Something Even Better | A Coaching Podcast

Arrival fallacy: The curse of the unhappy achiever

January 03, 2022 Stacie Mitchell Season 3 Episode 7
Something Even Better | A Coaching Podcast
Arrival fallacy: The curse of the unhappy achiever
Show Notes Transcript

Are your big goals just making you miserable? The “too long, didn’t listen” answer? Probably! 

Listen in as Stacie dives into the research on:

  • Arrival fallacy, summit syndrome, and why so many of us are unhappy achievers
  • The negative effects of goal setting and why some goals are bad
  • Why so many of us are stuck being unhappy achievers
  • How to stop being an unhappy achiever and enjoy your life as it is right now

Head over to the blog to find more resources and research on arrival fallacy, summit syndrome, and “unhappy achiever syndrome” (which I just made up y’all in case you try to go searching for it elsewhere). 

And sign up for my private podcast episode where I teach you a simple coaching exercise that helps you figure out what you really, really want.

We’re now watching the entirety of the sitcom Frasier for the second time in my house. If you’re younger and you’ve never watched, it’s a great choice for feel-good situational comedy, which I think all of us need more of right now.

But one of the reasons I think I enjoy watching it so much is that I can see myself so clearly in both Frasier and his brother Niles. And while I don’t love wine or fancy food or even the opera, I do love psychiatry and psychology and honestly, their goals of being the absolute best, which makes me feel a bit weird to say. I also love a good spa and massage experience.

Recently I watched an episode where Frasier intercepts a very exclusive invite to a fancy private spa. Basically, he commits mail fraud by stealing this invite from his neighbor, but we won’t dive deep into that. 

The point is that Frasier and his brother Niles use this invite to get themselves into an exclusive, invitation-only spa and they are LOVING their experience. They’re raving about the treatments as they’re checking out and scheduling themselves for their next visit. That is, until they see a senator entering a special code to get into an even more exclusive gold level of the spa, because as it turns out, Frasier and Niles had only experienced the silver level.

You can probably guess what happens next: they immediately start wanting an invite to the gold level. They become obsessed with it, trying to think of ways to get in. Luckily, their friend Roz knows the senator they spotted and gets them an invite. 

Cut to Frasier and Niles enjoying the “relaxation grotto” of the gold level of the spa and how it’s “just like paradise”, until Frasier notices a platinum door. He makes his way over to take a peek, but an employee stops him from entering.

But as soon as the employee is out of sight, he and Niles run for the door and into the brightest warmest light they’ve ever seen...until they find themselves surrounded by dumpsters in a back alley.

Turns out, there was no platinum level. It was only an illusion that there was something behind that door that could make them happier.

I share this story because it’s the perfect example of arrival fallacy. 

And if anything, the show Frasier is centered around being an unhappy achiever. Frasier and Niles love each other, while also constantly trying to be better than the other -- or anyone else for that matter. But they never seem content to just BE. They’re always striving for more. More status, more recognition, more luxury...but they’re never actually happy for very long.

That’s why today, I’m digging into arrival fallacy, summit syndrome, why they makes us unhappy achievers, and the sometimes negative effects of goal setting.

Buckle up, y’all.

What is arrival fallacy and summit syndrome and why are they both so important for the unhappy achiever?

First, Arrival fallacy is the thought trap that most unhappy achievers get stuck in. 

You’ve heard me talk about the hedonic treadmill, which basically means that no matter what happens in our lives - good or bad - we return to a fairly steady state of happiness, but even so, we keep chasing the next thing anyway. We get stuck on a treadmill going nowhere.

Arrival fallacy is why; it’s the false belief that once we accomplish “x” -- get the dream job, grow a successful business, quit our jobs, get a puppy, run that marathon, win that award, whatever future goal we set -- we’ll finally be happy for good. We’ll feel content. We’ll feel like it’s finally enough. That we can relax and enjoy our lives.

But there’s a reason why it’s called a fallacy: it doesn’t actually work, we just THINK it works. 

We think we just need to hit one more goal to finally feel satisfied. But our human brains just don’t work that way in reality. 

At the bottom of this arrival fallacy, there’s this idea of “I’ll be happy when…”, so much so that we are never able to be happy with our present moment. 

We are always thinking of the next thing, sometimes even before we’ve finished the goal we’re currently working to achieve!

And summit syndrome is the term for high achievers which describes the crash and burn that tends to happen after you reach your big personal summit -- whether that’s a successful business launch or running a marathon or publishing your book. It describes the emptiness that can come after putting all of your energy and passion into one big goal and reaching it. 

What happens when you reach the huge goal, the big summit? Especially when you’ve put everything -- all of your energy and your time -- into it? Potentially for years? That’s when summit syndrome happens. You’ve suddenly lost your purpose.

And that’s because you believed this big achievement would change your life forever. But if you listened to my podcast about why you’re never happy in any job, the high of an achievement just doesn’t last very long. We have that happiness set point that we revert back to, and people move on with their lives.

And while we can do things to help bring that set point up slightly - like meditating, practicing gratitude, and being more present and mindful - most of us don’t because we don’t believe those things actually work, we believe the fallacy instead. And so we become unhappy achievers, always chasing the next big goal in the hopes that the contentment and satisfaction will stick this time.

But what’s interesting too is that we change as we get closer to the goals we’ve set. It’s not just that we recalibrate to big changes, like winning the lottery or getting a new job, fairly quickly. We also recalibrate along the way to accomplishing our goals. So what we thought would make this huge, life altering shift for us, can end up being a tiny blip by the time we actually make the goal happen. This is especially true for goals that take long periods of time to accomplish. 

And so even along the way to reaching a huge life-long goal, and seeing your success is close, you start searching for the next big goal, because the excitement has already worn off.

Why are so many of us stuck being unhappy achievers?

I find this question so interesting because the arrival fallacy tends to plague me constantly. I’m an Enneagram 3, literally “The Achiever”, and my husband always points out that my brain is constantly finding new goals for me. 

It’s incredibly difficult for me NOT to be thinking of what I want to accomplish next, and sometimes I’ll be deep into a 5 year plan, when I really want to be taking in the beautiful scenery on one of our hikes together.

My husband can just look at me and see it on my face, y’all. “Earth to Stacie!” You know?

And I’ve learned that I’m someone who has to be very intentional about slowing down and making sure that my goals are actually right for me, that I’m going after them for the right reasons and not to calm my own anxiety or feed my ego or make me think I will actually be happy after I accomplish them.

Now I know for sure there’s someone out there saying, “But wait a minute...if my goals won’t ever make me happy, why should we have any goals at all?”

It’s an interesting question to ponder, and that’s why I have to be so intentional. I have to ask myself fairly constantly what I expect to receive from my goals.

I have to ask myself questions like:

  • What is my deeper why here? 
  • What do I think I’m going to get from accomplishing this goal? 
  • Will I enjoy the process of getting to the goal? 
  • And if not, what do I think the payoff will be when I reach the goal? 
  • And is that payoff actually true for me? 
  • Is this goal for me and my enjoyment or is it to impress someone else?
  • And, finally, does this need to be a goal at all?

Pay attention to that last question. It’s an important one. 

In Buddhism, there are three doors to liberation or freedom from fear or suffering. We won’t get into all the doors, but I want to focus on the third door which is called “aimlessness”  or “wishlessness.” 

Aimlessness means not chasing after goals, because you already have everything you need right now. It’s the idea that what you’re hoping to get from that goal can already be had right now if you’d slow down enough to be present and enjoy your life as it is in this moment.

There’s this idea in Buddhism that if you’re chasing nirvana, you will never find it. And the harder you chase it, the more it slips away from you. 

I tend to think that unhappy achievers are really running away from the fear of our own mortality and the fear that our lives are meaningless, more than anything else. We think we’re chasing contentment and happiness, but if we slowed down, we’d realize we could have them now. We just can’t see past this arrival fallacy that consistently proves itself untrue to us. And I think it’s because we don’t really WANT to. We want to prove to ourselves that it’s all “for something.”

But I’ve been thinking more and more about the freedom that could come from embracing that life isn’t a race to achievement, that the real “winners” are those of us who are smart enough to know that it’s a miracle we’re alive, period. And to allow ourselves to enjoy the miracle every single day we’re still here.

Embracing aimlessness means we’re not in a hurry against time. We do what we enjoy doing. We stay open and curious. We stay present. And one of the best parts of staying present is that we can know what we want and don’t want, what’s for us and what’s not for us.

Because we’re not so focused on our goals that we forget that we could just enjoy life and the process. And that if we stayed present more often, we might notice when it’s time to let go of something that isn’t a fit for us anymore. 

This brings me something you won’t hear most coaches talk about: 

The negative effects of goal setting.

Coaches love goals. Honestly many, many coaches work off of goals for their clients, and in many ways I’m not that different. We want to know what you want out of coaching, and we help you get there through coaching.

But sometimes setting goals has the opposite effect of what we want, even a negative effect.

I’m in the midst of planning my 2022 goals, which if we’re being honest feels like a very weird activity this year. There’s so much up in the air for me: I’m considering quitting social media for good, and taking a break from it completely in January. It almost feels like 2022 is more of an anti-goal year than anything else, less about achieving something or getting things done and more on enjoying the process of whatever I want to do.

Something that keeps coming to mind for me is “flow not force.” And I’ll be honest, all if it makes me super uncomfortable. 

But I also learned something super important in 2021. I got so lost in my goal of growing my business that I forgot to listen to myself more. I became laser-focused. I stopped meditating and journaling. I told myself I just needed to get to a more financially stable place and then I could deal with my anxiety or think about quitting social media or let myself have other interests and passions outside of my business. Because I’d set this goal that 2021 was going to be THE YEAR I quit my job and made my business work, I put everything I had into it. And it was not a good thing.

I’ll be honest with you here and say that 2021 felt like the longest year of my life, and I’m still trying to figure out why. It might have been the huge amount of changes in a year: quitting my full time job, switching niches a couple of times, moving to a new state across the country, getting a new job, and switching niches’s just been A LOT.

But I honestly think it comes down to my laser focus on my business. I did what so many coaches say to do: I set that big impossible goal, and went hard after it. And I even had a lot of success! 

And it’s not like I didn’t take breaks, but I also found it very hard to stop thinking about my business during times I was supposed to be relaxing or resting. It was my livelihood after all, and I find it so interesting that no one talks about the negative effects of setting and going after “impossible goals.”

This year, I heavily experienced the negative effects of goal setting, which interestingly enough are laid out in a Harvard Business School paper as, ““a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

It’s not that I didn’t have other goals around personal development or relationships or spirituality in 2021, it’s just that this too-big goal that was tied to my security led me to being too narrow focused and out of balance. Even with savings to help us, I still felt like I was trying to outrun my fears of not having enough money. And while my very strong personal values kept me from engaging in unethical behavior, it helped me clearly see why other coaches do when we set these out-of-reach goals that can have an effect on much more than just our businesses.

This also gets into that “distorted risk preferences” from the Harvard paper; there’s research that shows that getting too locked into a goal can increase our risky behavior. And it makes me wonder if I’d fallen for the “ideology of entrepreneurship” so hard that I took risks I shouldn’t have. With some time and reflection, I wonder if I got too locked into entrepreneurship being the one and only option for getting what I wanted, which I now realize isn’t true at all. But I was so narrow focused, and probably a tiny bit brainwashed by social media, I just couldn’t see it was true until my own coach got a job, which you can learn more about in Putting Your Joy First with Marisa Bailey or in the Making Room For Something Even Better episodes of the podcast.

If we use weight loss as an example here (which y’all now I’m against, but it paints this picture well), it’d be like me setting a goal to lose 20 pounds in two months. That would be a very, very hard, if not impossible, goal for me to achieve. It could cause me to overexercise, dramatically undereat, and do things that are incredibly bad for my body. It would also likely cause me to become obsessed and laser-focused, because I’d have to be in order to reach that goal. I’d probably engage in risky behavior and neglect other important areas of my life. 

On the flip side, depending on your personality type, you might become completely unmotivated by this kind of goal, because you know it’s impossible to achieve. You become totally disheartened. 

This is why it’s so important to examine your goals really deeply, to reflect on whether they align with what you really want, whether you can have what you really want now WITHOUT ever reaching that goal, and whether you even need a goal at all. 

What if instead of deciding that you want to be number 1 in search results for your blog, you commit to writing for 20 minutes a day, on a topic you’ve done keyword research for? Would you be happier with the process? What is it that you really want at the end of the day? Do you want to write? Do you want to feel happy sharing your knowledge? Do you want to make money? Is there a better way to make money without this goal? 

I ask all of these questions because I think we so easily get drawn into flashy goals that don’t serve us, they just make us obsessed or miserable.

I think many of us set goals to achieve because we just don’t know a different way, but I wonder what would happen if we decided to focus on how we want to feel versus what we want to achieve? 

Because I know that I didn’t want to feel anxious about money in 2021. I wanted freedom, which is what’s always sold to entrepreneurs, but there was no freedom in worrying about money and where my next client would come from. And I want to be clear that I’m happy for 2021 and its lessons, because now I know to be more discerning in how to create what I want moving forward. 

I know that I must slow down and consider what I expect to receive from reaching a goal and whether or not it’s actually true that it will happen. If I’m expecting everlasting happiness and satisfaction with myself and my enoughness, I need to take a moment to realize that’s not going to happen. And find a way to experience those feelings now, not after, not when.

But how?

How do we stop being unhappy achievers?

The short answer: by learning to focus more on today and less on the future. 

“We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of [our cravings]. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives.” - Pema Chodron

I want to add, this is NOT easy, that’s why she uses the word “uneasiness.” Basically, it’s about getting wise to your own BS. My brain and my ego are master tricksters; they are always telling me things that just aren’t true. And the trick up my own sleeve -- notice how I am separate from them -- is to question my thoughts and my reality as much as I can.

This is what really good coaching is: lots and lots of questioning and reflecting on what we think is real or the truth.

To break the cycle of being an unhappy achiever, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable with not always chasing the next thing, with realizing that it won’t actually get rid of the uneasiness you’re feeling. Chasing a goal is just a distraction from your unease, and reaching a goal will never cure your own humanness and the suffering that comes with being human. 

And I want to be super clear here, I am not above the fallacy, I struggle with it every single day. Like I said, my brain is always trying to give me more to achieve. I’ve just gotten a little better about slowing down enough to question it all as intensely as I can. And I still mess up sometimes and have to stop mid-goal to reconsider what I’m trying to gain.

I imagine that for an achiever like me, I will never be free from the arrival fallacy’s tricks, I’ll just get better at spotting them faster. 

If you’ve listened to my podcast for a while, you know I used to be obsessed with my weight and my body shape. And now I’m not. But it took years and years of deprogramming myself from diet talk and from the belief that a diet or workout could change my life to finally stop being obsessed and accept myself as I am. I imagine it will take even more deprogramming and questioning everything to get to a point where I completely stop chasing the fake assumption that my life will be better when I do “x.”

When I was deprogramming from idealizing weight loss, I had to completely get away from anything teaching me that weight loss was the answer. This was years ago, but I stopped reading magazines, or diet books, or doing workouts with instructors focused on changing your body shape or losing weight. 

But it’s harder to avoid the not-enoughness of capitalism and the need to chase more and more and more; it’s embedded in our Western society. But it’s just one of the reasons I’m trying out quitting social media in January, because social media is the place we all go to showcase our best selves and our best lives and what we’ve achieved, and to motivate and inspire others to do it too. 

And I just don’t need that reminder every day that there just might be a platinum door I’m missing out on. A platinum door that...maybe doesn’t even lead anywhere I actually want to go.

If you struggle with this too, I’ve created a free resource. It’s a private podcast episode where I teach you a super simple coaching exercise, think of it like a self-quiz you can give yourself anywhere, that can help you figure out what you really want. 

You can give yourself this quick quiz anytime you’re feeling confused about what to do and what you really want. 

When you sign up, you get access to a special audio recording, where I take you through the quiz questions, and point out what to watch for so you get the most out of it, along with a “clarity cheat sheet” to help you dissect your answers for even more clarity - it’s like your personal BS detector for your own thoughts!

Basically, I’m teaching you how to coach yourself to clarity! And it’s the same process I use almost every day to make sure that whatever I do aligns with what I really want for my life. I even use it to help curb my buying urges for things I just don’t really need.

You can download this special recording and the clarity cheat sheet at and sign up on the home page or click on the link in the show notes.

And for those of you listening when this episode is first published, I wish every one of you a peaceful 2022! Thanks for listening and don’t forget to share this episode with a friend who needs it!