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Three Strategies for Deciding What to Do

Friday, July 26th, 2013

We all have the same choices when we don’t know what to do: Do something. Do nothing. Or do anything. I’m in the middle of one of those messy decision processes and, thus, have been thinking about when you do which of those things.

Do somethingThis strategy is the one most of us learned was right for everything.  When you encounter a problem, fix it.  Never mind that the fix might be worse than the problem, just do the thing that looks like it might work.  Sometimes, the result is absolutely, mind-bogglingly brilliant, but more often than not, if you really don’t know what to do, you create more problems than you solve by grabbing the first, and usually to most obvious, way to deal with the initial difficulty.

Rather than grabbing the first solution that comes to mind, consider the other two general strategies.

Do nothing.  If you really don’t know what to do, doing nothing may be particularly wise.  Sometimes, it’s just not time yet to do what is really going to get you to a better place.  Maybe things are going to change in the near future in ways you don’t yet know, and the problem will go away on its own.  Maybe there is a key piece of information that you don’t have yet.  Maybe there’s a person you need to meet or get to know or learn certain things from before the best answer is possible and you haven’t even met that person yet.

Doing nothing is a legitimate way of dealing with real problems.  But that’s only true when you really don’t know what to do.  If you know exactly what has to be done but you don’t want to do it, that’s a different story.  That’s a matter of not having the courage, or maybe the initiative, or the sense of personal responsibility that you need to live life well period.  Not knowing what to do is not the same as not wanting to do it.

Doing nothing because you don’t want to figure out what to do is also a bad idea.  That form of doing nothing has a much shorter description–lazy.  Not dealing with a problem because you don’t want to do the work–mentally, physically, or emotionally–is childish.  (Well, maybe adolescent….)  As adults we need to do what serves our best interest–and by so doing make a solid contribution to the world.  It’s fine to choose to do nothing if you really don’t know what to do.  But if you do know what to do…?  Aw, come on.  Get on with it.

Do anything.  The third option is to do anything.  This is different than trying to actually fix the problem by doing something specific that you think might work.  Doing anything is experimenting.  Instead of settling for the most likely routine solution, you try something off the wall.  Instead of solving the obvious problem, you change the situation to see the problem from a different angle or through a different color lens.

Doing anything seems like the dumbest thing you could do, but sometimes it is the smartest.  This is particularly true if you’ve been doing nothing for a long time and are starting to feel terminally stuck.  Do anything.  Take some action.  It doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) the bridge burning variety, but it still needs to be something unusual that you thought up and tried.

Here’s the situation I’m in where I don’t know what to do.  I have a dear friend who has been very sick.  He got well but then got sick again.  And got well and then broke his arm in a sports accident.  He recovered from that but has since had two more bad health things happen.

Every time he has a problem, let my life go dormant as I help him get through his health dilemma du jour–making meals, taking him to doctor appointments, ramrodding medical information gathering, being his housekeeper…and his driver…and…  These are not roles I particularly like.  I care about this friend, but this is starting to wear on me.  Maybe my willingness to help him is making him get sick for the sake of the attention.  Am I”enabling” his health dramas?

The “do something” answer would be to stop helping him.  But I don’t know enough to be sure that’s the right thing to do.  The “do nothing” is to continue letting him hijack my life whenever his health hits a speed bump.  But I’m about to the end of my rope doing that.  So I have to start looking for “anything” kinds of answers.  Today I took myself out to lunch when I had to run some errands.  (Treating myself well is a part if this picture that I do know I need to change.)

Perhaps the simple act of me being a bit less available will help him find a better path.  Perhaps not, but there are an infinite number of “anything” possibilities.  That feels a lot better than doing nothing and a lot less final that just walking away.

There is more than one strategy when you don’t know what to do.  Work with all three of them in your tool box.

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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.








Life Goes On. Go With It.

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

No one is immune from the occasional cosmic gut punch. Stuff happens in every life that’s life threatening, gut-wrenching, and/or soul crushing. We’re dazed initially when it happens, but eventually, we literally need to come back to Life.

There is no better place to remember this than at Mount St. Helens.  I had the chance to hike there this week.  Seeing what’s going on there 33 years after its own cosmic gut punch was amazing.

On May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM Pacific Time, this previously  dormant volcano in Washington’s Cascade Mountains roared to life with stunning devastation.  The top 1500 feet of the mountain slumped off the north side after a 5.1 earthquake.  Horrendous volcanic explosions that hurled rocks and hot gases at over 300 miles per hour followed in seconds.  The heat of that caused the snow and  ice on the mountain to melt, resulting in massive mud flows that swept a slurry of muddy water, ice, rocks, and trees over the landscape and into local lakes and rivers.

The blast downed or killed over 217 square miles of timber.  Virtually every bird in the vicinity, most of the mammals, and many of the fish died.  The debris was as much as 150 feet deep.  At the end of that day, the devastation  was complete.  The landscape was as inhospitable as the moon. Much of the mountain still looks that way:

Mount St. Helens hike 001

The dome in the center near was is now the top of the mountain grew after that unbelievable day.  The volcano spewed lava for six years, but in more subdued fashion.  It’s quiet now, but still on fire inside.  The dark area shows how much the debris has been carved by ground water in the ensuing years.

Thirty-three years isn’t even a nanosecond in terms of geologic time.  In the grand scheme of seismic change, it’s like we are still in the same moment the mountain blew up.  But if you look closer (or in this case, behind you), the evidence that life goes on is all around at Mount St. Helens.

The area is now a National Volcanic Monument, and the US Forest Service does a nice job of explaining how the volcanic apocalypse happened–and what happened immediately after.  Even when the entire mountain was convulsing, pocket gophers were safely burrowed underground.  When the violence stopped, they started digging out.  That action shoved dormant seeds to the surface.  Within weeks, those had sprouted, and plants were starting to grow.

Some of the fish avoided the catastrophe because they were below the ice of a still frozen lake, which helped moderate the impact of the heat.  Once the lake thawed fully later, their existence continued as if nothing had happened.

But even in the lakes where everything had been killed, life returned with unexpected speed.  On land, mammals and birds carried seeds from beyond the blast zone back on hooves and feathers or in intestines, giving even more plants the chance to germinate and grow.  And now, not even four decades after the blast, Mount St. Helens has more a more biodiversity than it did before the top blew off.

Yes, the timber companies harvested many of the downed trees and planted many more to replace them.  Yes, it looks different.  But life really has gone on at Mount St. Helens.  The day we were there, wildflowers were screaming their colors in the sun all along the trail.


Mount St. Helens hike 008

The red of Indian paintbrush, the fragrant lavender blue of prairie lupine, a variety of different yellow flowers dancing happily in the breeze and even an occasional young spruce tree made the place look like a garden.  Entire forests of alder trees have grown up.  (Alders create a better soil for later trees.)

You can’t get much more destruction than what went on at Mount St. Helens in 1980.  And yet, life there is back without hesitation.

That’s such a great lesson.

Even if what happened is awful.  Even if what it left you with is far “less” than what you had before, go on.  Be part of life.  It might be different, but it can still be rich and diverse and beautiful.


When You Don’t Know What to Do, Experiment

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

All too often, not knowing the exact right thing to do keeps us from doing anything at all. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in retirement–especially when you get to where what you are doing is impossibly boring and your whole life has gotten dull.  You know you need more.   You want more.  But you have no clue about what that more looks like or what direction it lies in.

So you sit and stew, getting more and more frustrated and having less and less fun.  This problem seems to be particularly true for guys.  When my newly retired then husband was in the throes of this kind of frustration, I told him “Do what you want to do!”  That didn’t help.  His answer was “If I knew what that was, I would do it.”  I’ve heard the same kind of lament from lots of other men since then.  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s an existential dilemma that’s a problem for many–men and women alike.  The questions is: What do you do about it?

What you do about it……is SOMETHINGJust sitting there waiting for  your life to be revealed by a sky writer or a serendipitous billboard is a tragic waste.  Try things.  They don’t even have to be things you expect to like.  They just need to be different than what you’ve been doing.

This advice may seem to contradict what I’ve been advocating for years–know yourself and do what you love.  But it doesn’t.  Not really.  This problem comes when you can’t figure out what you love.  It happens most often to people who focused almost exclusively on work during their earning years.  Whether you were a CEO or worked in the high school cafeteria, if your job was your life, you have a lot less to springboard from when the job eventually ends.  Trying stuff is one way to develop that foundation.  The more you try, the better you get at narrowing your choices down to what appeals to you–to new ways of both being involved and having fun.

One trick to “trying stuff” is to go in with an exit strategy.  Agree to volunteer for a certain event or a specific period of time rather than making a flat out commitment if you aren’t sure you’re going to  like it.  Go as a guest for a while rather than joining at the first meeting.  Take a weekend class rather than a full semester on a topic you’re not sure you’re going to like.  Most important, talk to people who are involved in what you want to check out.  People like to talk about what they love.  You can learn a lot about what’s involved without spending a dime for gear,  supplies, clothing, and training if you talk to enough people first.

But how do you even get to the point of deciding to try something?  There are lots of ways to do that.  The best one is, of course, to take action on whatever  catches your interest. Maybe you saw something on a website or in the newspaper or heard about it on the radio.  It may literally be a case of reading about it on a cereal box or having your friend beg you to help because he/she is shorthanded for something that needs to get done.  Once you notice it, Nike is right.  Just do it.

You can take the experiments beyond what you presort, too.  If you want to go that route, use an arbitrary resource to dictate what you’re going to try.  Make yourself do at least one thing listed in the local newspaper or radio station’s “things to do” every weekend.  Or work your way through any list you find–local art classes, local outdoor groups, hiking groups in the area.  Or choose the fifth MeetUp listed for your area on MeetUp.com (within reason).  Even if you don’t like it, doing it once will teach you a lot more about what you want than sticking to your same old boring routine.

Another way to get past the “what do I do next?” question is to start collecting articles that interest you.  Once you’ve gotten a bunch of these choices amassed, look at them as a group.  There will be patterns, either in topics you found interesting or in processes that intrigued you–or both–that can give you a push in the right direction.

Nobody ever got anywhere by sitting in the same place and waiting for the world to put them somewhere else. (Well…there may be some of that in violent acts of nature, but that’s not what I mean).  If you want a good life, you have to figure out what it is.  Sometimes, the best way to do that, is to try everything that crosses your path and see what happens.




Retirement Is Up to You

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

It’s never too late to have a happy retirement. Really. Even if you are mired in debt, hate where you live, can’t stand the people around you, and have enough health issues to warrant a drawer full of prescriptions and a calendar full of office visits, you can still pull it out if you decide you want to.

That’s the crux of it–deciding what you want.  Third parties like the media and the healthcare system suggest that we should be pain free and taken care of once we reach retirement age.  And sometimes we are.   But the expectation that we can always be pain free and always be taken care of is a different matter entirely.  For a happy retirement, we are a lot better off if we learn to have a good time regardless of the pain level.  And we thrive better when we take care of ourselves.

That gets lost in the shuffle way too often.  Let’s use a backache as an example.  That backache is really starting to bug you.  So you call your healthcare provider.  They will most likely say “We need to see you.”  So you make a doctor’s appointment.  That might be in two days or two weeks.  Regardless of which, you will spend the interim thinking about that backache–paying attention so that you can answer the doctor’s questions perhaps.  Or maybe you just dwell on it more and more because it’s bugging you.

The day arrives, and you go to the doctor’s appointment.  He/she may do a bunch of tests.  Or you may be referred to a specialist without much of an evaluation.  Then you wait two weeks to two months to see the specialist.  And during that time you stay focused on the problem, which seems to be getting worse.  But is it because it really hurts more or because you’ve been focusing on it like it was your career?

You see that specialist.  There’s a good chance that person doesn’t know what’s wrong either.  You’re referred to another specialist–and you have another wait with more of the same stewing about this health issue.

Hopefully, especially with a back issue, eventually someone recommends physical therapy and you grudgingly do that–feeling gypped because there was no surgery, no MRI, and no prescription involved.  And the PT actually works.

If we were living in a wiser world, we would have just found a bunch of friends to walk and talk with before we ever started thinking about seeing a doctor.  That “personal options first” solution might have let you avoid this mess we call a healthcare system entirely and gotten your back to full health much more quickly.

Same deal when we start to feel dissatisfied with who we are with, how we have to live, what’s going on at the neighbor’s, etc.  We look to others for solutions to all this stuff.  Someone else needs to change or else help us get the change we need from some third party.

But that’s not the real solution either.  No one is entitled to a perfect life.  All too often, we have that expectation that everyone should make it easy for us because we’re retired–that that’s what retirement is all about.  Why?  We judge and make demands or decree that certain things have to be certain ways just because we want them that way, and are incensed when the World doesn’t do it that way.

Why do we even think we need this deference?  We don’t thrive when everything is perfect, and we don’t have to lift a finger.  We thrive when there are challenges.  We have better lives when we have to work at something, regardless of whether it’s a job or getting along with the party animals down the street.

It’s not always going to give you an instant solution, but trying to help yourself first always offers more solid ground to stand on.  You understand what’s going on better if you’ve tried to fix it.  Other people are more willing to help you if you’ve already done all you can to improve the situation yourself.

But it’s not a case of marching over to your sister-in-law’s and giving her a piece of your mind.  Quite often, the most effective change is a lot closer to home.  The fastest thing to change when you are trying to solve a problem is yourself.  Quite often, the thing that needs to change is the easiest to change–your own attitude If you can get it done with just that, life is better and you are a better person than you were yesterday.  The more you do of this, the easier it gets and the happier you are.

Especially as we move toward the capstone years of our lives, we need to take responsibility for what we want–we need to make it happen with our own effort.  Life is good.  We can make it even better.