January 9, 2012

Retirement & The Choices We Make

For many years before my satisfying retirement began I earned my living conducting market research for radio stations. The clients wanted to know which songs to play, what kind of contests would attract the most new listeners, which advertising campaigns might be most effective, even whether a particular announcer should be hired or fired.

Over the course of hundreds of different studies for radio stations all across the country, there were some obvious similarities in the results. It really didn't matter where the research was conducted, the key findings would be very much the same. Even knowing that to be true every client still believed their market and their situation would be different, would be the exception to the rule. Of course, that didn't prove to be so. But, confirmation was important to them so they still felt good about all the money spent.

What does any of that have to do with retirement? Frankly, quite a lot.  Not surprisingly, the results gathered twenty or thirty years ago for radio stations apply to you and me today. Human psychology, our needs and wants, and what motivates us hasn't changed.

One of the key findings remains the cornerstone of advertising today: Tell someone something often enough and it is believed to be true. In radio, a station would simply declare itself #1, repeat the claim over and over for months and months, and then have listeners tell researchers like me that the station was #1. Politicians are prime examples in today's world. Repeat a talking point or sound bite over and over until its truthfulness isn't even questioned. Repetition of an advertising message eventually convinces you that a certain laundry detergent really is better than all the others, or that a brand of automobile is the one missing ingredient to make you happy and sexy.

This makes a difference to us in one very important way: it calls into question the validity of "experts" who tell you how to invest your money, what to do to protect your health, or how to be happy when you follow their five easy steps. The real answer is there is no simple answer. One size does not fit all. Saying it is so doesn't make it so. To build a satisfying retirement you will ultimately be responsible for the decisions. You can't out-source your retirement and expect it to be a happy one.

That doesn't mean there isn't much to be learned from someone who has gathered experience along the way. After all, that is pretty much what this blog is all about: almost 11 years of retirement has taught me some things I'd like to share. But, it is important to understand that your life, your experiences, and your desires, are yours. Gather all in the input you can. Listen to what others say. Read extensively. Then make up your own plan. Take the road that is best for you.

The vast majority of us have no idea why we make the choices we do. In radio, no one really knew why they preferred a particular station over another that played the same music. They couldn't even remember which stations they listened to over a typical week. Something in the subconscious made one choice preferable over another, but verbalizing the reasons was often impossible.

For us, knowing that we operate on automatic pilot is important information. It is very easy to do something the same way without actually understanding why. It is very difficult to break a bad habit for the same reason. You must recognize you are living a certain way not necessarily from a mindful choice, but from a lifetime of habit. When you understand that basic fact, it becomes a bit easier to begin to change what you do.

Experience is a good teacher. Over time we learn some of the things that are best for us. The problem is we don't always follow those lessons and we don't know why. That is OK. You will make mistakes. You will make choices that, when looking back, amaze you at their stupidity. All that proves is you are human. Accept that motivations are sometimes going to be unknown.

Peer pressure affects everyone, not just kids. Advertising depends on peer pressure. "Keeping up with the Joneses" motivates a lot of people to aspire to a lifestyle they  can't afford and may not even like. In radio, listeners want to report they listen to the most popular or "hottest" station in town, even if they don't. There is pressure to be part of the majority.

For retired folks maybe you believe you must spend part of each year on a cruise ship or biking through Europe. Maybe the people you aspire to copy own a luxurious RV or a vacation home in Aspen. You drive a giant SUV even though you and your spouse rarely leave town. Others in your social circle drive one so it must be the right choice. Your house has three flat screen TVs that you rarely turn on.

It is quite possible that your life has been shaped by peer pressure and not by what you really want. There is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above as long as you truly want them, use them, and can afford them. It is when you possess something to be like others that you can encounter serious problems.

I've written a lot about simple living, or as a new phrase says, simplesizing your lifestyle. That has nothing to do with depriving yourself of what you need to be happy. It has everything to do with matching how you live with how you want to live.

Familiar always beats unfamiliar. This simple fact is what makes developing a new product, or in my case, creating a new radio station so difficult. No matter how often people claim to want new and different, it simply isn't true. Safe and familiar almost always trumps new and untested. Part of this is peer pressure, part of this is fear of the unknown, and part of this is laziness. We know what we get from product A. It may not be perfect but who knows what product B will be like. Why take the risk?

This is a major stumbling block to a satisfying retirement. Rather than try a new lifestyle, a new hobby, a trip to a foreign country, a new friendship, or even a new way  to manage our time, our human nature will attempt to revert to the familiar. We are programmed to default to the known. We hate uncertainty, which is odd when you realize life is a constant uncertainty.

Your creativity, your happiness, your entire retirement experience can depend on you understanding this core fact of life, and rejecting it. Something familiar isn't better, unless it is. Living life fully is knowing what you don't know and finding out if that is a mistake. After all, retirement is only the beginning.

What Others Say

I have set some aggressive goals for myself and this blog for 2012. One of them is to increase rather dramatically the number of new people leaving comments, and another is asking new folks to subscribe either by e-mail or reader. If either of these situations describe you I'd appreciate your help in reaching my goals.

If you are already a regular reader or commenter bless you! If you know someone who you think might enjoy this blog would consider asking them to try it for a week or two? 

Simply click the appropriate link on the right sidebar just above the ad for the Social Security Retirement Guide.  I appreciate it. 


  1. Hi Bob, Two things come to mind. The first is one of my favorite sayings "You don't have to know what you are saying, you just have to say it with authority." I always watch out for those types of people but I must admit that I do this myself once in a while.
    The second is I thank the Lord for making me a contrarian. When someone says "this is what you should do" I always look for alternatives (ha). Peer pressure seems to have a reverse effect on me. That is most of the time.

  2. A regular e-reader, I'm glad to jump in the comment pool, though I don't do the e-mail subscription thing (part of my "simplicizing" mode).

    While I've been a strange bird all my life, I found peace with that by examining the Shoulds of our lives and contemplating their validity - or not - in my own life. Part of trying to live a conscious life, I guess.

    Retirement has been a really good opportunity to distance myself from the usual expectations of the working world - though so many Retirement Specialists have their own list of Shoulds (the phenomena is everywhere, I guess). Thus, I allow myself to embrace the Familiar or the New Challenge, based on thoughtful choice rather than inertia or should's.

  3. I know what you mean. I feel a lot of peer pressure to buy an iPhone an iPad and an iMac. It's the cool thing to do! But so far, I haven't been able to convince myself that any of these things would improve my life. So I'm holding out.

    But it doesn't take any pressure at all to get me to book a midwinter trip to FL, AZ or CA. I can see the benefit of that straight away!

  4. This is a good blog. I liked how you wrote about our needs and wants to be happy. I find most of your blogs in line with my thinking.

  5. RJ,

    One of the reasons I like your blog and read it on a regular basis is that you are a contrarian. You say what you think even if it is not the mainstream position.

    Being a Democrat in Arizona places me squarely in the same position. Not one of my friends is of the same political persuasion as me, but that doesn't keep us from caring for each other. Politics has become a lose-lose game so we recognize our differences with respect and move on to other subjects.

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for your readership and I certainly understand the e-subscription decision. My mailbox is overflowing each morning and can eat up a solid hour.

    Playing the banjo immediately places you in "strange bird" category. It is a fascinating instrument that must take constant practice to be good enough to be happy with your performance. Does anyone play the banjo slowly?

    I like your statement that retirement is a good opportunity to distance oneself from the usual expectations of the working world. That is an excellent way to summarize one of the key opportunities we have. In fact, don't be surprised if that sentence becomes the focus of an upcoming post (with credit to you!)

  7. Sightings,

    I'm having the same internal battle over buying a Kindle Fire. I almost feel I should own one so I can write about its uses intelligently. But, I am afraid it is so easy to buy books that I will shoot a massive hole in my budget!

    Come to Arizona-the weather is fine and we need your dollars!

  8. WorkingBoomer,

    I think this may be your first comment, or it has been awhile since I've seen your name. Thank you for being a reader. Please feel free to leave a comment, especially when you disagree with something I have said, or have something to add.

    I visit your blog, smalltownretirement.com,a lot because my daily newspapers, Satisfying Retirement Companion, and Satisfying Lifestyle Newsletter pull material from your site on a very regular basis.

  9. I am bucking the trend of women have to work until they drop next to their husbands at the office. It is sooooo difficult to answer the question of , "what do you do?" I'm at home. I am the listener for the family. I share meals with my husband. I sew a bit. I keep the books. It is a good life until peer pressure makes me fell like it is an unacceptable place to be.

    Btw Bob,
    You live 100 north of the Democrats. Tuscan is the home of Udall. Phoenix is the home of 1964 Goldwater:) Flagstaff is really confused - home of both the very liberal and very conservative Babbitt family. They had a very liberal representative, and then sent a huge Tea party person to the house last year. Ahhh- Az politics is fun!

  10. Janette,

    Arizona politics is often scary and nonsensical. How do you explain a state that wants to approve carrying guns onto University classrooms and into bars but looks for ways to not fund education and health care for the poor and most needy?

    Tucson and Pima County have actually begun to float an idea of forming a separate state (Baja Arizona). The idea won't go anywhere but it shows the seriousness of the political divide between Phoenix and the southern part of the state.

    By not reading the daily paper and refusing to watch local news I live with my head buried very deeply in the sand when it comes to local politics.

  11. As you may know, California politics are also at least nonsensical


  12. Maintaing a high level of curiosity is important as we make choices in the retirement years. The mysteries and absurdities of life are wonderful. Keep up your great posts.
    Be well, Jeanette

  13. QwkDrw,

    I seem to remember there was a move some years back by folks in northern California wanting to split away from the wackiness of southern California that never had a chance either.

    The book, Boomerang, apparently does quite a thorough job of detailing the serious dysfunction of the Golden State's politics. The book is on my must-read list.

  14. Jeanette,

    I couldn't agree more about the vital roles of curiosity and creativity. In fact, I will have a post next week on that very subject!

    By the way, the current post on your blog, Post Work Savvy, is an excellent overview of the process of building a satisfying retirement. Readers...check it out!

  15. Hey thanks for the book tip.

    Did want to reinforce here your State-splitting point. Odds are likely that there would be extreme political wrangling over even where the splitting line would be drawn


  16. Bob, I've posted a couple of comments on your blog, and that says a lot about how much your words make me think and make me want to share my thoughts with you. I have honestly never posted a comment on any other blog (I also don't read any other blog as consistently as I read yours, to be honest).

    So, I'm wondering why you have set a goal of getting more comments posted. You seem to have attracted a group of people who are thoughtful and responsive in their comments and maybe you shouldn't mess with that success!

  17. QwkDrw,

    Sightings at 60 mentioned it and it sounds fascinating. Check out the review on his web site. I put the book on hold at the library but I am 37th in line, so I'll probably download the e-book at some point.

    Yes, state splitting isn't ever likely to happen. There would be an absolute disaster with budgets, income, and legislative changes on the local, state, and national level. Besides it is inconceivable that California would be willing to give up its ranking as the largest state in the union.

  18. CB,

    That's a good question. First thanks for the support and being a regular reader. The fact that you only comment here is rather humbling.

    Now my response: For a blog to grow it must attract new readers. Over the past 19 months this blog has developed a solid core of those who read and comment regularly. If that hadn't happened I would have probably not continued since I wouldn't be serving a need. I have stated before and continue to believe that the folks who fit that category are some of the nicest, most articulate, and thoughtful folks who populate the Internet.

    But, not for one second do I assume there aren't a lot more people out there who are either unfamiliar with this blog, or have hesitated to participate actively. Encouraging growth in both areas is a natural path to take.

    Part of what I'd love to see happen is the beginning of a community of folks who interact with each other as well as me. So, if you leave a comment, and "Joe" responds to your comment we have the beginning of a true diologue and the makings of a community of folks interested in building their own satisfying retirement.

    There have been a few instances where this has happened and I love to see it. That means the people interacting with each other know enough about that person to want to exchange views or support.

    The "regulars" will continue to be here and I love every one of them. My goal is to develop more regulars who feel just as at home as the people whose names you see on a frequent basis.

  19. This was great. Two lines really jumped out for me. One was that we don't know why we make the choices we do. That's really funny in a way, since many of us make choices after what we think is careful deliberation. I read recently that studies show that we are terrible predictors of what will make us happy. Somehow, these two seem to go together.

    Second, something familiar isn't better, unless it is. I tend to be a creature of habit, so I definitely saw myself in this one.

    Thanks for holding up the mirror for us!

  20. Galen,

    The most amazing part of the radio studies was how convinced people were that they knew why they liked a particular station, and then could not verbalize the reasons. Or, they picked a favorite station but didn't even know where it was on the radio dial.

    Picking a radio station isn't very important on the grand scheme of things. But, I found the same inability to identify reasons when discussing political candidates or what made a good school for their child.

  21. I will be one of your "new" readers to jump in and comment. I have been reading your blog for a time now, and find it inspirational. I also have sidestepped into other blogs that you have recommended. I haven't quite retired yet, but am anticipating the changes, and "checking it out". So after this summer I will be quite the regular to your blog. Thanks for your insight.

  22. Jan,

    Thank you for both being a regular and leaving a comment. It is alwsys good to know who is out there!

    I am glad you are looking forward to the big adventure of retirement. Some folks are a bit fearful, and that is understandable. But as I approach 11 years, I can honestly say this has been the best time of my life (which has been quite good overall).


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