Illustration for an article on why we need to reassess what we think of as success
August 6, 2019 by Mark Brownlee

The arrival fallacy: Why it’s time to redefine what we think of as success

The Super Bowl is, in many ways, the pinnacle of American sport.

Millions of Americans tune in every February to watch the game. Thousands more compete at the elementary, high school and college levels just to get a sniff at the National Football League. Only a select few make it, let alone stick around long enough to develop a career. Even fewer reach the rarified air that comes with being a quarterback for the Super Bowl winning team.

So what did Aaron Rodgers – having overcome years of setbacks, doubters and even boos from his own fans – feel after winning the Super Bowl in 2011 with the Green Bay Packers?

It wasn’t gratification or satisfaction or anything else that we typically associate with achievement.

It was a void – a realization that he was, in the words of the reporter to whom he told his story, still looking for something “beyond his current line of sight.”

“When you achieve that and there’s not this rung – you know, another rung to climb up in this ladder – it’s natural to be like, ‘OK, now what?'” said Rodgers.

Not many of us ever achieve what Rodgers has. But most believe the same thing he did: That achievement and fulfillment is an end point, a plateau that we reach, a goal fulfilled. That’s why, the thinking goes, we devote so many hours of hard work and sacrifice – so we can look back at all the effort we put in and say “yes, this was worth it.”

The reality is far more unexpected, inconvenient and – yes – fulfilling.

The problem with “success”

This notion – that fulfilling our goals doesn’t equal happiness – now has a name.

The “arrival fallacy” is the term given to the illusion that, in the words of the expert who coined the term, “once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.”

It’s an affliction that finds its ultimate expression in those who reach the apex of the most respected and sought-after positions. It’s why the actor who played the lead character Jon Snow on the TV show Game of Thrones immediately checked himself into rehab after the show’s eight-season run concluded.

But it’s not just high-achievers. It can be found in almost any strata of society. For example: It’s why professors who fail to reach the peak of their profession – tenure – report similar levels of happiness to those who do, according to a study. It’s why sports fans frequently overestimate how much a big victory for their team will bring them happiness.

And that includes those of us in the marketing world.

We all chase bigger deals, higher metrics, more senior positions. The relationships we develop along the way, the jobs we receive and then quickly move on from for bigger and better ones, the companies we drift in and out of – all of them are considered to be stepping stones on the way to our end goals.

A significant part of this is our own ego. We feel that to validate ourselves and feel self-worth we need to have something to show for it, to be able to point to a job, a trophy or a revenue total as proof that “see, I knew I could do it all along.”

We think it will bring us happiness, fulfillment.

But in reality it brings us what Aaron Rodgers felt after winning the Super Bowl: A longing for something more.

The question is: Where do we find it?

Reassessing success

All that the Super Bowl is to football, the NCAA national championship is to college basketball. Every year hundreds of teams from across the United States compete to take part in March Madness, the single knockout tournament that crowns a national college basketball champion.

Winning one would be the highlight of most coaches’ careers. Winning two in a row, which Billy Donovan did as head coach of the Florida Gators, is almost unheard of.

The problem?

“It doesn’t change your life one bit,” said Donovan in a recent interview.

“After that experience was over with, I was depressed,” said Donovan. “I lost sight of what it’s all about.”

So if it’s not about winning championships, what does the arrival fallacy tell us about achievement?

It teaches us that we need to redefine how we consider success.

It means that achievement isn’t an end point or a plateau to be reached, but the journey of how we got there.

It means that celebrating what you can achieve together is far more important than gathering credit for what you feel you’ve accomplished on your own.

It means that the sacrifices you make along the way may never be worth the end point you may, or may not, reach at some point in the future.

“At the end of the day, if it’s all about the ring and the trophy, you lose the most valuable thing and it’s the group of people and the relationships that are established of people working together to accomplish something they couldn’t accomplish on their own,” said Donovan.

The arrival fallacy breathes new life into the humdrum notion that life is about a journey, not a destination.

It’s time we in the marketing world – and everyone, really – started acknowledging that.

Mark Brownlee is a digital marketing strategist in Ottawa, Canada.

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