Extreme change is easier

This last week I ran across a TED video about a couple who had a house full of stuff and $18,000 in debt. They sold all their stuff except what could fit in a couple bags and went backpacking in Australia.

Good for them for having the courage to make a big change. I am impressed, but I’d be more impressed if they had sold their new home and moved into another one 20 years older and half the size.

It’s easier to get rid of all your stuff than half your stuff. If you get rid of all your stuff, you’re deciding to hire other people to meet your needs. You can get rid of your house if you’re willing to rent your shelter from hotels. You can get rid of your pots and pans if you’re willing to pay restaurants to prepare your food with their pots and pans. You can get rid of your car if you’re willing to pay a cab driver to take you everywhere you need to go. Moving into a smaller home, with fewer pots and pans, and selling one of your two cars may be harder.

I don’t know whether these folks are still living as tourists. But if they haven’t bought another house yet, they probably will some day, though maybe one much smaller than their first house. The sequence

large house -> no house -> small house

may be easier than

large house -> small house.

Extreme change is often easier than moderate change, for better or for worse. Extreme change can be more impressive, so people who sell everything get invited to talk at TED, whereas people who cut their living expenses by 20% and slowly pay off their debts get 30 seconds on the Dave Ramsey Show. People who sacrifice to achieve their goals slowly while maintaining their responsibilities are less impressive at first glance, but more impressive after more thought.

Extreme change can also be temporary. Lottery winners go bankrupt. People on starvation diets end up heavier than ever. One extreme change can lead to another extreme change in the opposite direction.

However, you can also use the ease of extreme change to your advantage. The book Change or Die is all about making extreme changes wisely. (The book grew out of this article.) Radical change requires fewer decisions, and leads to encouraging results sooner. Along those lines, I love the story of Eric Coyle, a mediocre student who suddenly became extremely motivated and took up to 64 credit hours in a semester.

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10 thoughts on “Extreme change is easier

  1. Great point, and something to think about.

    Another example of this: programmers working on old code. There’s this idea that it’s easier to simply delete all the contents of a method or class and just start from scratch than making smaller, incremental changes to the existing code. I’ve done this, and I’m sure many programmers have at least contemplated doing this at some point.

  2. I find it difficult to reconcile the numbers for Eric Coyle to get a 3.70 GPA after 3 years getting a 2.57 GPA.

    Using numbers from the NYT article, Eric Coyle was expected to graduate with 340+H credit hours and a GPA of 3.70, where H is the “more to come after summer school.” His extreme motivation started “three-and-a-half years” into his 6 year program, when his GPA was 2.57. “Most students juggle 15 a semester, graduating with a total 124”, so if we assume that he was average then he would have had around 109 credit hours, assuming spring semester was his last semester.

    I wanted to solve for his GPA during the other ~2.5 years. It’s a bit complicated by the unknown hours (H) from the remaining summer semester. Use GP1=109 hours*2.57 GPA to be his total grade points in the first 3.5 years, and (GP1+GP2) = (340 hours+H)*3.70 GPA to give GP2= 607.87 grade points if H=0. But that can’t be the case since his GPA would have to be 4.23.

    UNLV uses a 4.0 system. Assuming a 4.0 GPA for X hours after the first 109 hours gives X=410 hours of highly dedicated work, so H=70 hours to take over summer. That’s more hours than he took in the spring semester.

    It’s more likely that he did his internship during summer before his final year, and started the fall with renewed dedication. 96 hours at a 2.57 GPA implies that he only needs X=362 hours at a 4.0 to get a 3.7, so H=22 hours, which is much more believable.

    Other details make this calculation more complicated. For example, some schools will let you retake a class, at least if you got a D, and let you use the higher score.

    BTW, the numbers reported in http://www.csmonitor.com/1998/0421/042198.feat.feat.8.html are “His grade point average now is 3.9. But in his first four years he managed just 2.56 by the fall of 1996.” There must be a counting error there, since most people start school in fall and end in spring, after 4 years. That should likely be “first three years”, and 3.9 must refer to his semester average, and not his overall GPA. But if he averages a 3.9 instead of a 4.0 then X=542 hours. Even one semester with a 3.9 GPA greatly increases the time needed to get a 3.70.

  3. Thank you, I particularly appreciated this post as a person that frequently weighs the pro and cons of selling it all immediately to live a dream, or making the incremental plans to gradually ease into a different life.

    Currently I am situated that I am able to forge a slower path. Aware that circumstances could change at any moment due to health issues or loss of job, I still, for the time being, have chosen to go slow.

    And you are correct, the media tends to focus on the sensational changes people make, and not so much on those of us that choose to trudge the road of slow to moderate modifications in order to experience our goals and dreams. I have not yet read the book, Change or Die. However, I am going to now check it out. Thank you again for the insightful conversation.

  4. Nancy Sathre-Vogel

    I love Adam Baker – he’s a friend of ours and a really great guy. Yes, some could argue that it’s easier to get rid of it all than it is to cut down – and in some ways that is absolutely true.

    We are the family Ben referred to above – a family of four who decided to rent out our house, put everything in storage, and hit the road to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina. Together as a family we spent three years cycling 17,300 miles through fifteen countries.

    The whole time we were on the road, we knew we still had our house back home and fully expected to move back into it. However, by the time came, we realized that house (at 2000 sq feet) was too big for us. We left the tenants in that house and bought another, smaller, home (1100 sq feet). Now, my husband and I and our 2 teenage sons are living in the small home just fine.

    The funny thing is that it really doesn’t matter how much space you have – you will expand to fill it. If you’ve got 5000 sq feet, you’ll fill it. If you’ve got 1000, you’ll fill that.

  5. Nancy: I looked at your family’s web site after Ben linked to it. What you’re doing sounds great.

    And I agree that the current tendency in America is to fill every square foot of one’s home, whether it’s 1000 square feet or 5000 square feet. There’s also a tendency to spend every dollar one earns, no matter how much that is. In fact there’s a tendency to use more than 100% of your space by renting storage and more than 100% of your income by taking on debt.

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