Live Life, Not Projects

I first encountered the concept of arrival fallacies in Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. Which goes to show that you should occasionally attempt to learn from people who are very unlike yourself (Greg Rader has a nice post about this from a few months ago). If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you probably know by now that I am deeply suspicious of the very idea of happiness, and its pursuit. The Rubins of the world rarely get on my radar.

An arrival fallacy in the sense of Rubin is any pattern of thinking that fits the template, I’ll be happy when ______ (Rubin credits Tal Ben-Shahar’s book Happier, which I haven’t read, for the concept).

The idea generalizes beyond happiness to any sort of goal-driven behavior. You could use templates like I’ll be ready ____ once _____. Or I’ll really understand life when ________.  Call the first template Type A (happiness fallacies), and the other two Type B (readiness fallacies) and Type C (enlightenment fallacies) respectively. There are probably other common types, but we’ll stick to three.

Let’s make up a list of examples of each type, for reference, before trying to understand arrival fallacies more deeply.


Type A (Happiness Fallacies)

  1. I’ll be happy once I leave home after high school.
  2. I’ll be happy once I am financially independent.
  3. I’ll be happy once I find the perfect someone.
  4. I’ll be happy once I have f**& you money
  5. I’ll be happy once I retire and can play golf whenever I like.
Type B (Readiness Fallacies)
  1. I’ll be ready to do my own startup once I’ve gained some experience working at one.
  2. I’ll be ready to get married once I turn 30.
  3. I’ll be ready to have a kid once I make partner at my law firm.
  4. I’ll be ready to write my thesis once I get this one last experiment done.
  5. I’ll be ready to retire once I finish this one last project.
Type C (Enlightenment Fallacies)
  1. I’ll really understand life once I’ve had a kid.
  2. I’ll really understand life once I’ve fought in a war/faced death.
  3. I’ll really understand programming once I’ve written my own compiler from scratch.
  4. I’ll really understand literature once I’ve worked through Ulysses.
  5. I’ll really understand writing once I’ve written my first book.

You will notice that all my examples involve life events that are typically one-time or first-time events. Leaving home, having a first kid, fighting in your first war, writing a first book, these are all events where the first instance is truly significant, and often the only instance. When they repeat, you get a different dynamic.

Primary versus Secondary Arrival Fallacies

Arrival fallacies can be broken down into two types. Those based on one-time or first-time events, and those that are based on the second of later instance in a stream of similar events that can be repeated indefinitely. I don’t know if psychologists have separate terms for these, but I’ll call them primary and secondary arrival fallacies.

With primary arrival fallacies, there is a significant first-time/only-time event on the horizon (typically a liminal passage of some sort), and we convince ourselves that some sort of tiring struggle will be over once we are past that event, resulting in a simpler life.

The latter kind is better described by the template this time it will be different. I haven’t yet thought this category through properly, so I will stick to primary arrival fallacies.

Why is the primary arrival fallacy so attractive? Because like any tempting idea, it has a grain of truth to it.  For a minority, the primary arrival fallacy is not a fallacy at all, and for the rest, there is always some truth to the expectation.

Primary Arrivals and Transformations

You can turn every primary arrival fallacy into gospel truth by changing the wording slightly. Just restate it in the form things will be different after _________.

This version of the statement merely posits a transformation, but does not speculate about the specifics of before and after.

In Tempo, I built up the model of narrative rationality based precisely on the idea of such unpredictable transformations through deep stories: significant life experiences that transform you so completely they should be considered rebirths of greater or lesser magnitude.

You cannot predict the before/after because the rebirth will reconstruct your identity. The good news is that such transformations tend to reconstruct identity in ways that make it more richer and more complex.

Life will be different once you leave home after high school. Or after you start paying your own bills. Or after you write a first book.

Not only will you personally be transformed by having gone through the experience (I won’t discuss this in detail since there’s a whole chapter about it in the book), but your social identity will change. I did not discuss this effect in the book, but the idea is simple. Once you’ve crossed a significant threshold, people will see you differently and treat you differently.

Sometimes, the personal transformation is insignificant and the social transformation is very significant. Sometimes the reverse is true.

Moving to the US from India was hugely transformative for me personally (easily the single most transformative event in my life). It was a complete rebirth, but it barely affected my social identity at all.

On the other hand, when I started blogging at Forbes last year, it wasn’t particularly significant for me personally, but it caused a sudden (and frankly, amusing) boost to my credibility. I apparently crossed some vague threshold from “blogger of dubious repute” to “minor personality/’real’ writer.”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

I hope female readers who’ve actually given birth will pardon the terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist. The pregnancy metaphor for major life transformations is very seductive.

Arrival fallacies have a complement. I am not sure if it has a name, but it is the wishful tendency to believe that nothing will change when you undergo major life transformations.

Hollywood celebrities showcase this effect in all its gory detail. They insist that nothing has changed when they make it, but invariably, relationships with old friends either transform or break. If the celebrity refuses to deal with new realities, a descent into drug-addled madness usually results. Let’s call this the continuity fallacy. The idea that things will continue as before.

So clearly, expecting nothing to change when you undergo a major transformation is as silly as expecting everything to be perfect.

So what can you reasonably expect?

You can expect to become either a more complex person or a more confused person.

Life stories may go up and down with respect to some measure of success, but they rarely become simpler as they age. People may adopt simpler behaviors and personalities, but inner personalities rarely get simpler. At most you get arrested development or bewildered confusion and incomprehension. To actually reverse development takes a cult.

The potential positive outcome is that you will get more complex. Since more of your life potential will have turned into life history, you will have a more complex story to explain to yourself, and less time and control over the rest of the story.

If you succeed in crafting a solid explanation that can withstand exposure to new realities, you will become a more complex person.

If you fail to comprehend your new realities, you will become a more confused person. Your old world views will no longer work, but you will have failed to construct new ones that do. You can either continue stumbling forward in bewildered incomprehension or build walls of denial to shield you from new realities. Or join a cult and hit the reverse gear.

The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because it predicts the exact opposite of what actually happens: that life will get simpler. 

What keeps the fallacy so robustly alive is that life does get simpler for a minority of people, who arrive at a liminal passage that resolves more tensions and dissonances than it creates, and opens up the option of safely setting your life to cruise control and relaxing. Game over. Everything that follows is a bonus. Jason Cohen has a great post about this.

For the rest of us, every transformation makes a few things simpler, and complicates at least a few+1 things.

There is a strong correlation between the minority of lives that get to simpler places and plateau and success. For every train-wreck celebrity or millionaire, there appear to be a couple of smarter ones who manage to actually arrive. They can come across as annoying, pompous and self-satisfied to the rest of us, but there is no denying that they seem to enjoy their own lives. George Clooney is a great example. In a recent Charlie Rose interview, he came across as a man very comfortable in his own success. On the other hand, South Park mercilessly parodied his self-satisfaction in its “Smug Cloud” episode.

To operate with the expectation that things will get more complex with every transformation is to live life.

To operate with the expectation that things will get simpler with every transformation is to live a series of unsatisfying projects. Unless you are one of the lucky minority for whom the expectation turns out to be correct.

This sort of thinking is anathema to positive-thinking types, especially in America. To expect the most likely rather than the least likely outcome is a very un-American approach to life. This is primarily because American culture strongly conflates success and simplicity on the one hand, and failure and complexity on the other.

A life that gets progressively more complex takes a good deal more philosophy and reflection to navigate. Success and failure become matters of perspective and interpretation rather than simple arrival.  You may even find that the categories become less relevant to you with each arrival.

If I had to boil all this down to a bumper sticker, it would be the title of the post: live life, not projects.

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  1. The fallacy doesn’t stay alive because we see rare shining examples, it persists because it’s an extremely simple and easy motivational tool/decision-making metric.

    Happiness fallacies exist to motivate long-term-tradeoff projects.
    Readiness fallacies exist to delay scary commitments.
    Enlightenment fallacies exist to…excuse current foolishness? (I’m shakiest on this one)

    When I put it that way, happiness fallacies seem like the only type worth cultivating. How else could we motivate projects that will likely leave us more confused?

    I sometimes think “happiness” is the wrong word for this way of thinking, and it’s a mistake of the self-help author to put it there. Perhaps the real way of thinking is closer to:

    “I will hold less inner tension once I’ve acted on this idea, and that will be a relief.”

    • I think the two work together. The motivations make us want to believe, and the rare examples help us bolster the delusions necessary.

  2. So what can you reasonably expect?

    You can expect to become either a more complex person or a more confused person.

    Dead on in my experience. Comparing how I experience life now to when I was in my teens / early 20s, everything seems enormously more complex. More tradeoffs to weigh, more people my actions will affect for good and ill, etc. This rapid change is not surprising as, depending on how you count them, I’ve been through 4-6 deep stories / major transformative experiences in the past 10 years.

    Though I would add the word “eventually” to your above statement. You’ll eventually become a more complex or confused person. For some time after a transformative experience, my default state is confused/frustrated and only gradually am I able to grapple with what happened and make sense of it.

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