finding that fundamental “truths” you depend on are not as solid as you thought.

I immediately thought of my experience when I entered business school. I had spent my life in left-wing, intellectual circles where people pretty much all the saw the world in the same way. But when I got to business school, I found myself in the company of smart, well-intentioned people, both faculty and students, whose perspective was very different from mine. I will never forget the day when one of my highly-respected professors announced that Ronald Reagan was the greatest US president ever. Wow!  I was assaulted by two incompatible thoughts: 1) Reagan was a terrible president, and 2) My highly intelligent, learned professor thinks Reagan was great. The feeling that swept over me, I now know, was zozobra.

But here’s the thing – the world is not simple. In many cases, there is not one right way of looking at an issue. Smart, well-meaning people have different points of view. That was one of my most important learnings from business school. Instead of responding with anxiety, how about if I responded with curiosity? What would lead my professor to express such admiration for Reagan?  Maybe Reagan wasn’t the demon I had been led to believe?

Of course it is unsettling when our ideas are challenged by people we respect or with whom we identify.  But growth comes from being open to incompatible ideas and making sense out of them. When we can’t or won’t do that, we get into trouble quickly. We start to doubt ourselves. We hesitate to take any action. We become cynical. We become prone to nostalgia for a fantasized time when life was better and things made sense. In extreme cases, zozobra can lead to a sense of overwhelming vulnerability and apocalyptic thinking.

Gallegos and Sanchez suggest two ways to relieve zozobra. The first is honest communication with people who differ from you. And the second is finding common ground – a shared sense of what is real and what really matters. People need to do that on an individual level. And even more importantly, leaders need to model those behaviors to reduce the pain and sense of disintegration that zozobra can bring. 

Want to learn more about how to use zozobra to help yourself and others grow?  Contact us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com          

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