All week I’ve been trying to write about the fear of success and have been stuck. (It’s an ironic twist.)
Who would be afraid of success? A better job, more money, a bigger platform, the chance to make a difference . . . what’s scary about that? It turns out it’s not so straightforward.
One of the most popular Hollywood story arcs in film is “overcoming a monster.” I’m certain everyone can rattle off a dozen movies with this plotline. It’s relatable because facing adversity is a universal theme, but in ordinary life, the monster isn’t usually a disgruntled CEO-turned-villain. More than likely it’s our mindset or perspective.
The fear of failure is the monster we all know. We all can relate to the proverbial nightmare of showing up to school naked. But what if we’re confident in our skills? We’ve done the legwork, passed the tests, built the network, won the awards, and yet we’re still quietly playing a small game. Why?
It’s weird to think that the monster could be success and not failure. And yet I hear statements like this all of the time:
The next opening in her schedule is in two months.
He holds three meetings every night – over cocktails, then dinner, then dessert.
They’re sending emails at 2 a.m.
He has a house in Malibu, but he never gets to enjoy it.
Yep. Yes. You bet. That’s scary. My nightmare story of success was that it required me to be someone I’m not, that success would define my entire self and all my time. And my greatest fear was that success would steal my creativity and freedom, and I’d be forced to abandon my identity in a wrinkled pile of fabric on the floor of a department store dressing room. Meanwhile, I’d emerge as an uncomfortable pantsuit.
What I hadn’t worked out was how to be more than one thing at once. I didn’t know how to be an artist and an executive, a writer and a coach, an authentic human and a success. And yet I couldn’t commit to picking one identity over the other, either. It felt like an ultimatum but I wanted them all.
A wise part of me suspected there was a solution – I just hadn’t found it yet.
Can you relate? There’s an easy way to find out. Complete this sentence with as many words or phrases you can:
To be successful, I must be __________.
Is your list light or heavy? Energized and uplifting, or like you want to shut your office door and put your head on your desk for a long nap? If it’s leaning toward the latter, it might be time to take a closer look at your ideas of success. You might be in the grips of a nasty story you’ve made up.
Your “fear of success” story might look and sound like this:
Success will bring out my worst.
We have lots of cultural assumptions and negative stereotypes about success: It changes you. Power corrupts. People who make lots of money are selfish and greedy. They’re narcissists. They’re competitive. They’re soulless. . . . Uh, who would want that?
Success will prove I don’t know what I’m doing.
The thinking goes like this: Psst . . . I’m actually not a successful person but an imposter. Eventually, I’ll drop the ball. It’s not sustainable. I’ll be handed an opportunity and I won’t be able to deliver. I’ll fall down and disappoint everyone – and everyone will see it.
I won’t be able to handle the haters.
The bigger you get, the more people will offer their opinions and criticism, whether in-person or online. Yes, the trolls will make up conspiracy theories, spread rumors, and question your intelligence, ethics and talent. All that fun stuff. But guess what? You are in good company. This happens to everyone.
Success will impact the people I love.
It will. Success disrupts the equilibrium. When one thing changes, everything else must respond, including family and friends. You aren’t simply defining a life for yourself but asking others to evolve, too, and that can be stressful to those who are sensitive to their context or have more dependencies.
Success is for other people. Not me. Not us.
“We are the kind of people who . . .” is a powerful narrative. You know the voice that says, “be happy with what you’ve got,” or “don’t rock the boat,” or “better safe than sorry?” Family origin stories are well-intentioned, and they come from a place of wisdom, but sometimes it’s an old path. You can’t blaze a new trail if you’re traveling down the well-worn ruts.
I’m sure you can think of more objections to pursuing the life you want. And, I hope you’re not overwhelmed but inspired by the clarity that definition can bring.
What I had to learn is how to make peace with the kind of success that suited me – it absolutely includes creativity and leadership alike.
It empowered me to identify models of success that defied stereotypes. Who is successful in a way that you admire? Emulate them. Identify what you like, and then know that you’re going to add your own spin to their example.
Know that hard work is a given but it doesn’t have to own you. Your success is your own.
This also is important – you don’t have to banish your fear. If you’re waiting for it to resolve completely, well, you’ll wait forever. Instead, thank your fears for their good intentions and concern. Honor them for all the ways they’ve kept you prudent, humble, and safe, and then ask them to get in the backseat of the car and buckle up. You’re driving now.
I’m rooting for your greatness because your ambition isn’t for nothing. I’m rooting for your relationships, businesses, books, films, albums, missions, teams and ventures. It’s time for you, and the world is waiting.
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.