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Sorta Random Sunday: Is the Arrival Fallacy Actually Good for Everyone?!

A couple weeks ago for my Sorta Random Sunday post, I talked a bit about the arrival fallacy and if it could actually be a good thing for residents in training. My conclusion…yes, maybe. With a few conditions. Anyway, you can review the whole thing here.

What got me really happy though was the awesome discussion that followed on social media in our private Facebook group as well as online here on the blog.

Let’s check in on some of the comments!

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.

– Commenter #1

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.

– Commenter #2

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.

– Commenter #3

I love this! And it got me thinking…

Could the arrival fallacy actually be a good thing…like for everyone?

I’m going to start by saying that even thinking about this possibility made me a bit queasy. I think because of my own tortured experience with the arrival fallacy, well documented here.

But I can’t deny that, to my surprise, the overall response was that maybe the arrival fallacy could be used for good rather than evil.

arrival fallacy

So maybe I was the one being a bit harsh and rushing to categorize things as black and white?

To start, this will be a review for anyone who read last week’s post. But I think it’s important to include here so anyone new to the arrival fallacy concept so we are on the same page…

What is 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.

Ok, but can it actually be a good thing?

My argument for residents basically distills down to this: residency is tough and long. There aren’t a ton of redeeming things about it. So if the illusion of automatic happiness and fulfillment upon finishing it helps push you through the dark times, so be it.

Ultimately it’s not the most healthy coping mechanism. But if that is the difference between you not finishing training and you finishing training, maybe it’s worth it.

And the problem that I’ve been mentally confronting is that this though experiment can basically be extended to any circumstance…

  • In a job you hate because you think it will help you land a better job that will automatically make you happier? If the arrival fallacy helps push you through, so be it!
  • In a tough spot in a relationship and think making it to [insert milestone here] will make it better automatically? If the arrival fallacy helps push you through, what’s the harm?
  • Experiencing anxiety and think that accomplishing [insert goal here] will make it all better? If this phenomenon helps push you through, is that really bad?

I honestly really struggled thinking about this. And then I finally figure out why…

Arrival fallacy kills by 1,000 cuts

I made my examples really dramatic. But that is not always how life is. Each day, we make tons of micro decisions without even realizing it. And a lot of times these lead to problems. But the problems don’t show up on a macro scale until it’s often too late.

And that is what happens with the arrival fallacy.

In the short term, it’s maybe always that bad. Use it as a motivational tool. That’s not so dangerous. It’s like eating French fries. Once in awhile isn’t bad. But, it’s when this starts stacking into. habit (which only takes 66 days) and you can have a BIG problem. Especially when, again, you are making these decisions on an almost subconscious/micro level.

Because in the long term, arrival fallacy is, in fact, a huge problem. It eats at our happiness and even our self sufficient and autonomy. We start looking external for all validation, reward, happiness, and fulfillment. That’s a recipe for actually achieving none of those things. Trust me.

So, no. Arrival fallacy is not good for everyone. Or anyone. In the long term.

But what’s the solution?

I’m going to talk about the solution here as if it is some easy thing to do. But of course it is not.

My biggest fallacy was that everything would be better when I got the job that everyone told me I should get (traditional academic) and started climbing the ladder to professor. But this just isn’t what I wanted (or want now) in a holistic sense.

And it took me probably a year to shake free from its hold on me and its effect on me. No, the solution is not quick or easy.

But what is needed is to really do some pretty intense mindset work. To reflect and look internally. Which maybe we haven’t done for a long time. Explicitly determine your own values, goals, desires, likes, and dislikes. Write them down. Do this with others. For me it was my wife and family. It can even be a professional. Anyone that helps.

Then, your explicit chase and struggle for validation that never comes becomes an internal journey to fulfillment.

And I can assure that it is much more pleasant and effective that way!

And if you are bored with me talking about arrival fallacies…

What do you think? Can the arrival fallacy be good in any sense? If so, what is that sense? Have you experienced arrival fallacy? Let me know in the comments below!

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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].

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