CHANGE: Desperation as the Great Motivator

Writer/photojournalist Eleanor Foa Dienstag, who reviews books for us, sent us this response to our recent “March Challenge,” in which we urged our readers to find ways to bring some change—however minimal—into their lives.


IMG_3052“Manhattan,” by Eleanor Foa Dienstag (Courtesy of the artist,


“Misery drove me to quit my job: I felt as if I were on a cliff and had to jump.”

When it comes to big changes in one’s life, I believe that desperation is the great motivator. Maybe I’m more reluctant to change than most, but it’s certainly been true for me that profound unhappiness has pushed me—after days, weeks, and months of passivity, anxiety, resistance, and clinging to old ways—to take a leap that, ultimately, has led to personal and professional transformation.

When I moved to a new city with two infants and a husband consumed by his own problems. I had no friends. Half mad with loneliness, I went to the phone book and, desperate, my hands shaking, began to make cold calls to every print publication in town. Eventually, and unexpectedly, that resulted in a great job as a local cultural reporter, which led to, among other things, expanding my social network and getting to know the most interesting people in town.

A decade later, back in New York, I found myself in a job that, financially, I desperately needed but, after five years, desperately loathed. Misery drove me to come up with a new professional path that, though risky, was well thought out, and ultimately worked. I’ve been a freelancer ever since. I’ve never regretted my move, but could only make it when, emotionally, I felt as if I were on a cliff and had to jump.

When I stopped smoking (after ending my marriage—probably the most difficult change I ever made), at the suggestion of our Smokenders’ teacher, I joined a gym. Believe me, I was desperate to distract myself and fill my lungs with something other than nicotine. One gym led to another and—who could have foreseen it?—33 years later, having discovered that aerobic exercise produces a natural high and keeps my waist trim— I’m still going to a gym, and exploring new types of exercise classes all the time.

As you can see, I’m not one of those people who plot out the future, and to be honest, I don’t understand people who do. (You know the kind of people I mean. They make lists—bucket and otherwise.) I simply follow my interests and, when I’m bored enough or angry enough or feel stuck enough in my life, move in a new direction with those interests and see where they land me.

These days, everyone knows that, more than in any other time in history, we are living in a world of constant and rapid technological change. Moving from the typewriter to the word processor to the PC to my iMac has enabled me to earn a living. These were not changes I wanted to make, but had to make to stay financially afloat. But other technological changes have been more volitional.

My lifelong interest in photography led me, a number of years ago, to tackle the emerging world of digital photography. I remember the moment I took my first digital photograph and saw the image vividly light up the monitor on the back of my small Canon camera. It was, as the French call it, un coup de foudre, a mad, unexpected, falling-in-love moment that I could never have plotted or foreseen. It has turned into a late-life passion that still has me in its grip, and that I suspect will continue to lead me down new paths—and changes—in my life.

Yet—let me be frank—I adore routine. When I’m away on a wonderful vacation or visiting my children or on a business trip, there is a part of me that can’t wait to return home. To what? To my routine. To the small habits that give me comfort, from my own shower and bed to my morning cup of coffee with The New York Times to simply being alone in my cocoon, and at rest. I’m amazed by friends who move apartments, houses, and cities every few years, by those who naturally and exuberantly seek change in their lives. I’m not one of them. But I do know, as I did not in my younger years, that being open to change—trying new things, big and little—is the key to staying alive to the world, to remaining youthful in spirit, to embracing new people and opportunities that come one’s way. Actually, it’s the real fountain of youth.

Kickboxing, anyone?


Leave a Reply to Amber

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  • Amber November 23, 2015 at 5:51 am

    If we didn’t take risk and chances in life what would life’s purpose be? suppose we lived our own personal crazy life so far with accounting everything that’s happened so far but could you imagine how many choices that could have led each of our paths differently?Its crazy to just imagine that to me.I could only imagine my perfect image of life differently and imagine how it would it have been if we did the little things that mattered to ourselves instead of always wondering how to appease others.Life would be so blissful if it was like that and everyone had a respect for eachother as they were taught growing up.I would only imagine that smiles would be seen everywhere.People always take more chances in life when happy and don’t have so much to loose.

  • Colleen Youngblut March 14, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Great essay Eleanor. Change can often trigger fear but shouldn’t. I have learned to trust that all change has a purpose – my life is following a path that is exactly how it is supposed to be.

  • Diane Dettmann March 14, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Eleanor, your essay made me think about the big changes I’ve made in my life. Many of them were triggered by negative circumstances, but ultimately altered my life in a very positive way. I like a balance of routine and change. Time for my daily walk-run. Happy kickboxing!