A couple of weeks ago a great friend and mentor of mine shared a New York Times article with me that introduced formal words to a familiar concept. Arrival fallacy is the notion that we delude ourselves into believing we’ll be happier once future goals have been accomplished. This is something that I felt in my professional career, financial situations, and in my own athletic achievements.
When I first started running I signed up for a marathon and I swear that I didn’t know it was 26.2 miles. Don’t get me wrong. I knew a marathon was far. But as a beginner, what did it matter if it was 20 or 26 miles? My first marathon was a slog-fest. It was an unusually cold day in November in Texas and I started in the back of the pack. I was 24 and jogging alongside retired women. I came in at 5 hours 26 minutes or somewhere around 12 minutes 26 seconds per mile. I worked hard over the next few years, got a coach, ran a few more races, and got my time down to 2 hours 59 minutes or 6 minutes 51 seconds per mile. I was incredibly proud to make that progression over three years. But honestly, I was just as happy with my 5 hour marathon as I was my 3 hour. The happiness came from the journey and not the destination. But about the time things got really serious with running, I got injured. I was supposed to run the 2013 Boston Marathon and all races since felt a bit empty.
It’s much easier to avoid arrival fallacy in terms of hobbies than our professional careers. Hobbies can be choices that come and go. Our professional lives are often more closely tied to our identities. And if we work incredibly hard on becoming a thing, then become that thing, we need to be critical of what we actually accomplished.
Some words of advice that contradicts a majority of what I write about but addresses the elephant in the room:
- If more money isn’t going to solve any problems, then you aren’t going to be any happier. According to a Purdue University study “we find that satiation occurs at $95,000 for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being. However, there is substantial variation across world regions, with satiation occurring later in wealthier regions.” If the promotion or new job is just more icing on the cake, you’ll realize that you don’t need more sugar on your cake. If the new money allows you to pay off debts faster, solve stressful situations, or allow you to actually have an emergency savings fund, then yes, money will change your life. And that’s a beautiful thing. But if you’re fortunate enough to have an end in sight, once it changes your life and the debt is paid off, your life will level set and you’ll default to something like “I heard something once about the two happiest days of someone’s life are when you buy a boat and.. well, um.. I can’t remember how it ends. Let’s go buy a boat.”
- You are not your career. Americans love to ask people, “So Sam, what do you do?” It’s no wonder we get excited at our new jobs and get to tell people what we now “do”. But any new title or career pivot will have its own arrival fallacy and we’ll think, “I worked so hard for this promotion and all I got were new business cards.” I’ve made it a personal quest to not ask people about their careers and instead ask “So what’s your deal? What do you like to do?” You might be a VP of Sales but the fact that you wake up at 4 am every day to do jiu jitsu is actually the topic of conversation I want to discuss. “So what happens if you get choked out before work?”
- Changing your circumstance isn’t going to automatically change your happiness. My favorite manager taught me a thought exercise that I will briefly summarize. Circumstances are the events that occur around us. They’re true statements. We can’t change them. However, we are not immune to them and they do cause a reaction in us. And that’s when we can start to take control of what happens next. In short, our mental process to evaluate a circumstance will lead to a result that reinforces our thoughts. It’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy concept. The reason it’s relevant here is that if you are unhappy with circumstances in your job and a new job completely changes the circumstances (ie a toxic work environment), then you’ll most likely arrive at your new place and not look back. It’s not arrival fallacy. It’s improving your life. But, if the negative things you want to change are actually stemming from your own thoughts, feelings, actions, and results, then you’ll land back in the same place- finding ways to spin circumstances against you. This is where it’s important to do an audit of the things you want to be different.
Knowing what you’re aiming for and being aware that more money, bigger titles, or new environments may not equate to happiness is critical to well, happiness. At various points in the last 3 years, while walking our dogs and planning our life, my wife and I would make casual references to what would be our next step once our careers “took off”. We never really talked about how we’d know when that was. A month ago we used that phrasing again and my wife stopped us.
“We’ve already taken off. Let’s just take some time to enjoy it.”
Knowing the arrival fallacy is just as important as simply knowing you’ve arrived. We’ve created a culture of constantly setting goals and convincing ourselves that if we aren’t struggling or punishing ourselves then we aren’t growing. But that’s a post for next week.