Change tend to provoke strong reactions in people. Those strong reactions can come not only from ourselves, but also from those around us who may experience some of the impact from a change we initiate. But when it comes to changes in our physical location, do we need to justify moving any more than we need to justify staying?
Recently, a few examples have come up that have got me thinking about the typical responses to moving. One of my favourite podcasts is The Minimalists, and on a recent episode they announced they’d be moving cities, from Missoula, Montana to Los Angeles, California. It’s a few states away, which is a fairly large physical distance (because America is so huge) and a significant cultural change from a smaller city to a large, sprawling coastal metropolis. They had sensibly predicted the questions that would arise from their listeners, and had a list of sensible reasons for the move. And of course, making a change involves some motivation to do so, and people will naturally be curious as to what prompted it. But one of the questions was simply: “why?” Which left me wondering, why don’t we tend to ask why people stay, but expect a carefully thought-out answer at the ready when asking why they’re going?
Another example was a friend who, like me, had also left her job recently. Because she’s amazing, she was offered a great job in another, very high profile city. What a rock star! And yet she said that instantly the well-meaning yet apprehensive comments and questions started flowing. If she’d stayed in her previous job, as unhappy and discontented as it was making her, no such flurry of questions would’ve been prompted. Of course, the people in our lives, or sometimes just interested observers, want to know our rationale behind a big change. They want to know that we’ll be ok, that we’ve thought it through. Even though rationally, there’s no inherent safety in staying the same, and both staying and going are choices we make, whether we actively acknowledge them as such or not.
Fear of change and loss aversion are powerful motivators. Loss aversion is the concept in behavioural economics that predicts that avoiding losses is a more powerful psychological motivator than pursuing gains. This isn’t entirely rational, especially if we risk too much in our attempt to avoid or recoup losses. I think this can go some way towards explaining why we might stay in a job, or a relationship, or a place, longer than we perhaps should. We’re hesitant to cut our losses, and afraid of losing what we already have. I’ve experienced this many times myself.
But what if we evaluated both staying and going as equally possible choices? And invited them to convince us of their merits a little more dispassionately? Well, for one thing, we might look at the cost/benefit analysis of each choice more honestly, rather than doing what I suspect comes more naturally: that is, to nitpick the perceived costs of change, and inflate the perceived benefits of inaction. In other words, maybe we should stop grasping to avoid losses when we may be missing out on potential gains slipping through our tightly closed fingers.
Opportunity costs exist either way
Another lens through which to examine the choice to stay or to go is to think in terms of opportunity cost. This is simply the concept that when one choice is made, the benefit of the choice not taken is the “cost” of that decision. But as we can never have both the choice we make and the forsaken alternative at once, opportunity cost is a fact of life, and we can’t let it paralyse us. And I think it’s helpful to remember that choosing to stay static carries its own opportunity cost. We don’t get to escape the unavoidable reality of opportunity cost by pretending we’re not actively making a choice.
Everything is a choice
I like to remind myself that everything is a choice. I chose to stay in Seattle perhaps longer than I really needed to be there, and it was in part because I’d convinced myself that change was too big, too difficult, too scary. But as individuals with agency, we are making choices every day. My goal is to be more intentional with my choices, and to fully own the risks and rewards of them. I chose to stay static when my heart was calling me to make a change. And now I’m choosing to work on creating a life that’s more in line with my values and how I want to spend my time.
I think being intentional about our choice of location is one of the most powerful tools available to us, but it comes with a lot of questioning and trepidation, both from within ourselves, and from those around us. One of the ways to soothe these fears is the stories we tell ourselves and each other; the ones that sound obvious when stated aloud, and yet are both necessary and true. We can always move back/go home/start over if we hate it/fall flat on our face/*insert other worst-case here. All of those things remain both necessary and true if we stay in one place as well, of course. We’ll face moving/changing/starting over in one guise or another, whether we embrace it or run from it. But it still feels good to say it before making a change, even one we sought and crafted intentionally.
So that’s what I’d say to The Minimalists in advance of their move, and what I remind myself before making big moves of my own. And yes, we’ll still need those carefully crafted answers to the inevitable questions that will arise. But perhaps we can comfort ourselves, at least, with the help of some behavioural economics.