I first heard the term “fear of success” twenty-five years ago, when I started my corporate career with a Fortune 50 petroleum company. I remember thinking Who in the world is afraid of success? Isn’t success what we all strive for, what we map our careers around, and the goal that drives us forward? Why would anyone be afraid to achieve a goal? The phrase was lost on me.
It wasn’t until I left the corporate world and became a writer that I began to understand the concept of fear of success. I became acquainted with writers who were so talented, who labored for years attending conferences and submitting to every publishing house in New York, and when they got their big break, they celebrated and cheered, then…nothing.
Either they couldn’t deliver the manuscript, or they buckled under the pressure of revisions…or maybe they got through that first book, but they went on an indefinite hiatus. They learned the hard way that the sale of a book brings obligation…and for many writers, the obligation of their success is too much pressure.
I understand the thrill and the pressure of having your name on a book and feeling responsible for its success or failure. You feel as if the spotlight is on you, and I suspect the same is true for solo musicians, actors, professional athletes, even doctors and lawyers whose businesses/practices bear their name. But in hindsight, I realize there are a lot of people in the corporate world who are also afraid of success, afraid of moving to the next level and being shouldered with more responsibility, or afraid that at a higher level of management, they will be vulnerable if the company downsizes. (And granted, their “fears” are all legitimate.) But what price are they paying for their fear? Boredom? Dissatisfaction? Depression?
I’d be lying if I said I’d never experienced the fear of success. Recently an old tech buddy of mine contacted me about sitting on the advisory board of a startup company he thought I could help lead to the next level. Privately, I acknowledged the direction the company wanted to take was square in my wheelhouse, but I had a few moments of “Am I good enough?” and concerns that my friend had oversold my experience to the company’s owner. And worse…what if he hadn’t? What if I was able to contribute to the company, and it demanded too much of my time? Thankfully, I exhaled. And told myself this was the kind of opportunity I’d always hoped for—I could both teach AND learn. The camaraderie alone would be invaluable. And maybe I wouldn’t be able to contribute at the level I wanted to…but I wouldn’t let the fear of success keep me trying. I accepted the advisory position and only a few months in, I’ve benefitted tenfold from what I’ve contributed.
If you try something and you simply don’t like it, then by all means, pull back (or out). But don’t let the fear of success keep you from reaching your full potential. Every “successful” person will tell you their path to success has been littered with the obstacles of failure along the way. Don’t fear success—fear regret.