Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

The Thrilling Momentum of Change


Change is uncomfortable for most of us. It requires effort and risk of failure. It's like sand in the gears. That's why it's common to avoid change and even fear it.

In this stage of life, we seem to greet change in one of two ways:

1. Yes, please. Some of us can't imagine life without growth, which requires constant change. Aversion to discomfort is nowhere near as strong as the urge to extend, expand, learn, and keep growing, even with its almost inevitable attendant failures (which aren't really failures but can feel that way).

2. No, thank you. Older people with established lifestyles often have a predilection for avoiding change because we are comfortable. Our routines are long-held and sometimes hard-won. They represent stability. The status quo is just fine, thanks. Why mess with it? Obviously, too, fear can be behind aversion. It might even be masquerading as contentment of a sort.

The problem is with people who are stuck. They are having trouble in retirement and perhaps with aging in general. They are unhappy with life, and, at the same time, strongly averse to change. Stuck in a hole with high walls, growth is the only way out.

And the only way to grow is to embrace change.

And to do that, I think, we have to make it a habit.

And to make it a habit, we have to have incentive. There has to be a reward.

For those with a growth mindset, the rewards seem plentiful: the pleasures of discovery (new food, music, places), the thrill of novelty (that new friend, routine, tool, experience), and the intellectual/spiritual growth that comes with adding pieces to the puzzle of life (that new way of looking at what it means to be alive — the "aha" moments).

And there's an even bigger reward: momentum.

Lately, the power of that momentum has startled me.

In the simplest terms, you can say that one change often leads to another. There can be a benevolent cascading effect. You upgrade your automobile, and because it seems like such a shame to allow it to get as cluttered and dirty as the old one, you start to keep it clean. The cleanliness habit (and the ensuing good feeling) then makes its way into other parts of your life.

Good results, brought about by the effort of embracing change, can be addictive.

Where it gets really powerful is when it starts taking on a life of its own. Your life. We've all seen it. Someone starts to eat better. They lose weight. Their self-esteem rises. They want more. So they go to the gym three times a week without fail. They feel stronger. Confidence rises again. They like being with people more, because they feel good about themselves. That leads to... more.

It's real. I'm watching it happen in myself and others. Better eating leads to better physical care all around. Add strength training. Then yoga. That can lead to trying meditation. That can lead to more reflection (and less alcohol). Reflection can lead to resolve. Resolve leads to the next change of habit from bad to good. You get stronger and better. That gets even more addictive.

If you are the right kind of person (discipline is needed), one change — meatless Monday, joining a step class, or reading books for 30 minutes a day — can, as momentum builds, sweep you up and away. You might not recognize yourself a year later. (I experience that regularly these days. It's a little spooky, but also more than a little thrilling.)

You don't need some grand plan that feels overwhelming. In my experience, changes that provide rewards tend to point to the next obvious change, as if the changes are in control, and we are their willing followers.

When that happens, making change can become an ethos, a creed, a way of operating. It's like tinkering with your operating system. And because the ethos is there to fortify the changes, we are less likely to drop any one of them. We have invested them with meaning and purpose, the two critical elements often missing in people who are emotionally stuck in retirement.

In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg writes, at one point, about how change of habit can become ethos in organizations, and a tremendous ripple effect can ensue. An inspiring example is Alcoa, the aluminum company. A wise Alcoa executive set out to change not productivity, which needed improvement, but safety. And from a safety ethos cascaded all sorts of positive change, including improved productivity. Duhigg writes:

As Alcoa’s safety patterns shifted, other aspects of the company started changing with startling speed, as well. Rules that unions had spent decades opposing—such as measuring the productivity of individual workers—were suddenly embraced, because such measurements helped everyone figure out when part of the manufacturing process was getting out of whack, posing a safety risk. Policies that managers had long resisted—such as giving workers autonomy to shut down a production line when the pace became overwhelming—were now welcomed, because that was the best way to stop injuries before they occurred. The company shifted so much that some employees found safety habits spilling into other parts of their lives.

Good story. What's yours?

If you haven't yet tasted the momentum of positive change, know this: it will help fill both your post-work calendar and your abiding sense of well-being.

Unstuck, Step by Step

Here's another take on how steps in the right direction tend to lead to more steps, from Julia Cameron in her book, It's Never Too Late to Begin Again:

It is true that when we take a step, we then desire to take another step, then another. When we move into action, we gain self-esteem. We value our actions and we value ourselves for taking those actions. We feel a sense of our own power. We find ourselves guided and guarded. As we act in the direction of our dreams, we are given strength and courage. The first brush stroke leads to the second. The first word leads to the next. Our capacity to create is tied to our capacity for the faith and optimism it takes to begin. Our faith and optimism grow with every positive action, however small.


What are you practicing?

What's your retirement personality? (There are six.)