Ceiling and Sky


The other day I stumbled upon an old conversation between Steven Dubner and Richard Thaler. If you're at all familiar with the Freakonomics body of work – the books, podcasts, and blogs – then you're most definitely familiar with Dubner. Richard Thaler is just as, if not more legendary, as one of the pioneers of behavioural economics, and more pertinent to this post, a Nobel laureate. Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics in the year 2017 for his contributions to the field of behavioural economics, and the aforementioned interview was conducted shortly after winning the prize.

One thing that struck me was Thaler's response to the question of how his life changed by virtue of winning the prize. His response was to chuckle and brush off the question as if he'd just been asked something trivial, like what he had for dinner the night before. Perhaps the most important thing for me was the throwaway comment he made, taken from this interview:

"...yes, this made me happy. And it was very gratifying. But you have this image that you’re going to be on cloud nine. And then there is life, you still get flat tires even if you have a Nobel Prize…"

The statement might seem trivial but its implications are monumental, at least for me, and here's why. It underscores the unintuitive idea that's otherwise known as the arrival fallacy or effect, which is what happens when you reach a goal or destination, and realise that this achievement doesn't live up to your expectations. In other words, life goes on even after attaining the loftiest of goals, or reaching the proverbial ceiling or apex. Nothing much changes in one's day-to-day life, and one's anticipated level of happiness or satisfaction or accomplishment doesn't live up to the reality of it. In other words, once you get to the ceiling, you realise there's a whole sky above, a sky that dwarfs the ceiling, so that the feat of getting to the ceiling pales in comparison to touching the sky.

It is the most unfortunate fate to hit the ceiling and realise there's nowhere to go but down, or that there's a whole sky outside and that ceiling pursuit pales in comparison to what else is out there. This could have significant outcomes if you ever find yourself in this situation.  For one thing, it could deter you from savouring the moment, from appreciating and cherishing the current accomplishment. Perhaps even more likely is that it could drive you right back into striving mode, because there's a whole sky that needs touching. 

This is unfortunate, but all is not lost. There's another way to approach goals, and it begins with recognising that this arrival fallacy exists, and that life goes on even after getting to that holy grail or reaching that milestone. This mindset shift takes some doing, so it helps to look inwards and ask ourselves why we chase the dreams we chase, why we have the goals we have, and why our aspirations are what they are. We might just begin to realise that some of those dreams and goals and aspirations aren't worth pursuing.  Some of them might not even be innately ours, to begin with, but have been implanted in us by society.  

As for the goals we consider worth pursuing,  it helps to savour the journey rather than fixating on the destination. This isn't to say we shouldn't aim high. On the contrary,  we should work towards progress, always, but as we do so, we should temper expectations and remain cognisant of our drivers, on why we set out to reach for the ceiling in the first place. There's a whole journey involved,  and it's a shame to be so fixed on the destination that we miss out on the joys and pains of the journey.

Take it from the father of behavioural economics himself. Thaler's distinguished career is a testament to his hard work, but his laid-back approach and his assessment of his emotional state afterwards – as evidenced by his interview with Dubner – offer a clue into how best to frame our professional and personal pursuits.  Getting a record deal or hitting the bestseller list or landing that huge casting might indeed be something to work towards, but it probably won't result in the change you anticipate. Because if Nobel laureates still get flat tires, then so can you. 

PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.

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