Home Mindset When Does This Game Get Good?  (Arrival Fallacy and my Yale Reunion)

When Does This Game Get Good?  (Arrival Fallacy and my Yale Reunion)

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In this post, I reflect on my 20th Yale reunion, where I saw arrival fallacy running rampant. Next, some analysis and solutions.

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The Yale Reunion

I recently attended my 20th year college reunion.  By all objective measures, it was fantastic.  I saw dozens of old friends, consumed an impressive amount of beverages, and sang the Whiffenpoof Song with my college a capella group.  

I went to the event by myself and took advantage of my freedom to stay at the main reception until midnight. Afterwards, I set out with some friends on an extended walk around campus.  As we strolled around, we relived memories and poked around our old dormitories and residential colleges.

The next day, I vanquished my hangover with ibuprofen and coffee then flew straight from Connecticut to Ohio to start another week of locum tenens work as a urologic surgeon.  Inexplicably, I found myself moping around the hospital, feeling downright morose.    

Read more: My Hiatus from Medicine: 3 Eye-Opening Revelations

The Malaise

When I complained about my malaise to my wife, she pointed out that the same thing happened to me after the Yale reunion I attended a few years prior.    

“OG” readers of the blog might recall a post from 2019 after a similar reunion event, where I counted the number of times I’d get to see most of my old friends before we were all in the grave.  (It was about 10 times.)

Read more: Detours on the Road to Financial Independence

It took a few days, but the reunion funk lifted and now I’m back to my usual even-keel mood.  But as I reflect on my experience, I can’t help but wonder why my 20th reunion had such a negative effect on my mood. 

The excessive alcohol consumption and sleep deprivation at the reunion probably didn’t help my mood, since these are both contributors to depression.  However, I think there’s something deeper at play here.  I think it comes down to the pervasive feeling of arrival fallacy that I sensed from many of my college friends.

Arrival Fallacy

According to psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” 

As a medical professional, I’m intimately familiar with arrival fallacy.  The start-stop, punishing nature of medical training relies on arrival fallacy.  For many residents, it’s one of the only things that sustains them through the 80+ hour work weeks and stress of training.  

But as many attending physicians have discovered, the euphoria of graduating residency quickly fades under the harsh light of hospital employment, insurance prior authorizations, and patient complaints.

Here are some other examples of arrival fallacy:

  • Our marriage will be better once we have a child
  • I’ll enjoy being a lawyer when I make partner
  • I’ll feel secure when I make my first million dollars
  • I’ll feel like a successful real estate investor when I accumulate 100 units

In all of these examples, there is implied discontent with the present, with the hopes of happiness or satisfaction in the future after the achievement of some arbitrary goal.

Arrival Fallacy in the Ivy League

As I reconnected with old friends at my Yale reunion, it was amazing to see the variety of lives represented.  Many had become doctors and lawyers.  There was also a smattering of entrepreneurs, tech workers, creative types, and more than a few college professors.  

With 20 years of career development under their belts, it seemed like almost everyone had made it to career stability.  But behind this stability, I often sensed the discontent characteristic of arrival fallacy. Although we left it unasked, the unspoken question seemed to be:  Is this all there is to life?  

This was a sharp contrast to the conversations I had as an undergrad, 20 years ago.  With single digit acceptance rates, my fellow Yale students represented the cream of the crop.  For some, they were the shining embodiment of the hopes and dreams of their parents.  The world was their oyster, with all the allure of unlimited potential and adventure.

But after two decades, almost everyone at Yale had “made it.”  They got the career and they have the kids.  And for people used to delayed gratification, the big question then becomes:  what’s next?

When Does This Game Get Good?

I was hoping to see my college friends and be inspired by their tales of unending optimism, energy, and growth.  But most of what I heard were echoes of the arrival fallacy with which I’m all too familiar from my discussions with hundreds of physicians over the years.  

For those of my fellow Yalies struggling with the aftermath of arrival fallacy, I can commiserate.  It was only a couple of years into my career as an attending urologic surgeon that I felt the strange lassitude of achievement.  I was good at my job.  I had the wife, the kids, and the house.  But, lacking the next obvious goal, I felt strangely adrift.  

I replaced the goals provided by medical training with financial goals, and embarked on a journey to financial independence.  This turned into a new goal of building a real estate empire, which is still ongoing.

But along the way, I realized that I was asking myself the wrong questions.  Asking yourself “when does this game get good” buys into the false promises of arrival fallacy.  

Read more:

Gratitude, Growth, Contribution, and Connection

Instead of just wandering around in search of the next goal, I think I’ve had a glimpse of a better path forward.  It’s a mixture of the following elements:

It’s been a slow and steady transition, but as I emerge on the other side of the recent seismic upheavals of my career and life, I feel less and less beholden to the allure of arrival fallacy. I’m much more able to see my day to day as the reward, as opposed to only serving as the road to some eventual achievement.

I’ve been very fortunate, both in my family and finances, which allows me more room in my life for the luxury of self-reflection. I know that the world isn’t all sunshine and palm trees, but I can also recognize now that happiness and contentment exist in the mind.

So to my college friends, I wish you luck. As we discussed, we’re middle aged now. If you’re looking for a mid-life crisis, might I suggest FIRE? It’s as good as any other crisis. But I can now see that even financial independence isn’t a cure-all for dissatisfaction.

The real secret is that with ingredients like gratitude, growth, contribution and connection, the game of life is good right now, and will only get better.

Keep in touch y’all.

– The Darwinian Doctor   


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14 comments

ed kim June 6, 2023 - 10:34 am

Nice post. It is difficult though with a lot of messages to focus on goals and achievement.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 6, 2023 - 1:22 pm

Thanks Ed! There are certainly a lot of distractions in our day to day lives. Social media is a scourge, but I’m as addicted as the rest of them.

Or is this a nice way of saying I send too many emails? 😉

Reply
Mariko June 8, 2023 - 7:03 pm

Yale class of ’14 here 😉
Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord. I think that is the answer for the feelings that our own success with make us happy.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 9, 2023 - 7:53 am

Boola boola! Thanks for the comment!

Reply
Billy Chu June 10, 2023 - 7:10 am

one of my favorite DD posts. This topic has been more and more on my mind (especially after reading “Die with Zero”). George’s advice to me on the matter is to enjoy the journey. Miss you, brotha.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 11, 2023 - 10:52 am

Thanks a lot Billy, miss you all too! George clearly has some valuable wisdom on this topic, though I wonder what if Linda completely agrees?

Reply
IM-PCP June 10, 2023 - 1:34 pm

I don’t get depressed after college reunions for your reasons. I just have a great time, enjoy visiting with old friends, and feel nostalgic for a week or so. I always start thinking about moving back to my old college town (not New Haven!)

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 11, 2023 - 10:53 am

I’m hoping that next reunion I’ll be able to achieve this mindset. Maybe it’s the nostalgia that doesn’t agree with me?

Reply
CMAC June 11, 2023 - 8:28 am

I think trying to fulfill expectations (self, peer-group, society) and comparison to others insidiously leads to the desire for more and the loss of gratitude for what we currently have. Many of us are tremendously successful by world standards yet not happy. Pay off debts, save for the future, and release the shackles that we have put on ourselves and go live life free of expectations and comparisons.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 11, 2023 - 10:50 am

Wise words! I’ll get there someday.

Reply
Donald Lurye, MD June 20, 2023 - 6:49 pm

Ever wonder why seemingly wildly successful celebrities are so often miserable? Our author just told us.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 22, 2023 - 10:02 pm

Thanks!

Reply
Kent June 21, 2023 - 5:24 am

Thanks for the article. My thoughts echo those of many notable spiritual gurus, prophets, sages, and religious traditions over time. Pursuit of worldly achievements (status, money, possessions, image, power, etc) will not bring you happiness or contentment. Lasting peace and joy come from connectedness to spirit, deep personal connections to those around you, humility, gratitude, generosity, a love for others and willingness to serve.

Reply
The Darwinian Doctor June 22, 2023 - 10:04 pm

Well said!

Reply

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Dr. Daniel Shin

Dr. Daniel Shin

I’m Dr. Daniel Shin, a surgeon, investor, and educator on a mission to fast-track your financial freedom. From a $300,000 debt to a diverse investment portfolio, I’m now just years away from financial independence. Ready to join me on this journey? Let’s go!

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