agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 5 minutes

Where some see threats, others see opportunities.

What started as a group of friends on a sailing trip is now a global community asking themselves the big questions of who we are and our place in the world. The collective is Unsettled, and it uses travel as a vehicle for personal growth through cultural exchange and co-creation. They believe the challenges we face in an ever-changing world are chances to use creativity to expand our horizons and build meaningful communities. They champion a new breed of travellers who are embracing the unknown to find truth and meaning through human connection.

We talk to Michael Youngblood, Cofounder, and Lala Franklin-Apted, Head of Experience, to find out more.

Let’s start from the beginning. Michael, how did your childhood influence your professional path and views on the world today?

(Michael) I was actually the first person in my immediate family to have a passport. I didn’t grow up in an international context, but my family always spent our free time in shared experiences. I was one of seven, and we’d go on these big weekend camping trips with one friend per child on these mini retreats to the lake, beach or on a road trip somewhere. As soon as I graduated I took off. I grabbed my road bike, my camping gear and a leather-bound notebook and travelled 3,000 km around Europe.

I spent the entire time writing in my leather-bound notebook. About all these cultures that were so different to my upbringing, about how I would start a business the minute I got back home. To have that image still preserved on my bookshelf at home continuing to impact my life every day, it’s pretty incredible.

And that’s when my world opened up to travel, to how travel can have such a big impact in your life. That trip was 15 years ago and I know with no doubt that it set me off on the road to where I am today

How did you take your idea from concept to reality?
(Michael) It took me about 10 years to get there, but in that time I was building a network of people in different creative fields and entrepreneurs. Those years were really being changed by technology: Facebook came out, the iPhone came out, internet penetration went global. At the time I was working from home for the MIT. It was a new way of working, but I needed my peers. I had a few friends who were also working for themselves, people who just needed an 11 inch screen, so I suggested a sailing trip. Before I knew it 35 people had signed up. We thought we’d just have a nice vacation, but quickly realised that we were all having the same challenges. We were doing all of this in the beautiful setting of a Caribbean island, the wind in our faces, but the true power was in being out of the office with a dedicated group of people who wanted to explore growth and change in their lives, and ask questions to a community that would add perspective.

I kept running these little trips as a side project for a while, and all the time I saw a lot of change in my life. The first shift in perspective was realising that I have people who will help me along this journey. Nobody can get through an independent career by themselves. The second shift that happened was thinking that maybe we should run these retreats more seriously.

The first retreat was so big and profound that it convinced me that there’s something here. We had all kinds of backgrounds, professions and talents pooling together, and there were at least a dozen nationalities, which signified a global movement. It was clear that it was worth all the risks.

What can people expect to get out of an Unsettled experience?

(Michael) When you come on a retreat with us, you bring your whole life with you. Whatever challenges you have in your life, whether it’s a fear of bugs or something deeper, those challenges will follow you to the retreat. You get out of it what you put in it. The kinds of people who join us on the retreats are those asking big questions about their lives. The same questions I was asking in that leather-bound notebook. We don’t care if you’re working remotely, or you’re taking a sabbatical, or you’ve worked in a bakery for 20 years or you’ve never worked in your life. What we ask is that you show up with intention and openness to gain this perspective in your life and see what taking your creative self out of the office for a month and into a new environment with a new group of people can do for you.

We trust in the creative process. It’s what the community needs; they are the ultimate creators of their own experiences. We want to help them access that, but they will create what they want. We’re not trying to give people answers or tell them how it’s done. All we’re really doing is asking questions. Michael was already asking himself these questions and invited people into the community to ask them together. This is really ingrained in our fundamental approach on the ground: people from all different nationalities or ages don’t all have to be asking the same questions to find common ground. We’re not trying to say this is perfect; what we are saying is that we are there going through this too.

Is it hard for people to embrace the uncertainty and face their individual challenges in a shared setting?
(Lala) People bond over the uniqueness of the experience. The first thing they have in common is the fact that they’ve been brave enough to sign up to this, to take the risk and embrace the unknown. We talk about unsettling people in a good way; we don’t want people to be too comfortable because that’s where the growth is (although there’s always wifi and a comfy bed to retire to). We facilitate a living programme they go through that they also built themselves. It’s a bit counterintuitive: a shared experience that’s very personal. It’s pioneering a new normal.

Why is travel such an important component of the Unsettled experience?
(Michael) Travel is the highest form of learning today. Every Unsettled experience starts with a question, which then opens up a series of other questions. If you dive into those questions, you will figure out what this is all about. We move to be moved, and in doing so we step closer to ourselves. So, I ask your readers: What moves you?

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