I think everyone has had first-hand experience with fear of failure at one time or other. Lord knows I face it every time I sit down with a blank page. But there’s a fear that’s even scarier and more potentially damaging to your career – it’s the fear of success.
I once took a Learning Annex class led by a psychic healer. Although I was skeptical about it, I was also curious. So I went. I wanted to ask about my tendinitis, which at the time was quite severe – severe enough that I had to limit my writing as well as some computer-related things I did for work.
When I got my chance for a personal consultation, the healer looked at me and said “You have a fear of success.” I smiled politely, clearly still not a believer, and said something about also having a fear of failure. But interestingly he shook his head and said with conviction that my fear of success is much stronger and it’s holding me back from what I need to accomplish.
I have to admit I took time afterward to think about what he said and go back over my life – times when I was at a jumping-off point and pulled back. Times when I was given an opportunity to do something really big and talked myself out of it. Turns out there were more than one or two of those. Pretty mind-blowing. (In my own defense, your honor, I’ve also taken many leaps of faith throughout my life that turned out well worth the risk.)
And now for my most recent fear of success story
Less than 2 weeks ago, I was contacted by the head of a company about the possibility of writing articles for them similar to what I do now, but with the potential to be part of an expansive distribution network. This is a company with a good reputation and a really nice product. Of course, I was flattered. How lovely to be wanted – and to have my writing complimented. To be honest, I almost had a Sally Field moment there.
And for a few days, I let myself dream and feel the excitement. It was great. I was enjoying getting lost in the possibilities. And then… something happened. Instead of just savoring the moment and moving along step by step to let things progress organically (my favorite way), I started thinking about what could happen if things went really well. And suddenly, instead of just having fun with the picture, I began to worry about what it would mean. What else it might lead to. How it might change my life. Could I handle all this? Did I want to?
All valid questions. But in truth, what really happened, I think, is I got scared of what success might mean. And I started thinking about everything and what I was committing to and how well did I even know the company or the person who contacted me and…boom! I was no longer in the moment. I was looking at all the potential negatives and letting myself get caught up in it.
Don’t Ever Do This…Really
And it was at that opportune moment I decided “Wouldn’t this be a nice time to e-mail the person and let him know some of the things I think he should do with his company?” Now mind you…he is totally open to me sharing my ideas and asked me to do so, but when I look back at the tone of my original e-mail and what I said to him…I am sure there was something else going on here.
After all, as part of my consulting work, I often advise clients on how to approach things – even the stickiest of situations. There have been many times when I’ve helped clients reword yet-unsent e-mails written in a hasty moment of anger or frustration. And I assure you I have never ever told even one of my clients to seize the moment and dash off an e-mail whose tone is fairly critical to a potential partner. Never. And I can also assure you, while my contact remained cordial and business -like, I could tell by his own tone I had crossed a line.
Now I still hope we can get past all that and see it as a momentary lapse of judgment on my part – or maybe even temporary possession by cantankerous elves. But I am sure as I go over things in my mind and recall the exact moment I felt the urgent need to contact him, it was the moment I pictured success. In essence, this was me undermining a good opportunity for myself.
So what did I learn about (and from) fear of success?
1. It’s darn easy to undermine your own success
2. Exciting dreams can be really really scary
3. You can rationalize anything to protect yourself
4. You can find a dozen things wrong with something if you want to
5. E-mail is forever and tone matters OK. This last one I already knew. But it was indelibly reinforced in my head as I reread my original e-mail. Did I really say THAT? Yes…I did. Ouch.
What to do if your fear of success shoots you in the foot
Well, short of major psychotherapy (does anyone have a spare couch?), I think the best thing to do is to be bluntly honest with yourself (writing about it is a good start), try to recover as best you can, and, if not, just move on having learned a valuable lesson. We all have our moments of fear. It’s how we handle them that matters.
If at all possible, I think it’s important to find a way to push through and experience some of that not-so-scary-after-all success as soon as you can. Once you’ve gone there and the new neural pathways have been created, it’s probably easier to push through the resistance next time. Or so I hope.
I’ll let you know. Wish me luck!
Have you ever had an experience like this? Do you fear success at some level? Of course this also raises the whole meaty question of just what the heck success is. Any thoughts?
Much more than transferring to a similar job in a new company or industry, or moving laterally into a different work function within a field we already know well, a true change of direction is always terrifying.