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Avoiding the Financial Arrival Fallacy for Doctors

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Have you ever heard of the term ‘arrival fallacy’? It describes the experience of expecting some massive positive change (think joy, fulfillment, reward) in your life upon reaching a milestone, only to find it absent once once the milestone is achieved. Notably, as physicians, we tend to experience arrival fallacies more than the average individual, as we have a ton of well-defined milestones on our educational journey. However, we usually don’t think about one big fallacy — the financial arrival fallacy. The one that goes: “I’m going to be an attending and start making money, then I’ll be happy…”

The financial arrival fallacy occurs when a doctor sets a goal to reach a certain net worth or create a certain amount of cash flow, then reaches that goal and finds themselves no happier, and no less burned out. They learn that there is no magical enlightenment awaiting them — so they keep working more and more, trying to find what is missing.

How to Avoid the Financial Arrival Fallacy

The answer is really the same as how to avoid any arrival fallacy: you need to establish your why!

In other words, you need to know your absolute reason for seeking financial well-being and independence. This seems on its face like such a simple and kind of ridiculous question. Of course we want to have our finances in order. Of course we want to be financially independent. Isn’t that reason enough?

The problem with this logic is that one day you will reach your goals. You’ll become financially well and likely independent. 

And then what?

If you haven’t sorted out the why of doing this, the end can actually seem pretty hollow. Sure, you’re financially set, but what do you do now that you no longer have to chase the carrot?

In my eyes, money (without the why) truly doesn’t buy happiness. The why is even more important than the how of becoming financial free.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a problem that a lot of people wouldn’t mind having. But it’s important to remember that the goal of financial well-being is to enhance your life, your happiness, and your overall personal well-being. And for this to happen, we have to align our financial goals with our life goals.

How to Identify Our Passions So We Know What We’re Making Money For

In her excellent book “Grit,” psychologist Angela Duckworth identifies passion and purpose as two components of grit, a personality trait that is common (even more so than intelligence) in high achievers.

When we identify and feed our passions and know our purpose, we are more likely to persevere and follow through with our aligned goals.

Therefore, in order to sustainably achieve financial well-being, it’s important to adhere to the following steps:

  1. Think about and establish your why (aka your passion/s and purpose)
  2. Align your financial goals to your why
  3. Develop your plan for reaching those financial goals
  4. Pursue your financial goals

It seems straightforward enough, but most people don’t do these steps in that order. In fact, most people start with step four. And then what ends up happening is if they are successful, more likely than not, the seeming end point is met with a profound lack of purpose. And if they are unsuccessful, they fall back onto limiting beliefs like “The odds are just stacked up against me,” and they stop trying. Either of these scenarios leads to unhappiness in my mind. 

However, by starting with step one, we begin to realize that money for money’s sake is not what we are after. We are after other things that can come with financial well-being: absence of finance-related stress; the ability to work on our terms; more time with family and friends; more traveling, etc. (Everyone’s why looks different.) 

Now, finding your why is the hardest step for sure, but doing it first will set you off on the right path to financial freedom. After all, when you have an all-important why in your back pocket, you will have a reason to persevere and push through when you come up against roadblocks. All too often, without a why, people get off track or just give up. It’s easy to think “Wait a second, this is hard. What is the point of doing this?” That question doesn’t even come to mind if you have a why because that’s the answer right there!

How I Found My Why

It took a very long time for me to establish my why.

It actually began when I was figuring out the type of job I wanted after my plastic surgery training. I found it incredibly difficult to decide among the options that I had and the reason was that I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted my life to look and be like. Because of this, I didn’t know which option would give me the best opportunity to build that life. Once I figured that why out, a process I talk more about here, the decision was pretty straightforward.

For me, I am seeking financial well-being to buy more time.

I love what I do and have no intentions of stopping soon (heck … I’ve only just started). But I do want to work on my own terms. Doing something because I am choosing to do it feels very different to me from doing something because I have to.

I also want more time with my family and friends. My wife and I have not done much traveling due to time limitations from our education and training. We want to make that up. I want to focus more on hobbies of mine, such as this blog, that were neglected during my training when my sole focus (intentionally) was becoming the best surgeon that I could be.

Finally, I want to conserve the time and mental energy that I otherwise would spend worrying about my finances. I know what I certainly do not want — I do not want to be idle. I need to have continued purpose as I easily become restless and bored. My why helps ensure that won’t happen.

Importantly, why’s can change all the time — and that’s OK.

We may find new passions that uncover a new purpose. As long as we recalibrate and keep our eyes on the real prize (our why and not money), then we still have our goals aligned and are improving our well-being, both in a financial and overall sense.

It is easy to lose sight of why we are pursuing the things that we are pursuing. It’s easier to keep our head down and keep going rather than to look up and realize we are not where we want to be.

But to get there, to our why, we have to take this first step of looking up. The rest will follow.

Do you know your 'why'? Share what it is and how you came to it in the comments!

Jordan Frey, MD is a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY at Erie County Medical Center and the University of Buffalo. His clinical focus is on breast reconstruction and complex microsurgery. He is also the founder of The Prudent Plastic Surgeon, one of the fastest growing finance blogs. There, he shares his journey to financial well-being with a goal of helping all physicians reach financial freedom, practicing on their own terms.

Image by Getty Images

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