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Reaching a management position in the tech industry is hard work. It’s important to remember to enjoy the journey and celebrate victories big and small along the way.

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Having started out as a self-taught developer, I had to put the hours in to grasp the first rung of the software engineering ladder. Whilst working a standard 9-5 job and raising my newborn son, I would spend countless hours learning C#, SQL, and JavaScript. 

It was tiring. It was hard work. There was a lot of blind faith that one day it would pay off and help me change careers. The prospect of what the future could hold for my son and me if I were to attain my aspirations kept me going. It ensured that I kept turning up and continuously learning each night.

Fast forward two years and all the blood, sweat, and tears was put to the test. I landed myself an interview as a graduate software developer and it was time to prove to them, and myself, that I had what it took to step into the world of software development. 

The interview process is a distant memory to me now but I rattled through the competency-based questions and technical test with enough gusto to land the job. My first step into software development and the start of what I hoped to be a long, enjoyable career. Yet I felt…underwhelmed.

Over the years, this unexpected lack of fulfillment has reared its ugly head. Getting the promotion I’ve been striving for. Buying the new car I’ve been dreaming of. Saving enough money to buy my first house. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful but I didn’t understand why I was feeling like this. 

The arrival fallacy

Arrival fallacy – as it was named by Dr. Ben-Shaher in his 2008 book Happier: Can you learn to be Happy? – is the illusion of reaching a destination or goal and realizing that the achievement doesn’t make you as happy as you thought.

What causes the arrival fallacy? 

Let’s start with the hormones – dopamine to be specific. The “feel-good hormone”. Similar to adrenaline, it plays a small role in the fight-or-flight response. Whilst plugging away at a challenging task, your brain senses these levels of stress and rewards you with the feel-good hormone. It keeps you motivated and helps you persist with the task at hand. What happens when you achieve what you were aiming for though? The stress subsides and the body is no longer in receipt of its dopamine hit. Farewell happy hormone, welcome back reality.

We then also have the physiological toll that striving for something can have on the human body. Putting in the countless hours of effort needed to achieve goals can cause mental and physical fatigue. Sleepless nights as you find yourself either burning the candle at both ends or finding that when your head hits the pillow, you just can’t switch off. Come the time you reach your goal, your mental acuity is low and your senses numbed. You just want to be able to finally switch your mind off and recuperate. Your body and mind just aren’t in a fit state to celebrate and party.

Enjoying the journey

You will most likely have heard the quote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. Whether you want to associate this phrase with 19th Century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, or more modern-day artists such as Miley Cyrus or Aerosmith, they all have the same message. 

Although the end goal happens to be the thing that keeps driving you forwards, the value acquired whilst pursuing that goal is invaluable and often overlooked. 

That isn’t to say the destination isn’t important – we need to choose our destination carefully so that we can subsequently have an enriching journey. With a solid goal in place, we can have faith that we are heading in the right direction and are expending our efforts on the right ventures.

How do you ensure that these magic moments aren’t missed as you’re making that beeline for your destination? Journaling is an excellent habit to get into to spark some introspection and appreciate what ground you’ve covered. 

I find that spending the last 15 minutes of my working week running a mini retrospective with myself really helps me digest my efforts. Nothing more than a handful of bullet points of what I did along with a Good, Bad, Better lens to reflect on what did (or didn’t) go so well. If, on reflection, I realize I’m not “enjoying the journey”, it gives me the chance to make some course corrections in the following week so I can start experiencing a more pleasant journey.

Once the destination has been reached, the journal acts as an excellent artifact to relive the journey and appreciate what you’ve achieved.

Going after the right goals

I’ve found that as I’ve progressed up the software development career ladder some of the skills I’ve learned as a hands-on coder can still be relevant in later life.

Software developers use a blend of tools and processes to deliver working software on a regular cadence. Along with the magic of integrated developer environments (IDEs) and programming languages, they also use tried-and-tested methodologies. One such methodology that I’ve found is still relevant to me even though I’m not actively coding anymore happens to be the good old fashioned, “As a… I want… So that…”.

When teaching developers the use of this user story context, I like to explain that the “So that…” aspect of the syntax is the most important. It’s great that someone wants something, but why? Why do they want this new functionality? The “So that…” gets the user or stakeholder to focus on what value achieving the deliverable will bring. Without a strong enough “So that…”, you could deduce that they don’t need what they’re asking for that badly. 

Bringing this back around to the arrival fallacy. I’ve historically found myself feeling unfulfilled from my achievements as I’ve never spent the prerequisite time to consider why I want to achieve something. 

“It’s great that I’ve just achieved my AWS certification but what am I going to do with it now? Hmmm…I’m not sure.” 

I’ve found that using a slight variance of the user story syntax below, I’m able to firm up why I have the urge to go after something before I start the venture.

  • I want [what I wish to achieve]
  • By [a certain point in time]
  • So that [the value unlocked by achieving the goal]

When treating myself as the user of my own product, I can validate if the efforts being spent are at least backed up by a hypothesis of what doors will be opened to me by achieving it.