I had a brush with the fear of success when I was 12 years old.
I was a real geek, having got my first computer a year earlier and had already got into trouble for hacking the school network, and my Dad was doing some work for Morris Saatchi (of the mega-rich Saatchi’s).
One day Dad comes home and tells me that Mr Saatchi wants me to teach his son all about computers. He'd pay me for a couple of hours tutoring on Saturday mornings, and even send a car to take me to and fro, how about it?
Opportunities like that rarely come up for your average 12 year old kid, right?
So I said no.
I regret that now, of course I do, but at the time it felt like a lot of pressure. I knew stuff about computers, but didn't know what I could teach, or how, and it felt like I'd need to figure that out to be able to do it well. Assuming I could work that out, or at least wing it convincingly, it felt like my results would suck me into an orbit where Mr Saatchi called the shots.
Did he have other kids he wanted me to teach? Would he want something else from me? Would he want me to get involved with his companies, or promise me a job, or something crazy like that?
I was scared of what saying yes—and then making a success of it—would mean, and it was the first time I experienced fear of success.
It’s one of those rarely-spoken fears that drives you towards being small and saying no, when a little bit of courage or faith could change your trajectory for the better. Which, of course, is exactly what’s so damn scary about it.
Fear of success is fearing that the success you attract will lead to loss of control, emotional exposure and increased pressure to live up to that success.
Let's tackle each of those in turn...
Fear of success - Loss of control
You might have a steady job you enjoy, a comfortable lifestyle that gives you what you need, a great partner or a rich social life. Perhaps you’ve got an awesome balance between work and life. Or maybe you finally have a bit of security; something solid and known under your feet.
So when confronted with the idea of "greater success", it feels like you might lose some of what what you have right now. It feels like any fresh success will have you dancing to its tune, need you to do what's needed and remove your ability to call the shots.
It feels like success will bring change you can't control.
Fear of success - Emotional exposure
You did it. Great job! Good for you.
Now comes the fear of being seen.
Up there on your podium, in your new, elevated position, people are looking at you.
What are you supposed to do with those new eyeballs on you? How are you supposed to feel, or what are you supposed to give them? What if they see that it was just a fluke, or what if they see that you don't deserve it? What if they think you're a huge jerk, or what are they saying when you're not in the room?
There's very little that's quite as scary as having people see you, and the emotional exposure that could come from finding success is enough to have people sabotage themselves.
Whether it's a big new job, a high profile project, or a creative endeavour that's deeply personal, it feels like you might be fatally wounded from the exposure success would bring.
Fear of success - Increased pressure
Let’s say you get there. You've succeeded. You’ve nailed it.
Now all you have to do, is keep it going.
Maybe you just got lucky, or maybe it was a one-time thing, but now you're there, the fear is that you don't have what it takes to keep that success going.
What if it all slips away? What if you're not good enough to sustain it? What if it gets taken away from you?
It's like fighting to become President, but then being terrified that you’ll screw it up, get impeached or lose your second term by a landslide because you didn't deliver. Or It's like seeing your business finally take off, then worrying that it will crumble under you or that you can't possibly sustain it.
It feels like you can't possibly live up to the success that's happened around you.
Let's get real...
The fear of success is understandable, but it's really just storytelling designed to protect you and keep you safe.
All kinds of things could happen.
David Attenborough might discover a new race of fish-people off the coast of Greenland. God might appear live on Ellen, and tell the world he's going to swap around our arms and legs, just for shits and giggles. The Internet might become sentient, decide it's all too much and take a sabbatical in order to find itself.
You could shape your decisions and actions around those stories, but you won't. Nor do you need to base your decisions and actions on the stories you tell yourself about what might happen when success comes knocking.
If success happens, great. If it doesn't, that's okay too.
The point is to engage with the process—of doing your job to the best of your ability, of showing up in your relationship, of taking part in something that matters to you, of stretching a creative muscle, or of scratching an intellectual itch—knowing that you can deal with whatever happens.
Confidence makes the difference...
Confidence makes this way simpler, because you get to apply confidence at the point of change.
At that decision point where you decide to go for it, you can apply confidence to help you over the line. At that moment when the fear of success comes bubbling up, you can apply confidence and reassure yourself that you'll be okay. When it feels like you might lose control, that you'll be exposed or that you can't deal with the pressure, you can apply confidence and see that you're already good enough.
Beating the fear of success is just choosing where to put your trust.
Do you choose to put your trust in all the fears and stories about not being good enough, or do you trust your ability to approach a moment in time as someone who’s already whole and has nothing to prove?
Here are some quick ideas the next time the fear of success starts bubbling up:
- Fear of success is just small one part of your experience, and doesn't need to define you or what you do
- You don't need to listen or trust the stories you make up about what might happen
- You've come this far, and have so much more capability to grow into and explore
- You have strengths, talents, gifts and experiences that far outweigh any blind spots
- You're unconditionally whole and already enough, regardless of any success or failure
Trust. Faith. A deep breath. A gentle smile. A simple acknowledgment that you're okay.
This is what confidence brings. Fear of success doesn't stand a chance.