The Fear of Success

We all have a fear of failure, at some level, even if we’ve learned to recognize it before it shows up in our thoughts and actions and we’ve learned to push it down and bury it. That’s hard, and I’m nowhere near that place, even with the things I am “good” at. But what I’m more concerned with here is our Fear of Success.

That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why would you be afraid of something good, and (hopefully) beneficial, and what is surely the result of much time and hard work on your part? It can manifest itself in many ways: simple mistakes that you should no longer be making,  such as a failure to double-check the smallest details in your work. Or it can be more serious self-sabotaging behaviors, such as a social gaffe in an important meeting. “We as human beings have a tendency to get in our own way,” I’ve heard it said, I think by a former professor of mine, though I can’t recall precisely who it was. Those specific behaviors can be largely solved for by changes in mindset, added accountability, or other such safeguards that we can put in place. Essentially, they exist at a tactical level.

What I’m concerned with here is the Fear of Success that exists at the strategic level, points of demarcation along any path toward success. (There I go with the whole path and travel thing again, I know.) You can break it down to four broad areas, roughly linear progressions, that your inability – or refusal – to deal with make success not just uncertain, but impossible. Let’s call them “The Four Delimiters of Success,” which is kind of a crappy name, save that all four of these also start with “D,” so that alliteration makes it all okay in the end!

1. Defining It  – Our refusal to define success either broadly, or in a given situation, breaks down into a few possible reasons, some of which we would more easily admit to ourselves than others.
a. Afraid to be wrong – simple enough. It’s basically a fear of failure on a micro level.
b. Afraid of limiting ourselves – not really an excuse, unless you’re negotiating some sort of incentive structure for your annual bonus
c. Afraid of responsibility – if you put a stake in the ground, then you have to “own” that territory. Best to just avoid that, right?

2. Doing It – This is where the beautiful simplicity of Nike’s tagline comes in: Just Do It. Doing it, in this case, refers mostly to the starting of a process, because we all know that is the hardest part. Once you get going, momentum and inertia play an important role. The best thing I’ve read recently about “starting” is from Seth Godin:

Where to start

Start your first business this way: Begin with the smallest possible project in which someone will pay you money to solve a problem they know they have. Charge less than it’s worth and more than it costs you.

Repeat.

You don’t have to wait for perfect or large or revered or amazing. You can start.

That’s not an excerpt. That’s the entirety of what he wrote. Complete business plans and thoroughly validated financials are important – down the line. For now, Just Do It. Just start. We have too many tools available to us in the digital economy to make excuses about needing more money, or not being an expert, or not knowing where to begin…I’m talking as much or more to myself as anyone else here, understand, but anything other than getting started is just an excuse not to do it at all.

3. Dealing With It – I’m a little out of my realm of experience here, because how successful have I really been? Or maybe I’m just betraying my principles and thinking about this in terms of Money, Fame, and Power, of which I have little to none. But letting success “go to your head” can affect almost anyone, albeit on a local level. Whether it’s getting a date with that girl you’ve been interested in for months, finishing a well-executed project at work, or even something like buying (leasing, perhaps) that car you’ve been wanting, there are small ways that we get a little too big for ourselves, and those around us can take notice.

Conversely, faux-humility and overly self-effacing behavior is its own kind of problem, because you can end up resenting yourself and others if you don’t take a little time to appreciate your success (whatever it is), and then think seriously about what it took to get you to that point, in the hopes of repeating it. Proportion is the key element here – understand the importance of a success in context of your entire life and the world in which you live. Not allowing your high moments to get too out of control helps ensure your low moments don’t get you down more than they should.

4. Doing It (Again) – If you get to this point, now you’re left with the “What’s next?” question. It could be from those around you – say, your boss – or it could be, perhaps more aggravatingly, from your self.

I could not find a good clip of it on YouTube, but if you’re familiar with the movie Zero Dark Thirty, recall the scene where the main character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, as the only passenger on the military transport plane, is asked by the pilot, “So where do you want to go?” She breaks down into tears. She doesn’t know. How can she? She’s spent over a decade doing nothing but chasing down Osama bin Laden, and now he’s dead. Her work – her life’s work, to this point, is complete.

Maybe this example is a bit melodramatic for you, and for most of us. But that question – where do you go now? – is a real one that each of us has to contend with as part of our success. For the hard-working and high-performing among us, the issue is not complacency. It’s that the “high” you experienced with success is difficult to get back. And with respect to Mr. Godin, the injunction to “Repeat” usually isn’t enough. (Sidenote: I don’t think that he thinks that “repeating success” is as simple as repeating a process, only that the process of starting a business is likely not as complicated as we might think it to be.)

Right now I don’t have a good “three step process” I’ve read about for overcoming all this. This best I can give you is the importance of understanding this tendency in ourselves as humans, and of your responsibility to recognize the tendency in yourself in your specific circumstances.

As for what’s next: I’m working on a “Case Study,” which details my experience with my first real professional project, which was “widely” considered to be a success, and how it led to much of my thinking here, including the title of this project, “The Conditions of Success.” I’ll leave it yo you to decide whether it is biography, hagiography, or just therapy.

More soon…

-Fred

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