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The Disappointment of Success


we think success will feel great, but it is fleeting
❝When you fall in love with the process...you don't have to wait...to be happy.❞ -James Clear

It's 2003, and I'm talking to my friend Peter. Peter and I worked as tellers at a bank in between classes. We get to talking about one of Peter's friends who feels like he's broke if his checking account drops below $1,000. I can't imagine having that much money. Any money that gets deposited in my account is gone almost immediately; I have bills to pay.


After college, I set a goal of saving $1,000. Eventually, I hit that goal, but it didn't feel as good as I thought it would. Back in college, I would have felt rich if I had $1,000. Now that I have it, I feel the same as I did yesterday.


I decided that maybe I need to set a goal to save $10,000. This takes a little bit more time, but I eventually hit my goal. Hitting this goal should have given me a lot of joy because after I hit my goal of saving $1,000, I couldn't imagine having a five-figure savings account. Unfortunately, I don't feel any different.


I now decide that I have to save $100,000. You already know how this game ends.


The problem is that the joy from reaching these goals is fleeting if it even exists at all. It would have been a different story if I went from $0 to $1,000 overnight, $1,000 to $10,000 in a couple of days, or $10,000 to $100,000 in a week. But that's not how it works. Every day that passes gets me closer and closer to my goal so that when I finally hit it, I experienced going from $950 to $1,000, $9,950 to $10,000, and $99,950 to $100,000. That experience day-to-day isn't that different.


I had gotten used to my new level of savings as the days went past. That made it nearly impossible to feel a lot of joy when I hit my goal.


Goal-Setting: Expectations


The difference between what we expect when we achieve our goals and how we actually feel when we hit our goals is a bigger deal than it seems based on intuition alone. We tend to set goals that represent some change from how things are now. This positive change gives us something to aim at; it gives us direction in our lives. Because it represents positive change and is different from how things are now, we imagine that it's going to be great when we finally get there. We think we will feel nothing but joy.


We think like this in part because the difference between where we are and where we would be if we achieved our goals is quite significant. If you could instantaneously go from where you are now to where you want to be, that would represent a big change. That would be a big deal.