Untangling Our Restlessness for Change

Imagine using a wide, chisel-tip yellow highlighter to trace the eastern coast of Central America on a map.

Start at the southern tip of Texas and follow the curve of the Gulf of Mexico, around the Yucatan Peninsula and down the western Caribbean all the way to Panama, then continue east along the northern edge of South America until you reach French Guiana at about two-o’clock on the continental dial.

Somewhere in the mangrove swamps and dense tropical forests in that bright yellow highlighted band, there is an equally bright yellow prothonotary warbler.

Any day now, this bird—the exact bird in the photo, if fate has smiled on him since landing in your highlighter stripe last September—is going to begin a two-thousand mile journey to his breeding grounds in a swamp along the Ohio River where I photographed him last year, about 1.8 miles as the prothonotary warbler flies from my backyard.


Right now, he and his mate, and millions of other migratory species, are feeling what ornithologists call Zugunruhe (TSOOG-oon-roo-uh, approximately), a compound word combining the German zug, which, in this context, means “to move or migrate,” and unruhe, for “anxiety” or “restlessness.” 

Zugunruhe is "migration restlessness," and the word was first used by naturalists over three centuries ago to describe the restless energy that birds exhibit just before they begin their migration.

Triggered by the lengthening days, an impulse in them arises. It is a knowing instilled over thousands of generations of evolution.

When this feeling bubbles up, they know exactly what they must do: move.

Time For Change

We all feel Zugunruhe, or something like it, from time to time—a gnawing sense that the status quo is not quite right, a persistent urge to change, an ineffable longing for something new and different.

Rarely, however, do we feel the certainty of the birds, and rightfully so.

Our little prothonotary warbler has no cause to doubt his instincts. In fact, to do so would be life-threatening. For us, however, it’s not so simple.

Our instincts are matched to a human environment that no longer exists, because we ourselves have altered it, for worse and for better, at a blinding pace our biology simply cannot match.

Not only that, but people have a capacity that birds lack: the ability to fool ourselves, the capacity for self-deception.

Being human is complicated.

A Uniquely Human Conundrum

So, what should we do? Should we heed the call of intuition? Or must we resist this Homo sapiens approximation of migration restlessness?

In our complex world, the answer is almost always the same: it depends.

It is in these situations that we must draw on that other uniquely human capacity: self-awareness.

We must examine this impulse to move and change. Before we act, we must make sure our Zugunruhe is real.

What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Zugunruhe is not boredom. Boredom is what happens when we run out of attention for whatever it is we are doing now. Nor is it frustration or unhappiness.

Those emotions might create an impulse to move, but to where? A desire to leave does not imply you have somewhere to go.

Our little warbler knows he cannot afford to take flight only to find himself wandering over open ocean with nowhere to land. We can’t be so sure.

Zugunruhe is not an aversion to being where you are. That feeling precedes a different kind of flight, the kind that goes with fight or freeze, the kind that is initiated by fear. Real Zugunruhe has nothing to do with fear.

It is not about getting away from here. It is a pull to be there.

It’s the “There” That Matters

It’s the “there” that distinguishes Zugunruhe from simply quitting, giving up, or running away.

It is the “there” that gives us the energy and the clarity and the persistence to fly for hours on end, with no land in sight, at night until we reach our destination.

(Yes, this half-ounce, five-inch long miracle of nature flies from South America to the Ohio River entirely in the dark.)

It is the “there” of the future that creates the drive of the present.

Where Are You Going?

So, before you fly, what is pulling you?

What new territory is calling?

What future is drawing you forward, creating that restlessness to move?

Where will you go? And how are you preparing for that future now?

It is not always easy to know, but we can help. Create a free account on Retexo.com and leverage a curated set of resources in The Loom, plus a 30-minute introductory coaching session.

Let us help you take flight!

Until next time,


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