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Sabotaging Success Part 2: The Paradox Of Wanting Success But Avoiding It… Because You’re Not Sure What You’ll Do When You Get There

By April 30, 2012June 26th, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
Sabotaging Success Part 2: The Paradox of Wanting Success But Avoiding It ...Because You’re Not Really Sure What You'll Do When You Get There

Here we are, still on the negativity track! If you read my last fear of failure post, you’ll know that there’s really a positive outcome to all this. But success is wily, and it has many ways to evade us. So we have to be prepared to deal with the Fail Monsters as they rear their ugly heads. Today I want to talk about another little Monster that often gets in our way, the opposite of the one we talked about last time: fear of success.

“What?!” You may be thinking. “No way! I totally want to succeed!”

Ah, but does that mean you’re not, somewhere in your deepest darkest unacknowledged mind, afraid of it, even in some tiny way?

I venture to say yes. Here’s why.

Fail Monster #2: Fear Of Success

Many of us are in touch with the more obvious fear of failing, the “what ifs” that keep us awake at night. But we don’t generally think about the other “what if”: what if I succeed?

We may have grand visions of confetti falling on our heads and presidents putting medals on our necks. We may plan the boats and cars and vacation homes we’re going to buy with all that money. But beyond dreaming, how often do we face the reality of success?

The reality may not be as pretty or as glamorous. The reality is that you don’t get successful and just stay there. You have to work to stay there. I bet part of your celebrity-loving brain knows that, and wonders if maybe being successful will be hard. Maybe people will start to expect things of you. Maybe it’s not all dream homes and confetti, but work.

Worse, what if you reach your goal and find it’s not as exciting as you thought? What if you get there and feel sort of let down, bored, not quite as “successful” as you thought you’d feel?

And so subtly, we sabotage ourselves, just shy of our goals, afraid of what will happen when we get there. We coast along, “doing pretty well” because success is a little too scary. We redefine success to mean “wherever we are now that isn’t too hard or challenging”.

Before I started my marketing and consulting business, that was me in some ways, too. I know I gave you a big story last time about how paranoid I am of failure, and that still remains my biggest challenge. But fear of success has reared its foul little head, too.

If you’re running a business I bet you can relate to being afraid to fail and afraid to succeed at the same time. I won’t make you admit it; but I know I’m not the only neurotic one. A bevy of thriving mental health professionals across the planet are a pretty good indication of that.

For me, growing up in middle-class suburban America, I was taught that life follows a particular pattern. You go to school, you graduate, you get a job with optical and dental benefits and a good pension, you get married, you have 2.5 kids, buy a house and… well, that’s success.

I got so far as “get a job” and “get married”, fanfare and all. When I stopped short of having kids, people started to look at me funny. And then when I quit my “job” and ventured into business on my own, you can imagine the eyebrows that raised. To this day people will insist I should have gotten a “job with benefits”.

But along the way I wasn’t exactly flying high with defiance. I was scared, I felt guilty, I hesitated and tried not to disrupt the delicate balance of “life as it’s supposed to be”. It wasn’t all freedom and joy, believe me. Part of me sat back and planned the conversation I’d have with my old school director, asking for my job back so things could “get back to normal”.

Could this be you? Are you challenging the status quo and secretly hoping that it might not work out, so you can “get back to normal”, too? Is the idea of succeeding a little overwhelming?

The Success Monster’s Child: Mediocrity

When you were a kid, did you dream of mediocrity? Did you think, “I want to be the best just-about-average person I can be!” Heck no, you wanted to be a rock star. You wanted to bring the house down and have cheering crowds and screaming fans and you wanted that electric guitar to be wrecked at your feet.

Then we grew up, and now how many of us are happy just to be able to pay the bills? How many of us are satisfied with a mortgage and a dog? Or how many of us are not quite?

We don’t define mediocrity as fear, but that’s what it is. It’s us giving up on our goals and dreams and deciding we’re ok with what is. It’s us afraid of looking beyond, daring the gods of “enough” and saying “I’m going to be better!” Because that could be hard, and that could disrupt our orderly lives.

Think about this for a moment. Are you truly satisfied with what you’ve achieved or are you settling for “just enough” because you’re afraid of added expectations, increased scrutiny, of alienating people who can’t understand why you’re not happy with “everything you have”? Is there part of you that wants more?

The Weapons: Desire and Determination

In a lot of ways fear of success is worse than fear of failure because it’s tied up in other aspects of our life, such as how we live, who our friends are and what we’ve been taught to expect. If we fail, we may feel bad or look bad but if we succeed… that opens up a whole other can of worms, like jealousy, responsibility and expectation.

If you’ve ever played the lottery I bet you know what I mean. You dream of those millions, and when you don’t win, you comfort yourself by thinking you’re better off, because if you’d won, your brother would be all over you about paying your parents’ mortgage, your best friend would suddenly need a loan and you’d probably discover 26 “cousins” you never knew you had who all have various sob stories. I bet you’d even feel guilty that there are still hungry people in Uganda.

Isn’t it just easier to be mediocre?

Here’s another truism: I can’t help you overcome this fear, either. Nor can your mentor, best friend or partner. You have to want to succeed and you have to want it more than you want to settle for whatever version of success you’ve redefined for yourself right now.

Being satisfied with what you have is perfectly ok, as long as you’ve reached your version of success and you are truly satisfied. But if there’s something more that’s always nagged at you, then pull it out of hiding, dust it off and acknowledge wanting it all over again. It’s the only way you can achieve it.

Define Your Dream

Much as I asked you to do before, I want you to sit down and think about what defines your success. I want you to imagine yourself as the rock star you once wanted to be and create a vision of that for yourself now.

Think about what you really want: to be a bestselling author? To be one of the top 5 wedding photographers on the East Coast? Voted “best new startup” in a well-known business magazine?

Maybe you’ve defined success as simply getting published and earning 500 raving fans. That may not be bestseller status, but it’s your dream. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating “always wanting more” and “never being satisfied with what you have”. I’m only asking you to decide what you want, whatever it is.

Identify Your Fears

Here we go making lists again. First I want you to make a list of all the things that keep you from reaching your goals. Are you afraid of the demands it will put on your time? Are you concerned about how your spouse or friends will feel about it? Do you think you’re not worthy?

Then I want you to divide that into the rational and irrational. It’s quite rational to worry about how success will affect your time. Success can keep you busy! But it is not rational or useful to worry that you aren’t worth it. You must focus on the “practical” fears and ignore the rest.

Once you’re in your right mind, do the same exercise we did last time and divide that list into 2 more: things you can control and things you can’t. If you become a bestselling author, you’ll probably end up with raving bands of groupies who want a second breakout novel. You can’t control that. But you can control how you deal with it – namely, whether you intend to write another or how you’ll let them down gently.

Be reasonable about your lists and acknowledge the fact that there are some things you won’t be able to control – and some you will. Yes, even success has consequences.

Plan For The Consequences

It may be in increased expectations, more attention from admirers, or the loss of friends who don’t believe in your path. But if you want to succeed, you must acknowledge and plan for the possibilities. Success isn’t all rainbows and roses. Instead of fearing that, face it and plan for it. As a leader in your industry you may well find your schedule packed with speaking engagements. Consider the impact that will have on your lifestyle and those around you and plan accordingly.

If you know there’s no way that you could leave your 2.5 kids and dog behind as you tour the country, then be ready to say no, or be prepared to find creative alternatives like interviews via webcam. There are always opportunities and possibilities if you open your eyes.

Many times our fear is sustained by the unknown. If you know yours, face it, and turn it into a practical exercise in dealing with reality instead of some horrible, ethereal dread, you will find your path a bit clearer.

Ignore The Naysayers

I mean really ignore. I mean don’t entertain, for one second, the possibility that someone who tells you that you should simply be “grateful for what you have” is right. If you let those people get hold of so much as one brain cell, you’ll get sucked into doubt.

Nobody knows what’s right for you except you. People will “mean well”. They’ll try to tell you things for your own good, offer to help you learn from their mistakes.

Don’t quit your job – you need a retirement plan.

Forget art/writing/music, the market is saturated and there’s no money in it.

“Take it from me”, owning your own business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

People will try really hard to be helpful and tell you all the ways that what you want isn’t what you think it is/isn’t what you really want/isn’t going to make you happy.

Pft. Don’t try to convince them. Don’t try to persuade them. You can’t. And it doesn’t matter, because they don’t define your success.

Recognize Your Worth

I’m not going to give you the “you’re totally worth it” pep talk. If you need me to remind you that feelings of lack of worth are pointless and untrue then you have bigger problems than a fear of success and should probably get a therapist.

Rather, what I want to do is remind you to recognize what you’ve accomplished. When you’re reaching for a larger goal it’s easy to forget all you’ve achieved along the way. It’s important to recognize the things you’ve learned, the mistakes you’ve fixed and the people you’ve inspired. Not every achievement has to be world-changing.

Grownups go to great lengths to praise kids for every little breath – every discovery, every clever word, every stick figure drawing is wonderful. How many of you post photos of your kids on Facebook doing something soooo cute or quote something they said in your status update because it was soooo brilliant? And how many of you are just as willing to dismiss your own achievements? Start treating yourself like you’d treat a kid – praise every discovery, every clever idea, every stick figure drawing. In short, be as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else!

Focus On The Journey

There is no finish line labeled “success”. There is only the journey. Remember when you used to wish you were grown up? Because that would be good, that would be freedom, that’s when life really got going. Then you got a little grown up and wanted something beyond. And you wished you were 21 because then you’d really be grown up and totally free and that would be when things got going. Then you turned 21 and still wanted something beyond. Then you thought, if only you were married/living abroad/had a nice car/had a house/weren’t married/didn’t have a mortgage/had a job/could quit your job…

You know what I’m talking about.

There is no perfect place where all your dreams will come true. There is only now. And even if you do reach your dreams, chances are you won’t find perfection there either. But that’s not what we’re trying to achieve, is it?

Instead of confusing perfection with success, focus on what your success looks like and then pay attention and enjoy the journey. Success isn’t at the end of the journey – success is  the journey.

You can combat your fear of success by enjoying and acknowledging every small success along the way to your bigger goal. And once you get there, whether it’s everything you wanted or not all it’s cracked up to be, you must realize that the journey is not over. It’s just time to start on a different path.

What have you achieved on your journey? Take a moment to show yourself a little appreciation and tell me about it in the comments.

Read More In This Series

Sabotaging Success Part 1: How ‘Fear Of Failure’ Will Wreck Your Business And Crush Your Dreams (Unless You Take Action Now)

Sabotaging Success Part 3: How Jumping Into Business Without Knowing Where You’re Headed Is A Recipe For Failure (And What To Do About It)

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • I love this, thanks for sharing your wisdom. I often think of it as: “whose dream do I want to be living?” My own–the one that keeps bugging me–or the dream someone else wants me to be living? I coach people in following their purpose (dreams seen a different way). Often it seems we get caught following the dream of our ancestors, or our culture. But I think of our dreams as our individualized road map. It’s the only road map we get in this life–save experience & the experience of others! Good to follow it–that’s what it’s there for!

    I love the questions you ask. Great stuff. 

    • You are so right – we do get caught up following the dreams of culture, ancestors, even immediate family. I bet a bunch of people out there never even really stopped to wonder what they want out of life. We’re so programmed to just go on autopilot and follow the “accepted path”. It’s great that you coach people to figure that path out because I think a lot of people are also not sure where to start. Thanks for sharing, and I’m glad you enjoyed this! Sometimes it helps to write it just to remind myself to take my own advice 🙂

  • Adrienne says:

    You were talking to me here Carol.

    My journey online has been a very long one up to this point.  I won’t go into all of that but I know that a lot of what was holding me back was that I didn’t see myself as a leader and all I kept hearing was you had to be a leader in order to succeed.  Now other people saw me in this light but I sure didn’t.  

    I’ve come to fully understand more now of exactly what that title means so I’m more open to moving in that direction.  Ah, the lessons we still have to learn along the way right.

    I do know as a child I had no idea what I wanted to be and I guess I never even thought about being the best of anything.  If I knew then what I know now my life would be totally different.  But I’m pretty happy with where I am now so I guess it all worked out well.  At least so far.

    Great post and I also appreciate you sharing your wisdom.  We can all learn from you my friend.


    • Adrienne, you are quite a leader! Of course we don’t start out that way. We have to learn and grow. So here’s a question: do you have to be a leader to be successful, or do you have to be successful to be considered a leader? Let that one stew for a while 🙂

      When I was a kid, first it was a ballerina, then it was a vet, then it was… of course… a rock star. But once that all passed I wanted to be a teacher and that was it, so that’s what I did! And in a lot of ways I still get to do that now, which is the part I love most.

      Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, aren’t we? If we could get out of our own way we’d have less anxiety about what we’re doing and just do it. I’m glad you’re happy where you are and I also have a feeling that if something went wrong you’d figure out how to pick it up and make it good again. You have a positive attitude which is an important ally.

  • Hi Carol,

    Absolutely excellent post! again 🙂

    You see fear of success is something a lot of people don’t think about. They say… I want to be successful “consciously”, but what they don’t know is that subconsciously they are really thinking otherwise such as … What if? Then what? What will be expected of me then? etc…  This creates a mental block against success.

    As children we have grand dreams, we do not think little, as you mentioned, but yes, as adults we tend to settle into mediocrity and be happy with it. We are taught that by our parents, teachers, the media… the list goes on.

    Naysayers can be total poison and there are to be avoided by all means, and if not, yes ignored.  We are all worth it, if not we wouldn’t be here in the first place.  It’s all about reminding this to ourselves EVERYDAY and keep our eyes on the prize.

    Thanks you, Carol, for this excellent piece of work.

    • You got it exactly right. We want something great but subconsciously we are a little bit scared of getting it so we hold back. And I think you said it better – avoid the naysayers instead of just ignoring them! Don’t even let them get in your head. Sounds like you have a pretty good handle on your success and know how to go out and get it.

  • Carol Lynn – You have done an excellent job and this should be published as a paid product….really!  I not only enjoyed all the advice you have given here but your writing style that really hit home. I just want to talk about all the facts above, but decided what resonates with me the most is when you say “Focus On The Journey.”  because so many people do not.   This is how they loose faith in themselves or their business. 
    There are steps in the journey to the goal.  Each time I see a step I leap for joy.  I celebrate it.  This reinforces me to go on. 
    Of course I have my goal in mind, paying attention to the journey does sometimes bring in other opportunities.  Those opportunities can be a guest on someone’s blog, a joint venture with someone who likes what I am saying.  You know, stuff like that.  Yes, money is important, but not as important as the joy we receive by the actions we take.
    If you miss those things that come up in the journey, you can miss many opportunities you have never thought of.
    Thanks so much, I do appreciate all that you give,

    • Maybe I should write a book 😉

      I agree, the journey is important because the end goal could be a distance off, but you have to be able to appreciate how much you are accomplishing every day. 

      I also think you hit another important point, which is that if you pay attention to the journey, you could find new opportunities you didn’t even expect and that could lead to something even better or at least give you a chance to explore. Good thought!

      I enjoy your inspiration, too, Donna! Thank you for your thoughts!

  • Hi Carol Lynn,

    Awesome post.I know how this feels. I have written a novel (it’s not published yet), and at times, I have been thinking, what happens if it becomes a success? I love being close to invisible, and although I love talking to people, I am not a guy that are looking for attention. I have had dreams about being in the newspaper and on a talk show 🙂 And for a while that was my biggest fear. I didn’t care about the novel, or the process, I was just thinking about what could happen if it was a success. And after that, I started thinking about what would happen if it was a failure. To me, the fear of success was actually worse than the fear of failure. It’s weird, but true.But, during that process I learned to focus on what’s happening today, and the process of writing, and not to think about what might happen one day in the future. And, I was asking myself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I am doing my best to have fun every single day, and to me that’s the point of working.. and stop thinking about the bad things that might happen 🙂

    • Jens, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to publish that book! You know, you could always do it under a pseudonym at first, just to try fame from a quieter place. One way or another, you have to go for it. In the meantime you have the right attitude – enjoy what you’re doing and appreciate it right now. 

      That’s also a good question: “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” If you write a major bestseller, nobody says you must go on a talk show. They are not going to kidnap you and bring you there 🙂 You could just say no and go on writing great books!

  • Great topic, and one that I need to delve into myself. I do this all the time, and then I procrastinate. The ideas are great, but they need follow through. That is the surest way to make a bad impression. Though you can’t beat yourself up about it either. You just have to “Do it”. 

    • Totally right. It’s hard to get out of the procrastination trap sometimes because you don’t really see it as procrastination, rather you think you’re just planning and waiting for the time to be right. As you said, at some point you have to DO. Stop thinking, stop planning and jump, or you could be standing on the edge forever!

  • Anon says:

    Dear Carol, I would like to start my own business. I have a degree in IT and a Masters in Business Admin – Finance and Investments. What I would like to know is the level of expertise required to do a certain kind of business. My idea is to start a home based hand painted silk clothes business. I have learnt the techniques online and have made few designs too, and I do fairly neat/good work and I am hoping it will sell. Is that a very bad idea? Do I need to be a professional / a degree holder in arts to start something like this? Much regards, Anon

  • I can’t really give an opinion on that without any knowledge of your particular situation. Before you can make a decision like that, you’d need to know a few things, including: who is your target market? Are people interested in your services and who are those people? Are you equipped to handle the business, the marketing and the production? Even if you’re good at silkscreening, you still need a market and you need to market your products as well as “run the business”.

    I don’t know what the requirements are for your industry (in terms of having a degree) but you can do some research to get a better idea of that. Find other people in your industry or a mentor who may be able to provide guidance. I suggest starting with research to come up with a good plan and to understand how your industry works. Best of luck!