How to Overcome the Arrival Fallacy

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Wherever you are, the goal post is always 10 yards down the field. If you develop a mindset “If I just accomplish ___, THEN I’ll arrive,” you are in for a rude awakening. There is no arriving. The sooner you realize this, the better.

The Arrival Fallacy was first coined by the behavioral scientist Tal Ben-Shahar. It describes the commonly held illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, whatever it may be, we will achieve lasting happiness and fulfillment. But this simply is not true. We are wired to want more—it’s the result of millennia of evolution, of living amidst scarcity for most of our species’ collective history. We are suckers for the chase and struggle to be content, at least for any significant duration, with the reward. In neuroscience terms, our “wanting” drive is more powerful than our “liking” drive.

Once we are aware of the arrival fallacy we ought to do everything we can to find happiness, fulfillment, and energy in the process of pursuing our goals instead of having such lofty expectations about what will happen when we do (or don’t) attain them. In his memoir From the Outside, the NBA basketball superstar Ray Allen wrote that after winning his first NBA championship, “As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty… I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.”

People often confuse this with saying that goals do not matter. To be clear, this is not what I am saying at all, and I don’t think it’s what Allen was saying either. Goals do matter! Firstly, they define the paths and processes we will undertake. Secondly, it does feel good to achieve a goal that you’ve worked for. The trap, however, is thinking that it’s the achievement of a goal that will provide lasting satisfaction instead of realizing that what provides lasting satisfaction is how you spend your time and energy, day-in and day-out.

Another way to think of it is this: Win a gold medal, you are on the stand for three minutes, and perhaps celebrating for a few weeks. Get a big promotion, great! If you are lucky you hear the news on a Friday, which means you get two days to do nothing but feel good before you’ve got to get back to doing the actual work. Hit the New York Times bestseller list and toast to your success, maybe even frame it and put it on the wall. But starring at a cut-out from a newspaper, however comfy the chair, eventually gets boring, if not irritating. What these examples, along with so many others, demonstrate is that it’s the pursuit and not the attainment where we spend the vast majority of our lives.

In ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top. There are many interpretations of this, but I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for striving. Instead of focusing squarely on the goal, we’d be wise to focus equally, if not more, on the paths that we want to walk and how we go about walking them. This is a big part of what practicing groundedness is all about.

Brad

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