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Why planning for change is so hard
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I spend too much time watching documentaries and reading about the homeless crisis in America. I can’t wrap my brain around how people end up on the streets from so many walks of life. Many of them are not on drugs and are not criminals. The fastest-growing demographic of homeless people is adults 65 and over, and their number is expected to triple by 2030.
…people older than age 50 have the highest risk of paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage… One-half of renters ages 50 and older in the United States pay more than 30 percent of their household income on rent. Paying this much for housing means cutting back on other expenses, including healthcare, transportation, and healthful food.
Low-income people who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent are unable to save money, leaving them vulnerable to losing their housing when they face setbacks, such as a job loss, sickness, or death of a spouse or partner.
It’s truly a sad situation. People complain that their kids move back home after college. How many consider that poor planning may result in them moving in with their kids later in life? About 27% of Americans don’t have a single penny saved for retirement. That’s millions of people! Many of them hope SSI will save them, but that’s just not enough income, experts say, even if you pay off your house before you get there.
But this is not an article about finances. I am interested in the psychological mechanisms that bring people to their choices and the consequences that follow. Becoming homeless later in life is just one example of how 50 years of choices culminate with living in a van on the side of the road.
Today, everything we ever wanted to know lives inside our overpriced cell phones. Whatever we want to do but don’t know how to do it, Google can tell us. So, why so much ignorance and with such dire consequences?
We can’t blame everything on our parents and crappy childhood. Sometimes, I feel that people use those as an excuse not to take responsibility for themselves. For every child of an alcoholic who ends up an alcoholic, there are at least three more who did not become alcoholics. For every traumatized person on drugs, five or ten others are not on drugs. In my own family, growing up with the same mother and father, my brother ended up on heroin, and I ended up on a scholarship. We ate the same diet of daily drama. No family is perfect, even though some are truly messed up.
The philosopher L. A. Paul makes the case that people can’t fully estimate the consequences of their actions because they can’t truly experience what it is like to live under those consequences until they get there. In other words, we may be able to conceptualize what the future may look like, but we are unable to know how we will actually feel when we get there. If we could have the experience of living in that future, we probably would make better decisions for ourselves in the present.
That’s why no matter how many financial advisors on TV tell us to save money, because after the age of 50 the chance of becoming homeless triples, too many won’t save. The future is distant, and they don’t know what it is like to poop in a bucket in their car on a cold, rainy night.
All the science in the world won’t stop people from smoking, lung cancer or not. If smokers could experience lung cancer before smoking, they would never start.
Experience is a great motivator, even though most people try to approach their big life decisions logically with plenty of rationalizations, too. This is not to say that one shouldn’t. Logic, data, and imagination can approximate a possible outcome in the future and give us an idea of what it would be like, even though we can only guess how we will feel when we get there and how much we will value that outcome once we get it.
In the financial world, they say that “past performance is not a guarantee for future results.” It applies everywhere else in life, too. But somehow, good past performance convinces more people than bad past performance. We can rely on past experiences to inform our expectations of future results, at least in situations where the issues at hand are similar to those in the past. Thus, humans always look for patterns. The best example – the stock market. If you listen to financial analysts, they always talk about when something similar happened in the past. They point to patterns of market behavior, teasing conclusions about future movements. Sometimes, they are correct. Other times, they find another pattern explaining why they were wrong.
But life is messy. Some problems are just wild and unprecedented in our personal lived experiences. So, when we face a dilemma and look at different outcomes in our future, we never know if our future selves will value these outcomes the same as our present selves.
Take having kids, for example. If you’ve never had kids, you don’t know what it’s like to wipe a stinky butt or stay up all night. You don’t know if that kid will grow up to be a stellar citizen or a narcissistic sociopath. I am sure Charles Menson’s mom didn’t set out to bring a psycho into the world, but she did. You also don’t know the toll a child will take on your body, life, finances, and marriage. Nor do you really know the blessings. If all your peers are getting married and having kids, telling you it’s the most rewarding thing in the world, you likely will follow in their footsteps.
On the other hand, if someone close to you suffers greatly in the process, you may think twice about it. If you do the math, do some research, and so on, you may ditch the idea forever. These are all attempts to evaluate the two possible outcomes (life with kids and life without kids).
But one outcome that hardly anyone ever considers when making life-changing decisions is how the experience will change them personally and what is the value of this personal transformation. There is no way to ascertain this information from the present moment. You can only conclude it by looking back after you’ve had the experience and some time has passed so you can evaluate it properly, assuming that you care to.
Some experiences truly transform the fabric of one’s character, preferences, attitudes, and mindset. At the same time, the people who knew you before expect you to be the same as they knew you and relate to you accordingly. Could be awkward!!!
“You can’t step in the same river twice,” goes the Chinese proverb. Yet, we expect to meet the “same” person twice. Even when you live with someone and think you know them, you have no idea what transformation they experience within and who they are becoming. Add to that terrible communication, and you get yourself a divorce.
I put a sign on my fridge not too long ago that says, “What does tomorrow me wants me to do today?” Those are the kinds of things you entertain yourself with when you don’t have kids pulling you in all directions and the world is your oyster. Not everyone has the luxury of contemplating abstract ideas. But everyone is getting transformed by the abstract, nevertheless.
I contemplate not only what I want my life to be like tomorrow but also who I want to be tomorrow. I think from the perspective of who I am becoming through my choices, so I hopefully make wiser ones.
The flip side of all this is that you cannot judge your past self from the perspective of your present self because what is available to you as knowledge and character in the present were acquired through the experiences of your past self, who had no way of knowing how these experiences will change you. You can only shake your head and cross your fingers that no one will find out about the shenanigans of your past. Luckily, I grew up before the Internet, so not all of my dumb deeds are accessible to the curious.
In the same way, we probably shouldn’t judge others for where they are. We don’t know who they’ve been and how their lived experiences changed them. Nor do we know who they will become. If a felon can become an attorney helping other convicts find a path spiraling upwards (and a fine writer, too), other transformations are possible.
OK. I admit I judge. But at least I do it with curiosity so I can learn something (like what I just wrote), and with respect (so I am not mean to people who already suffer).
Now you know why most people dislike change and struggle with planning. Hopefully, you’ll remember this next time you have a big decision to make and ask yourself who you want to become on the other end.
Thank you for reading.
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