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Sorta Random Sunday: Is Arrival Fallacy Good for Residents?

I recently heard an argument kind of like that one that I am going to make here. And let me say that while I make this argument, I’m not sure I agree with it…completely. The point in question here is this: Could the arrival fallacy phenomenon be good for residents in training?

The arrival fallacy

Arrival fallacy is the experience where we set a goal in the future and say, “when I achieve X or reach X, I will be happy/fulfilled/complete/etc.” And then when we reach it, we don’t feel how we expect.

Instead, we feel the same. Or maybe even worse because our expectations were not met. We want more.

And so we establish another goal or timeline or achievement to reach. And so the wheel turns.

The arrival fallacy for residents

I think we all can relate to the arrival fallacy phenomenon. In a lot of different ways. Big big and small.

arrival fallacy residents

But where we, as humans, are most susceptible to this is when we work towards a huge life changing milestone, accomplishment, or similar thing. And the end of residency training is a really huge milestone and accomplishment. And it is immensely life-changing. Our jobs change. Our income changes.And our responsibilities change.

It is the culmination of everything that we have worked for over a decade to accomplish. All with the expectation that it will pay off.

But guess what really happens at the end of residency?

Nothing. At least nothing like we except.

Yes, things change. We make more money, true. But we adapt to all these changes pretty quick. And there is no magic bullet. Ending residency will not innately make us happier. Or more fulfilled. Especially if our goal was purely extrinsic – just to finish residency and get out of that chaotic and grueling experience- rather than intrinsic.

How do I know all this. Because I experienced it!

I got toward the end of training and thought, “That’s it?!” I don’t know what I expected. But it was something. And it didn’t just come to me because I finished training. There was a lot more soul-searching and mindset work that needed to happen – and finally did.

As an aside, while the purpose of this post is not to go over some ways to avoid and overcome arrival fallacies, I will mention that finding your why is a great place to start.

Instead, we are talking about something else…

Could it actually be good for residents?

Seems like the obvious answer is no. But, in some ways, I think there can actually be a silver lining to it.

Because residency is tough. It’s long hours, little pay, general pretty thankless. It’s a breeding ground for burnout like happened to me.

Even for very resilient individuals, which I consider myself to be, training is a bear. There are days where you just don’t want to do it. Most residents have felt like quitting at some point. (Don’t get me wrong. There are great times in residency as well! But with all peaks come valleys.)

But in the end, many things help pull us through. Our family. Our friends. Hopefully our co-residents and attending mentors. Our faith or beliefs. Or our hobbies.

But another pretty powerful force pulls us through – the belief that things will get magically better when we finish. Also known as our arrival fallacy!

I can. certainly think of times where this notion and idea helped me to grind a bit longer, a bit harder…

But is that a good thing?

Ultimately, relying on an arrival fallacy that will ultimately fail you is not the healthiest way to deal with these challenges in training.

A much better way would be to do the upfront mindset work so that the end of training brings you the internal joy and satisfaction that you rightly deserve.

But, if it is a matter of not finishing training and becoming a doctor, and an arrival fallacy gets you through, I suppose that’s worth something!

What do you think? Could an arrival fallacy have some benefit for residents? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below!

And if you are looking to learn some of the healthy mindset (and financial habits) to avoid the arrival fallacy phenomenon, check out my Masterclass Webinar on The 12 Steps to Financial Freedom for Physicians here!

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    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected].

    5 thoughts on “Sorta Random Sunday: Is Arrival Fallacy Good for Residents?”

    1. One of my former leaders at my institution liked to call himself a “PGY 12, 13, 14,…” as the years went on. That was great! He created a mindset of medical educational as a continuous, rather than categorial value. I think it resonates with the expectations we create for the greener pastures after we complete training. I work with a physician in his 80s. It is mind-blowing for those of us in our practice with the “FIRE” mentality. I guess the “RE” part has nothing to do with stop our journey as physicians, but rather the ability to do things our way.

    2. Great post Jordan as always. I’ve always thought that we should create an answer to the arrival fallacy called the arrival reality. This would mean that when you become an attending, actually, the real work begins to maximize retirement accounts, paying off debt and saving more money for retirement.

    3. A lot of the frustration of residency is related to the awkward role of the resident (you are the MD seeing the patient, but not the attending making the final decisions; you think you know the answer/right thing to do, but you aren’t 100% sure, and don’t have the experience to be confident). Also, you are a doctor working long hours, and aren’t getting “doctor money.”

      Once you are the attending, some of these frustrations do go away. You are the boss, you are making “doctor money” (maybe more so in Plastic Surgery rather than IM). It’s just that you get to deal with other frustrations that you might have been shielded from.

      I think the arrival fallacy might be a good tool to get someone through residency, as long as they realize that getting rid of one set of frustations doesn’t mean they won’t have issues with the job ever again.


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