December 13, 2015

Retirement Choices: Why Do We Choose What We Do?

For many years before my satisfying journey through 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 what the answers were likely to be, clients 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 being 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 15 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 Jones" 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.

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.


33 comments:

  1. Good morning Bob. You hit all kinds of flash points for me.

    Steve Jobs said "People don't know what they want until you tell them". That seems to have been your job in radio huh? Interesting... and good insight into your posts here...

    The way we make decisions and such has always been an interesting topic for me. One of the most enlightening things I have run across in that venue is a PBS series entitled "The Brain by Brian Eagleman" If you haven't seen it I would highly recommend getting a dvd. I will soon be posting about propaganda and how strong it is to the human psyche. That insight came from this series.

    "Knowing what you don't know" is part of the four segments of knowledge. Questioning what you think you know but don't is perhaps the most revealing about all of us.

    Finally, "Question Everything". That the major motto of my blog and my life it seems.

    Keep up the thought provoking posts, its good brain exercise and all of us need that don't we?

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    1. I'm glad you found something to ponder with this post, RJ. Yes, my job in radio was to determine what motivated someone to listen and then give it to them while constantly reminding them that their "buying" decision was a smart one.

      Our current political climate is dominated almost entirely by this "tell someone something long enough until it becomes accepted as true" mindset. Peer pressure is another major driver.

      Human motivation and decision-making remain a fascinating subject. i will certainly look for the PBS series.

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  2. Excellent and thought provoking

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    1. Thanks, Jane. We are an interesting species!

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  3. What an interesting post. The points you raise remind me of my time teaching children. There were always those who tried to behave well and worked hard; some who leaned back and relaxed; the peacemakers; the entertainers; and, of course, most possessed a combination of traits.

    As a teacher, I tried to find strengths in each student and fan the flame. The other thing that encouraged kids to grow was pairing them with positive peers. In fact, that might have been the strongest influence of all.

    Most of us have grown wiser with the passing years, but much about human behavior remains the same. We're like great big sponges, soaking up what surrounds us. Your post reminds me that I need to stay alert, to search for truth and do good.

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    1. If these words help you achieve what you have summarized in your last sentence, then the writing was more than worth it. Have as great day, Pam.

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  4. An excellent Sunday morning read. If you concluded with a separate Amen I would have concluded this to be a sermon and skipped church. Everything you said is true across SO many spectra of our lives. My HS physics teacher said that in life as in science, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Never forgot how truer words were never spoken.

    Now, go out for a bike ride, and have a good day.

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    1. Well, I am about to leave for church. I will give a copy to my pastor!

      There is very little new under the sun, at least in terms of human behavior. If we just pay attention to the lessons of the past, so many current and future problems could be avoided.

      It is only in the 30's right now with highs today in the mid 50's....positively freezing for us in the desert. Bike riding may have to wait for somewhat warmer temps!

      Thanks, Jack.

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  5. Excellent introduction to your new book :)

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  6. "You will make choices that, when looking back, amaze you at their stupidity"

    Like my hair circa 1990.

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    1. Absolutely! I grew up/went to college in the 60's and early 70's. That should say it all.

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  7. I've found that after I have done all my due diligence, gotten the facts and completed all my analysis, one week (or one month, or one year) after I have made my decision, the data has changed and the decision I made turns out to be a wrong one. Of course, not all the time, but in retirement it sure is happening more than I want it too. I think it's because I am so pressed for time (in how many more years do I have left to live) that I don't want to make a mistake.
    What seemed perfectly logical last year, may not work for me anymore this year.
    To an outsider, I might sound preposterous but when I look back at the exact time I made the decision, well, at that time it seemed totally reasonable.
    So, I'm constantly changing directions more than I'd like. But I am enjoying the ride and perhaps in the end that is all that matters (I'm certainly not obsessed with profits anymore or breaking even). I just want to do what is right for me to do. At the time.
    Thanks Bob, for a thought provoking post. Most appropriate.

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    1. It is likely that a decision was correct based on the information available at the time but only "wrong" after things had changed. The world has this annoying tendency to make us look silly, even though our choice was logical and sensible at the time.

      I am certainly with you, Cindi. I have reserved directions more often that a running back for the Arizona Cardinals!

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  8. Well, Bob, I just finished making plans to go to Florida in January -- for the 13th time in the 14 years since I left full-time work. Now I'm wondering if I'm simply doing the same old thing in the same old familiar way, for no real reason at all. I do have a friend or two there, but maybe I should start thinking about pushing the boundaries a little bit.

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    1. Tom, interesting to hear you say that. I am recently retired though even in my pre-retirement life travel I rarely went to the same place twice and we always self-traveled, no group tours etc. (organized tours have their fans but it's not for me). Now that we are retired we are going to try the snowbird thing and our first snowbirding is to a part of Mexico we've never been to (we don't speak Spanish either but I did take a few classes this fall at the local senior's centre). When I talk to other retiree's they all seem amazed that we are heading off to somewhere for a couple of months that we've never been to before, we don't even know anyone who's been there. I did my research, it looks good and should be fine, if not we can always come back home after a few weeks there's nothing that says we HAVE to stay there. It's a big world out there and now that I have the time I want to see more of it and immerse in the culture.

      - David

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    2. You could be in a rut of sorts, Tom. Or, maybe you really don't like cold weather! Doing something we enjoy is never wrong. I think the problem arises when we can't remember why we do what we do, or it is no longer as satisfying.

      That said, Florida in January is a great place to be (Arizona, too, for that matter).

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    3. David,

      Good for you! One of the reasons we bought an RV a few years ago was to break out of our normal vacation habit of going to the same places and seeing the same sites. Like your Mexico adventure, we knew we could always change our route and head back home if the time on the road no longer satisfied.

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    4. Mexico is a bridge too far for me. One of these days I'll get back to Ariz. (I was there in 2012). But the truth is, even though I know you're "supposed" to travel after you retire, I don't really like to travel that much. I don't like to walk around and look at things (like museums or monuments), I don't like being places where I don't speak the language; and I don't like to fly or drive for hours on the freeways. Does that make me un-American?

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    5. Un-American? According to the State Department, there are 113,431,943 valid passports in circulation, which means 36% of Americans own a valid passport (and therefore 64% do not). Travel doesn't appear to be a priority for the majority.

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    6. ...If you define travel as leaving the country. America is big enough you can rack up impressive miles without needing a passport. The statistics you note indicate that the majority do not leave the country.

      I think Tom is what can be called a homebody. I can relate. Flying more than a few hours is something I really try to avoid. And, I am with him regarding freeways and traffic.

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    7. ...If you define travel as leaving the country. America is big enough you can rack up impressive miles without needing a passport. The statistics you note indicate that the majority do not leave the country.

      I think Tom is what can be called a homebody. I can relate. Flying more than a few hours is something I really try to avoid. And, I am with him regarding freeways and traffic.

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  9. I can really related to the point about familiarity. I've only been retired a couple months and I find myself structuring this new life almost the same as when I was working. It's slowly breaking down, but I realize I have to chose to do something different. I wish I had the curiousity of a child instead of the caution of an adult!

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    1. Can you imagine what an interesting world this would be if all of us kept our childish curiosity throughout our lives?

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  10. The message seems to be "Know yourself". Perhaps many don't and just go along because that's what you're supposed to do - of course most of us think that this advice is for someone else not us because "I" am an independent thinker. As you point out we are much more formed by our friends, the society we live in, and advertising (they wouldn't spend all that money if it didn't work) than we'd like to believe. Thanks for the insights from a market researcher that understands these things from the inside. By the way when is that new book due out?

    - David

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    1. I hope the book will be available sometime in early Spring. Thanks for asking, David.

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  11. Bob, your last sentence "Living life fully is knowing what you don't know" is a summation for many. It's just human nature to stay with things or habits we know that are "safe."
    Retirement should be viewed as a time of discovery and growth, not just a time to do as we please. I have friends taking cruises, driving route 66, taking trips to Ecuador, etc. One does feel a subtle peer pressure but during this time of a satisfying journey, we can make choices that best suit our needs and not others.
    For all of us, there is a mortality timeline running. So we must truly discern what is important to us during our retirement years and not just go through the motions of daily life.
    If we are blessed with good health, then we can use the time fruitfully to fulfill the dreams or aspirations we have had on the "back burner."
    So, for me what it comes down to is not just being an observer, but a doer to experience life to its fullest within my means and not going "overboard" financially to get there.

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    1. Russ, here is a good example of changing a choice we had made that, upon reflection, didn't suit us: a trip to New Zealand. Everyone we know who has been there raves about the country and the experience. To help us celebrate our 40th anniversary we began to book the trip for next fall (New Zealand's spring).

      After careful consideration we decided that we simply were not comfortable with the cost of that 17 day trip. It would have equaled about 35% of what we spend in a full year. While we could afford it, it just didn't sit well with us. Some friends think we are nuts. But, it just wasn't right for us.

      Instead we are renting a large home 2 blocks from the beach in San Diego for a week in July for the whole family to get together. The cost is less than 1/3 the New Zealand vacation and will generate incredible family memories.

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  12. Hi Bob:

    What an excellent and thought provoking post. I like your points about living on autopilot and how most of us don't know why we do what we do. Routine can be useful - for example, keeping my keys in one place, or taking the same route to work every morning saves me some mental horsepower that I can then use to think about other things.

    Yet, I have always thought it interesting that people so often actually avoid thinking through their goals and choosing actions that align with those goals. Instead, it can seem easier to do the usual, or to not take action at all but rather plop down on the couch and surf the net. Here is an example from my life. I like to paint. I have set up a little studio in my house. I have great plans for paintings I want to work on. I enjoy painting while I am doing it. Yet nine times out of ten, I will not even get started.

    Procrastination? Yes. Lazy? Maybe. But I think there is more to it that that. It's also something to do with the ease of routine, not pushing boundaries. Creative actions always seem to have a problem at their nucleus, and problem solving is hard work (and also tremendously rewarding). Reflecting, being mindful, seeking new experiences, and choosing actions that align with my goals and values - to me those are some of the things that help me experience a satisfying life. But I often still find myself taking the easy familiar route.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts. It really got me thinking.

    Judith

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    1. One of the ways I decide on a topic for a blog post is to look at something in my own life that I feel is lacking, or not in line with my ultimate goals. Then, I write an open letter to myself to shape up! I remain a work in progress, fighting against routine and laziness daily. We are in this together, Judith.

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    2. Absolutely...I think we all do that.

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  13. Very well said Bob. The unfortunate thing about life is we don't become an expert unless we live it. Learning and change are so important. But unfortunately we are born with a "brand familiarity" gene and we return to what we are comfortable doing. Comfort food, a worn sweater and the same restaurant every week are just a few examples.

    Glad to be reading you again. You always make me think.

    Barbara

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    1. Thanks, Barb. We need to set up a date to get together in Tucson sometime in late January or February! We will be in touch after the holidays and our trip to Palm Spring for the Film Festival right after the first of the year.

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