Silence Your Inner Critic

The woman sitting across the table from me said, “I know I’m ugly.”  Instantly, I thought, she just told me what her inner critic was telling her.  I looked her.  She wasn’t going to be the next cover girl; nor was she ugly.  She had beautiful green eyes with lashes not needing mascara, blemish-free, teeny-tiny pore skin I would give my eye teeth for, and perfectly aligned pearlies surrounded by full lips.  There was a lot to like.  And I gave her my opinion (of course).

We all have one, an inner critic, that is.  According to my therapist (yes, I have one of those too), the inner critic shows up during childhood as others criticize or correct to the nth degree.  As children we internalize the negativism as a voice, often a destructive voice, inside our heads.  We tell ourselves we’re ugly or fat or can’t accomplish our goals or aren’t smart enough to understand this or nobody cares about us.  Whatever the dialogue, it is often not the reality.

Thirty-five years ago I read book after self-help book, took an employer-sponsored course called “Context Training” and learned to ditch much of my inner critic by separating fact from the fiction in my head, just as I hope I did for the woman mentioned above.  Books like “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale changed my life as I became more self-confident, enjoyed more success and became still more confident in my abilities.  I embraced failure as opportunity instead of failure.  My inner critic became a squeaky little buzz of white noise that was quickly silenced when doubt knocked on my door.

As a caregiver the voice recently tried to resurrect itself as I struggled with new challenges.  Faced with mounting stress, my caregiver coach (yes, I have one of those, too) told me, “The stress will never go away.”  My inner critic started saying things like, “You’ll never have a day of peace, so why plan for one?” or “You’ll never get to relax, so why try?”  It took me awhile to realize my inner critic was getting louder.  I needed to duct tape its mouth before a tough situation became tougher.

Self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-love is the first step to silencing your inner critic.  Today I did the best I could do with what I have to do it.  Even in retirement, if life presents you with a crappy hand, as with any other time in life,  tell yourself how much you did right today and how much went right today.  Remind yourself that most people do most things right most of the time.  Give yourself a break.

Oh, I’m no Little Mary Sunshine.  I still need to unload on someone.  My therapist gets paid to listen; my family and friends are there for me.  However, I remembered how our thoughts influence our view of life, our way of handling life and our confidence…the power of positive thinking.  That’s the next step.  Be mindful of your thoughts.  What you put in your mind is like what you put in your body.  You want a healthy diet of positive thoughts.

I started keeping a gratitude journal again.  I might write something like,  “I got up this morning to the sun shining, birds chirping, a garden full of flowers with more to come, a yummy breakfast, worked in the art studio with alcohol inks, talked to a friend.”  Separate the fiction in your head from the facts of your life.  Instead of thinking you are ugly, think about your beautiful green eyes. 

Or, remember making a list of pros and cons when trying to reach a decision?  It works for silencing your inner critic, too.  Make the two columns and write down all the good things about your life and then all the negative things about your life.  Chances are you can find more good than bad.  And recognize the negatives, not as failures, but as opportunities for improvement. 

My stress may never go away, but it can be reduced with positive thinking.  I just had a chance to relax by writing this post.  It gave me a slice of peace.  You see?  I just gagged my inner critic!  And you can, too.

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MYTH BUSTERS

It’s the time of year again when we start looking forward to what a new year will bring as well as saying goodbye to the recent past of the old year. Auld Lang Syne as poet Robert Burns called it or days gone by. Thinking of the recent days gone by, I ruminated on how much I learned in the last year about the changing face of aging. I read plenty of dreary articles about the supposed inevitable cognitive decline, which comes with aging. There are the articles advising us to talk to our children in our sixties about our finances and health and how we should make a plan for the kids to take over for us on both fronts as we age. Well, poppycock. That’s how I felt as I processed what these authors advised. I kept thinking about all the eighty and ninety somethings with complete control of their minds, senses and lives, often continuing to live in their own homes rather than an institutionalized housing arrangement. How is it that a few maintain their cognitive selves right up to their last breath, while the majority slowly decline into a muddled mental state? Was that even true?

As it turns out, the belief that our brain inevitably declines is totally untrue. There is nothing inevitable about it. At universities like Stanford and Cornell, studies of the brain over the past ten years using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have busted a number of myths concerning our brain power, from children to aging adults. Back in the 1970’s when I was just getting my first buzz on from a nice glass of cheap wine, we used to sit around imbibing and joking about killing off brain cells with alcohol. Ahhhh, youth. At the time, it was believed we only had so many brain cells and alcohol was a brain cell killer. But, hey, we also believed our twenty something brains were at their peak performance and would soon begin the inevitable decline toward old age when we couldn’t even balance our checkbooks anymore. But, the technological revolution of the late twentieth century produced some incredible gadgets with even more incredible computing power, among them the machine responsible for mapping our brains during different experiments with various aged subjects. Though the research is complicated and there’s a lot more out there on the subject than I could ever hope to cover in these pages, the bottom line is cognitive decline is NOT inevitable. There are even indications your brain is actually at its peak somewhere in your 50’s.

September of this year, I heard the term neuroplasticity for the first time. Neuro what, you ask? Plasticity meaning the brain is pliable, adapting to its changing circumstances a lot like plastic can be molded into different forms. The term use it or lose it never held greater meaning. Our brain may actually have the ability to grow additional tissue if we just keep using it. In fact, over the past couple of years, as a survivor of one of the last polio epidemics in the United States, I researched findings on post-polio syndrome. One of the theories behind the recovery of people like myself who exhibit few residual effects from the disease is the idea that polio victims’ neurons grew extensions to compensate for the damage done by polio. Our bodies heal from cuts and broken bones by growing new tissue. Our muscles can be strengthened, the minute little tears from exercise mending to create more mass. Why is it, then, we bought into the belief our brain can’t grow more intelligent or recover from an occasional sip of wine or even trauma or maintain its capacity to manage our finances as we age?

In our society there is a strong belief that if we eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, take vitamins and use the medications our doctor prescribes, we can stave off aging…to a point. Our society believes it is inevitable our bodies and cognitive abilities will decline. The specter of dementia looms ever present as we have ‘senior moments’ when we can’t find the right word, walk into a room and can’t remember what we came for, or we forget where we left the car keys. Well, eventually something will lead to our demise. But, believing our brain is most certainly one of those parts is no longer justified. Research is now proving that belief to be a myth of aging. Sure, we’ve all heard of the heart doctor still performing surgery in his nineties. But, that’s unusual, right? What if that’s really what the norm is if we all believe we can continue to maintain our cognitive capacity and we work at it and I mean really work at it, instead of buying into our societal myth of inevitable mental decline? If we continue to use our brain, our mental capacity can stay intact. Using our brain means staying engaged with other people, with life, with learning new things, accepting new ideas, absorbing and growing like a baby in the first year of life, opening new neural pathways. A growth mentality where we continue to learn and grow, even as we age, is the key to keeping our cognitive abilities intact.

As we move into 2015 and leave 2014 behind us, let’s also leave the myths of aging behind us as well. Make 2015 the year you take control of your aging process. Determine right now to add a new activity to your 2015 calendar. Learn something new. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Get out of your comfort zone. Live on your personal edge. We are the generation who can reshape attitudes about aging. We are the myth busters. And, the first step is to use our brains.

YOUR TRUE POTENTIAL

It’s been five weeks since I started the Dynamic Aging Program. Yes, time still flies! I wish I could tell you, “Here are the five things you need to know in order to age dynamically.” But, it’s not that simple. In fact, between the class time, books to read, websites to visit, personality and intelligence tests to take and the class forum questions, I feel like I’m back in college. Class alone is over 4 hours on Wednesdays, which, for someone who has been out of the workforce for a few years now, requires a bit of effort to remain focused toward the end of each session. But, enough whining about the work load. What you really probably want to know is what am I learning.

Well, this could be categorized as cheap therapy as self-examination, self-awareness and self-actualization are at the center of all this time and effort. As I’ve chronicled in this blog and, as most of you surely must know, most people who have a career and retire, usually have identity problems. According to what I’ve learned so far, they also apparently think they are going to continue with the same hobbies, pastimes and activities for the 20 to 30 years of their retirement. That is, until the loss of identity and boredom set in, which is the moment in time for introspection. While self-examination can be done at any time in life, all the stars and planets are more apt to be perfectly aligned during our last third of life when our basic needs are met, the career is over, the kids are raised and we finally (finally!) have time for ourselves.

While making personal development a priority may appear selfish on the surface, if we are to reach our full potential as human beings, which puts us in a position to truly give our best to the world, then personal development must be a priority. If we are to age dynamically, enjoying a higher quality of life where new meaning and purpose emerge, we must continue to expand our personal capabilities. Another benefit for taking this less traveled path is greater self-esteem as we discover our unique potential. The difficult part in all of this is taking responsibility for your personal evolution, especially in the face of societal norms, which tell us we need to wind down instead of gearing up. Choosing to take action means you will not be one of the flock. You will most certainly encounter people making comments about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or how these are your golden years…relaxation is what you’re supposed to be doing. You earned it. Right? Wrong. What you’ve earned is the right to reach your unique potential. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this course, it’s that stability is not an option. We live in a rapidly changing world. That world will continue spinning at light speed. And, it belongs to the people who are ready to change and grow with it, including those of us in the last third of life.

Clearly, as we age, our bodies will decline, health issues will arise, the parts will wear out. However, cognitive decline is not a given. Continued dynamic interaction with other people will keep neural pathways open, fending off cognitive decline. So, another benefit of working toward finding our true potential is maintaining our cognitive function. Rather than crossword puzzles, which apparently only open new neural pathways to a point, my instructor recommends Mind_Spark or Lumosity computer games. But, the best option by far is continued meaningful engagement with other human beings.

What is meaningful engagement, you ask? Well, again, in order to answer that question, you have to take responsibility for your personal evolution. That’s the part requiring introspection, thought and self-awareness. It’s work. And, working toward something meaningful, especially when you don’t know what that something may turn out to be, takes a leap of faith. The first step is identifying any self-imposed barriers to your personal growth. Our barriers often show up in negative self-talk such as, “I was never any good at doing that kind of thing.” or “I never liked doing __________.” You fill in the blank. The key here is having (1) an open mind; (2) a willingness to recognize your personal barriers as self-imposed limitations; (3) an openness to new possibilities; and (4) readiness for change. You don’t have to go jumping out of an airplane or off of a bridge with a bungee cord but you do have to be willing to ask yourself, “If I could do anything, what would it be?” And, give yourself an honest answer. You may want to read one of the recommended books for this course, “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer, to put you on the road to identifying any self-imposed barriers to your self-actualization.

There’s a lot of self, self, self here but aging dynamically is all about yourself. You are much more than your ego, your work identity, your family, your community. What could be more fun in life than seeking your true potential as a human being and actualizing that potential? What could be better than giving your family and community your full potential as a human being? The work I have done in the last few weeks has left me more open to new experiences, more aware of living in the present moment and more willing to trust my own feelings and instincts. It is absolutely empowering. As I think about what I want to be when I grow up, I feel more alive than I have in years. So, that’s where I am with the Dynamic Aging Program. There will be more to come in the next few weeks…stay tuned. In the meantime, try taking a leap of faith. No bungee cord needed.

PRACTICE NOT DOING

Another New Year and I deliberately chose not to make any resolutions. In past years I almost always had a resolution or two. Or three. Or four. Like most people, 80% by the latest figure I read somewhere in my reading travels last week, I didn’t keep my resolutions. Well, maybe once in a great while. So, this year is the year of no resolutions. Instead, I’m choosing a different path.

The thing I wanted most in 2013 was for the transition into my retirement journey to be made. Understanding there is a period of adjustment to a new life style didn’t make the journey any easier. There seemed to be constant stress over money and health issues and Martin and I being together 24/7. The budget I so trustingly established in December 2012 went to Hell in a hand basket somewhere around mid-year. I was in a constant health watch mode as everything from multiple yellow-jacket stings to a mystery allergic reaction (stress?) sent me to the doctor’s office again and again. Happily, somewhere around the one year mark of our retirement anniversary I reached the moment in time where I stopped stressing and started enjoying. Miraculously, retirement was suddenly fulfilling, stress free. This transition didn’t happen by accident. It took a certain mindfulness to achieve.

Traditionally, October is the month when I do a quick and dirty assessment of our income taxes. If there are any surprises, knowing about it gives me a couple of months to make adjustments before the wolf…er…IRS is at the door. It also affords the opportunity to sort through files and be sure I have receipts to date. Yes, I’m organized and its effortless really because I’ve been doing it for decades. One shortfall in my organizational plan is a college type notebook of blank paper I keep on my desk. This is where I write lists, reminder notes and squirrel away slips of paper with more notations, pictures and whatever else I don’t have a file for. This year as I sorted through the minutia I pulled out a paper with a saying I’d come across much earlier in the year. Apparently, it didn’t resonate enough at the time for me to try to internalize its meaning. But, that sunny day in October it hit me with a punch and I mean a whopper of a punch.

I read a lot. Somewhere, I read this quote by Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu and jotted it down. “Practice not doing and everything will fall into place.” What does that mean? Am I supposed to turn lazy and do nothing? And, take my taxes for instance, nothing will fall into place if I’m not organized and on it. Not only did I read the quote again and again, turning it over in my mind for meaning, I did what any internet surfer would do, I Googled it. After reading about the life of Lao Tzu, who lived about 600 years before Christ, I came across an analysis of some of his quotes. This one means life has a natural flow to it, including the ever constant and dependable change. In fact, change is inevitable. Yet, as human beings we like our comfort zone so another constant is our inevitable resistance to change. How many of us have worked someplace where a change occurs and, without fail, someone will say, “But we’ve always done it that way.” Wailing, complaining and resisting all the way, they make life miserable for themselves and everyone around them perhaps even to the point where they are fired. Tzu’s philosophy says resistance to life’s changes and the natural ebb and flow only creates strife, pain and sorrow. Instead, accept what is. Let reality be reality. Allow the natural order of things to move forward without resistance. Acceptance creates a less stressful life. Hmmm…Was finding a fulfilling retirement simply a matter of acceptance of what is?

I began asking myself, on a scale of one to ten, how bad is this issue or that issue? Is there anything you don’t have right now this minute such as housing, food, clothing, even good health? Is there anything in your life right now this minute which is truly a crisis, a problem? Mentally, I assigned a number to each issue that arose. If the issue was put in perspective, well, then, it didn’t seem so bad. Yes, being stung by 8 yellow jackets and having your hand swell to the size of a small cantaloupe while a red streak courses its way up your arm is scary but it isn’t cancer. With my changed view, stress just seemed to evaporate as I put the stuff life dishes out in perspective, accepting it. What is, is.

Resolutions? No. I decided to just keep following Tzu’s philosophy. Resolutions are unnecessary. No sweat here. Instead of being a week into the New Year and already casting my resolutions aside, feeling guilty at letting myself down, in 2014 I’m just continuing to practice not doing. Heck, I might not even look at the tax file next October.

STAGES OF RETIREMENT II

Last Sunday, as Martin and I sat in the kitchen waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, we sipped a glass of wine and talked about our latest projects. Suddenly, I realized the day before was our one year retirement anniversary. A year!?! Gone already! And, we didn’t even celebrate having made it a full year. A year of ups and downs as we adjusted our way to a fulfilling retirement routine. Mind you, we’re not there yet. But, we managed to make it into Stage 4, the Reorientation Stage. With six retirement stages, we’re more than halfway there. Yipeeee!

Last week I wrote about Disillusionment, Stage 3. After meeting someone who was obviously disillusioned with retirement and having been there myself, I felt the need to forewarn as many people as were willing to read my post. But what happens before and after disillusionment? Well, in the past year we’ve experienced all the before.

Pre-retirement, Stage 1, was filled with euphoria. We planned what we would do in retirement. Martin gave his notice at work. His employer threw a catered retirement bash. Bucket lists were made. Lists included all kinds of things we always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time for. Travel made it onto the list, an activity we never liked much before, so whatever made us think we’d like it in retirement, is anybody’s guess. After a work life of travel, travel, travel for both of us, we decided travel was, in reality, one of the last things we wanted to do. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of adjusting our retirement goals and outlook.

Initially, Stage 2, Retirement, aka the “honeymoon” took on a feeling of perpetual vacation as we motorcycled, hiked, gardened, bicycled, engaged in some artwork, sat on the screened porch reading in the warmth of sunny fall days. Winter arrived to a long trip to visit family for Christmas, a luxury we never enjoyed while we worked. That was followed by lazy mornings sipping lattes by the fire and staying in my jammies ’til noon as I took on the new hobby of knitting.

But disillusionment was seeping in. Spring arrived to six months of perpetual vacation giving way to a feeling of restlessness. A feeling of missing the challenge, the mind stimulation, the purpose afforded by the everyday grind of work. What!?! Miss the rat race? No. Not possible. And worse of all, we were getting on each others very last nerve. Our marriage, made in heaven, was being tested at every turn or so it seemed. We arrived at Stage 3, Disillusionment, not even realizing what it was or that it happened to most retirees. But, we did know, something had to give. So, once again, I trawled the web for answers. I’m here to tell you, there’s not a lot out there, not even on the so-called “senior” (I hate that word but that’s what we have) websites. However, in one Google search, I stumbled across Robert Atchley’s research into the stages or phases of retirement and voilà!, a lot of things fell into place. For starters, we made a conscious decision to aim for Stage 4, Reorientation.

To me, Reorientation, is a couple of things. First of all, you put on your designer cap and pull up all the creative muscle you can find on the right side of your brain and start designing a retirement lifestyle to put you smack in the middle of your happy place. Secondly, kiss the rat race goodbye. Let it go. Sever old ties, if necessary. You still need people in retirement. You still need human connection. You still need to network. But, staying in touch with the old gang still tethered to the work place can keep you tethered there as well. Keep the real friends. Let the rest go. And, give them permission to let you go.

Retirement is a reinvention of who you are. For us, we are right brain people who lived our work lives in a left brain world. We wanted to explore different art mediums in retirement but held ourselves back. You know, the old fear of failure specter. What if I can’t draw? Can’t paint? Can’t carve? What if I produce ugly stuff nobody likes? Scary as the thought was, when we decided to seriously enter the world of artists, that is the precise moment we started our reorientation. After several enjoyable weeks of watercolor class, yesterday I took my first drawing class. Don’t even think it…I already know I put the cart before the horse. Anyway, my drawing instructor told our class, “After today’s class, if anyone asks you what you do, you tell them, you’re an artist”. He went on to tell us how he wanted us to start thinking of ourselves as artists. Think it, feel it, be it. (I really like this guy.) Besides classes, we’ve become involved in a couple of artists’ guilds, Martin helping out with the fall arts festival, both of us attending openings (wine, cheese and art…doesn’t get any better than that) and me joining a board of directors. We’ve made new friends. Artist friends who encourage and support. We feel like we’re well on our way to creating a rewarding Retirement Routine, Stage 5.

Once we are comfortably settled into our new retirement lifestyle, we intend for it to last a long, long time. What about Stage 6? you ask. Stage 6 is the Termination of Retirement. That’s when you’re so old and frail, you can’t do any of this fun stuff anymore. You’re focused on meeting your maker. As I said, that’s a long way off. Until then, I’m an artist.

STAGES OF RETIREMENT

Recently, I sat in an office filling out paperwork for my appointment. When I reached the bottom of the form, which required a date, I realized even though I had an appointment, I didn’t know the date. Too lazy to dig into my purse for my cell phone, I asked the guy next to me, who was also filling out the same form, if he knew the date.

“The third”, came the reply.

“Thanks. Retired,” said I by way of explanation for my lack of date information.

“Me, too,” he sighed.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what was behind the sigh. He seemed a little depressed, heavy. So, I queried, “Not having a good time in retirement?”

He hunched forwarded a bit in his seat and looked at the floor. “I get up every morning wondering what I’m going to do today. I’m thinking of getting a part-time job.”

“Maybe you could volunteer for an organization,” I offered.

“Yeah, I already do that but this isn’t what I thought it would be.”

With that, my name was called and I got up to leave. Before I made my exit, I turned to him and said, “What you’re experiencing is normal. You’re not alone.” He nodded his head but kept looking at the floor.

In 1975 a professor of gerontology named Robert Atchley identified seven stages of retirement. Since then, they’ve been pared down to six but the bottom line is retirement is such a major life transition requiring a redefining of our very role in life that no matter how much we plan, we’re bound to experience at least some of the stages. The guy in the waiting room was in the stage of disillusionment possibly missing the structure and productivity of work, which had given his life purpose. While not everyone goes through this stage, most of us do. It’s similar to the realization, somewhere around age 40, when we say to ourselves, “Is this all there is to life?” You know that moment I’m talking about. The one where you realized you didn’t become brilliant, rich, famous, have the exciting career you dreamed about or whatever you thought would happen to your life. Well, that realization shows up in retirement, too. After the “honeymoon” of relaxation, the feeling like you’re on vacation, the relief of leaving the rat race behind, boredom sets in and you find yourself saying, “Is this all there is to retirement?”

Even Colin Powell talked about it on the speakers circuit a few years ago. After leaving his post as Secretary of State where he was constantly whisked here and there in limousines and government jets with an entourage of assistants, secret service agents and press corps, he found himself walking down Fifth Avenue in New York all by his lonesome to fetch a hotdog from the street vendor. He went on to recount how he ended up on the speakers circuit because his wife of 56 years told him unless he found something to do with his life, they wouldn’t make it to year 57. While his wife’s ultimatum may be slightly comical, she was wise enough to realize he needed to do something to recreate his purpose in life. For both their sakes, she wasn’t going to tolerate his moping. The lesson in Powell’s story is how he reoriented himself by joining the speakers circuit thus creating a new routine for himself. And…securing his marriage for at least another year.

Unfortunately, for many of us disillusionment with retirement and therefore, life, can last years before we decide to take inventory of our situation and decide what we’re going to do when we grow up. For a sad few, the disillusionment stage can last the rest of our lives. That’s a real downer, folks. People who think their “golden years” aren’t golden have no one but themselves to blame. So, take stock! The willingness to take stock of our situation, options, wants and needs is the first step to recovering our retirement dream. Like the guy in the waiting room who was thinking of getting a part-time job, acknowledging that somethings gotta give moves you toward action. Back in 1935 when the retirement age was set by the government at age 65, it was a rarity indeed, for most people to even live to that age. With longevity comes opportunity. Today, with more and more people living to be 100, the idea of sitting out 30 years of retirement in a rocker on the front porch should be enough to get you motivated to find a new hobby, career, volunteer activity or whatever floats your boat.

So, whether you’re already retired and wondering where your retirement dream went or you’re looking at retiring someday in the future, keep the disillusionment stage in mind. It may only last a day or two or it could be years. That’s up to you. Know that for most of us, it probably will come. But, also know, it is an opportunity to take stock, to reinvent yourself, to learn, to be, to give, to reach your potential in areas you may not have ever envisioned for yourself. And, remember, what you’re experiencing is normal and you’re not alone.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

For we baby boomers, you may remember the TV show “Father Knows Best”. Every episode served up a new dilemma for one of the members of a household with dad displaying incredible patience and wisdom as he helped them reach a decision, which was ultimately the right thing to do. Week after week dad led his family members, and their friends, to make the best decision for them. But, most of us don’t live in such a sugar coated world with an all knowing, all seeing dad or advisor. So, oftentimes, we turn to friends or relatives for advice. And, sometimes, we may even want someone else to tell us what to do. Making the hard choices in life is…well…hard.

Recently, I had just such an encounter as someone I’ve known a long time asked me to tell them what to do about a life-changing matter. As I read their email, it reminded me of an epiphany I had as a thirty-something who often turned to spouse, friends or co-workers for answers. At the time, I was working for a company in Seattle, which bought real estate nationally. I was the company’s contracts administrator, drafting contracts, participating in the negotiations and overseeing the due diligence of multi-million dollar deals. My days were filled with excitement as well as high anxiety as one incorrect decision could cost the company a lot of money. So, on a day when a particular deal slowly went sideways, as the saying goes, I anxiously awaited the moment when I could speak with the partners, who were thousands of miles away on business in Hong Kong. When the moment finally came, I laid out the dilemma in detail and asked what I should do. The answer one of the partners gave shocked me. But, ultimately his answer empowered me. Very calmly, he said, “That’s your decision. I’m not there. I can’t read the situation. I can’t see what you see. I can’t feel what you feel. You’re the only one who can make that judgement call.” What? Me? Yikes!!! Eventually, I summoned the courage to make a decision and, as it turned out, a good decision.

Over the next few days, as I pondered the event, I felt empowered professionally. Eventually, I transferred the idea of presence in decision making to my personal life. No one knows what’s best for you like you. Wow! What an epiphany! I’d like to say I held this thought with every personal decision. But, the truth is, we don’t live in a vacuum. Personal decisions affect other people…family, friends, co-workers, even strangers. And, often, we use that fact as a rationale to take their advice. Sometimes, they even give us that reason for foisting their advice upon us. I’ve learned, in an excruciatingly long and painful set of missteps, to listen to advice, but, more importantly in the end analysis, to listen to my gut, my inner voice, my instincts. By reaching into the depths of my own center, I’ve been able to do what’s right for me. Selfish, you say? Hmmm…maybe. But, here’s the catch. Decision making is really problem solving. By reaching into my own center, I’ve taken responsibility for solving the problem and accountability for the outcome. Do I consider how my decision will effect others? Of course, I do. But, as I’ve discovered, taking accountability for my actions is what’s best for my relationships. It puts the responsibility squarely on my shoulders. I’ve also learned through countless mistakes it’s OK to make a mistake. I’ve learned how making no decision, taking no action is really abdicating to time and circumstance, which will eventually make the decision for me. Shudder the thought! I’ve learned to move ahead of any mistakes, ignore the “I told you so’s”, make a correction of direction, chart a new course. But, whatever the outcome, the decision belongs to me.

So, my advice, (and, yes, I do give this particular piece of advice on occasion) to you, my friend, wanting to know what to do…no one knows what’s best for you like you. While I’ll lend a sympathetic ear, point out options you may not have thought about and support your decision, I’m not there. I can’t read the situation. I can’t see what you see. I can’t feel what you feel. So, reach down into the core of your being, feel around your insides and ask yourself what it is which you want. You’re the only one who can make this judgement call.

REGRETS ONLY

When sending out an invitation to a party, it’s common practice to add “RSVP Regrets Only”. That, of course, means only let the host know if you’re not attending. Otherwise, you’re expected to be at the party. There is no RSVP for the party of life. We show up and it’s expected we’ll be present and accounted for. But, as I’ve read again and again, all too often we end our life in the ‘Regrets Only’ column, failing to realize our own dreams, attend our own party. In her article for AARP.org, ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’, Bronnie Ware places failure to live a life true to ones self at the top of the list. Current wisdom for dying with no regrets advises us to make a bucket list, a list of all we dream of doing while here on earth. Hollywood even made a movie about it. So, young and old alike are making lists of all the things they want to do before they die.

Looking at some of the lists posted online, most, if not all, contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of items. Places the writer wants to visit, people the writer wants to meet and things, like skydiving or swimming with dolphins, which the writer wants to do. Thinking this was a great exercise for figuring out how I wanted to occupy my retirement, I made my list. It’s a short list. But, it’s the result of really, and I mean really, looking inside my mind, my spirit and asking what is it which Kathy dreams of doing? And, I found, more importantly, what was it, which I dreamed of long, long ago?

Looking deep inside myself, I admitted, in all honesty, I was not so keen on traveling the globe and scratched that wish off my list. I’ve never yearned for cruises or trips to other countries. My true self likes to be home most of the time, spiked with short jaunts here and there. I’ve also met and socialized with some famous people. They’re really no different than you and me, just famous. I have no desire to skydive or swim with dolphins or bungee jump. It’s enough thrill for me to hop on the back of a motorcycle and ride the tail of the dragon at Deal’s Gap until my own tail needs a hot tub. In short, I began to realize I had spent my life in such a way as to have few unfulfilled dreams. But, there were some.

As I searched inside for the girl I’d been before life got in the way, I recognized a long held regret. Forty-five years ago (yes, that’s a lot of life) I was in journalism classes at my high school. I was copy editor for the Manasquan Blue and Gray. I interviewed a now very famous, but at the time a very young and upcoming, alumnus of my high school, my first famous person, Jack Nicholson. And, after participating in a tri-state tournament, I received an award from Temple University for outstanding high school journalism. I wanted to be a writer. Instead, because I needed a paycheck, I ended up working in banking and real estate, never feeling in sync with those professions even though I excelled in both. Fast forward to today and with the power of the internet, I’m a writer. Some might say, you’re too old or you can’t go home again or people will think you’re crazy at your age, blah, blah, blah. But, think of this. Julia Child didn’t become Julia Child until she was 50. Anna Mary Robertson Moses didn’t become Grandma Moses until her late 70’s.

Regrets are a product of our own actions. Our unfulfilled dreams are choices we made in life or didn’t make along the way. They are a reflection of our own lack of courage or fear of upsetting the apple cart we already built. Maybe you can’t go home again. But, it’s never too late to create a new reality built around an unfulfilled dream. So, my short little bucket list is made up of doing the things I dreamed of doing. It has nothing to do with people’s expectations of me or me thinking I ought to do this or that. It has to do with fulfilling my RSVP…no regrets.

ANTE UP

Once you get your financial house in order with a budget and debt reduction, it’s time to get serious about saving. Get ready to ante up. According to the January/February 2013 issue of Money magazine, page 112, in order to have enough savings to retire and have that money last, “The amount you save is more crucial than how you invest.” It seems counterintuitive but I’m here to tell you this is what worked for me. This same article in Money recommends saving at least 15% of your gross income per year. That 15% doesn’t include any employer match. Now, in the past, I’ve talked with people about this strategy and they’ve claimed they can make up for a lower savings percentage with an aggressive investment strategy. Well, yes, you could take that risk with your future, but, how will you weather a severe economic downturn such as the recent one the nation is still trying to crawl out from under. Due to the strategy I’m telling you about here, we were still able to retire early despite the dive the stock market took in 2008. So, how do you reach the point where you can ante up 15% of your income per year?

Well, for starters, if you free yourself of non-mortgage debt, how much will you have in additional monies, which can then be redirected to your retirement savings? After all, that’s the entire reason for becoming debt-free. Look at the light at the end of your debt reduction tunnel. Maybe the thought of adding more to your retirement fund will be an incentive to stay on track to free yourself from the debt. Will your employer give you a raise this year? Most people who have taken control of their financial situation by accounting for every dime they earn can add at least 1% of their gross income per year to their contribution. Think about this. Look at the historical average annual inflation rate in the US, which, as of 2012, is a little more than 3%. We lived through years in the 1980’s when inflation was about 14% and then there are years, like 2012, when the rate is around 2%. Lower inflation rates are likely to be with us for a while. If you receive a raise in 2013 of 3%, decide right now, before you even see the dollars in your paycheck, to put 1% into your 401K. And then, do it! Will you get a promotion? Even in these slow economic times people get promoted. If someone retires, moves on to another company or is transferred to another city, there’s most likely an opening. Are you doing everything you can at work to put yourself in a position to reap the rewards of filling a vacancy? Promotions usually come with substantial raises. Look for ways to change your financial outlook so you can increase the amount you save toward retirement.

A savings strategy as opposed to an investment strategy also doesn’t mean you can now ignore where you put your money. If you work for an employer offering a 401K, they most likely have a money management company who administers their program. You may be offered options on how to invest your savings and they may automatically rebalance your portfolio to meet your retirement goals according to the mix you choose. Additionally, they most probably also offer investment counseling from the administrator’s financial planners. As a manager, I often found this to be an underused resource by employees. Take advantage of this opportunity to have an advisor help you plan your financial future. Even if you’re self-employed, before you decide where to put your money, decide who will administer your self-employed pension for you. I found, as a real estate broker, this became more personal as I wanted someone who was knowledgeable, trust worthy and willing to take the time to sit down with me to answer questions. Who I chose as a partner advisor was entirely up to me. I gave it a lot of thought.

Lastly, I learned to ignore the emotion attached to trading on the stock market. When the market has ups and downs and you hear the commentators on the news talking about the emotional swings, they are talking about YOU! The pros are not getting all worked up about this news or that news. It’s their job to remain clear headed. They look at it from a more pragmatic view. We know people who panicked during the downturn of October 2008 and moved their entire portfolios to money market accounts, thus locking in their losses. One individual told me this was the only way he could sleep at night and, besides, he’d time it so he came back in as things started to pick up. This same individual then missed the “timing” in March 2009 when the market took an upswing. As I mentioned, you lock in your losses and even the experts, who do this for a living, can’t predict the market. So, we chose to adopt a strategy of not moving money out of a mutual fund or selling a stock unless there was something wrong with the management or something wrong with the product. And, yes, that also means looking at who’s managing your fund or who’s at the helm of a company. It also means keeping an eye on the product to be sure it’s still desired by the general public. With the power of the internet this has become easier just be aware everything you read on the web is not always true.

As you can see, once you ante up, along with that comes even more personal responsibility. Taking control of your financial life is never easy but the reward of increasing your chances of having enough money to last your lifetime is more than worth the extra work. In order to retire comfortably, you don’t need a lot of money to begin with. You need a steady savings plan and time. After all, this is your money and your future. So, ante up!

BUDGET AND OTHER DIRTY WORDS

This morning I met with an aide of my Congressional Representative, Trey Gowdy, to discuss my thoughts about the country’s deficit. As we talked about the deficit and the handling of the fiscal cliff, she mentioned how the country didn’t have a budget. Well, that’s because congress hasn’t passed a budget in the last four years! And, the American people haven’t demanded as much of their congressional representatives, at least not loudly enough. Perhaps we’re apathetic to this gap in service because 70% of American households don’t run on a budget. Somehow, the word budget has become synonymous with unpleasantries, constraint, constriction. It’s become a dirty word.

However, a household budget is a major component of the level of personal responsibility necessary to obtain a secure retirement. It never ceases to amaze me how people don’t budget, don’t find the inner ability to discipline themselves to organize their financial life and then wonder why their golden years are not so golden. So, don’t look at budget as a dirty word. Instead, look at it as your plan to change your life. If you are going to pay off non-mortgage debt and start saving larger amounts of your income, the first step is learning to live within, and maybe even below, your means. Over the years I’ve met a lot of people who are saving enough in their 401K to receive their employer’s match but that match is usually somewhere between 2% and 6% at the rate of $.50 on the $1. Well, friends, that won’t get you to a secure, happy retirement.

Successful businesses all have budgets. At the end of each year, they put together an operating budget based on the current year’s income and spending trends for their business. Then, they follow their progress throughout the next year with a profit and loss statement as measured against the operating budget. They adjust as necessary to remain on target for their year-end financial goals. Now, all of this means being organized and disciplined. Ugh! Organized and disciplined. Really? I can see your eyes glazing over as I type this. But, would you consider working for a business that was being flown by the seat of the managers’ pants? Would you invest your hard-earned cash in such a business? Not likely. Why? Because you’d want to work for a stable company, which would produce a good paycheck for you or you’d want to invest in a company, which could pay dividends or increase its stock value. And, you’d want a company which had a little something left over to reinvest in the company.

In order to change your mindset about budgets, think of your household as YOU, Inc. Your business isn’t to support all kinds of service providers and manufacturers by spending every last dime of your household income. Your business is providing the necessities for life along with a few niceties of life and having some left to reinvest in YOU, Inc. so you can enjoy a secure retirement. Many years ago, when I had only one grandchild, that grandchild was jumping around on the couch next to me. Suddenly, he stopped and looked at me intently. “Grandma”, he said, sounding very serious and beyond his four years, “Did you know a house is a need and a toy is a want?” Out of the mouths of babes! He’d obviously been listening to my daughter, his mother, explain why he couldn’t get a toy every time they went to the store. The plan was to pay for needs first. Whether you’re already retired or you want to retire or even if you want to retire young, the only way to manage your financial life is by having a plan. That’s all a budget is. It’s a plan. It’s a plan for YOU, Inc. Most of us have enough money to meet our basic needs. We end up in financial trouble when we also want the toys and, sometimes, too many toys.

When we started budgeting, I was pretty stringent with the limits. We didn’t have an emergency fund yet. We were just trying to get a handle on expenses. I didn’t understand how a budget has a life of its own. I didn’t understand how sometimes, especially if you have kids at home, something unexpected can pop up and wreck your plan momentarily. So, it took a while to learn that a budget has to be fluid at times. If you have an unexpected expense, the first thing is to look at other items to see if you can re-allocate some money. However, if you overspend on an item over and over, maybe you weren’t realistic about the cost to begin with. Or, maybe that’s a financial drain you need to plug. Our big wake up was what we spent on groceries. Since we both like to cook, finding a new recipe could decimate the week’s grocery allocation. We REALLY like to cook! We plugged that hole by making a list of a month’s worth of meals, shopping twice a month and not deviating from the plan. Now, new recipes had to wait until next month and we offset expensive, gourmet meals with something cheaper. We brown bagged lunches and cut back on our eating out budget. On another note, we eliminated the feeling of being constrained by giving each of us a monthly allowance. We call it our ‘blow money’ meaning we can blow it on whatever we want, no questions asked, no holds barred. This also eliminated 99.9% of the arguments over money. Every budget is unique to your needs. Just be careful not to confuse needs with wants. Conversely, don’t be so stingy with your assessment that you forget needs, which feed your soul.

Whatever you do, make that budget now! Work to internalize your budget into your mindset and everyday life until budget’s no longer a dirty word but an empowerment word.