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. Inradio, 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.

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