What if you could actually create the success you say you want in life? Could your fear of success actually get in your way?
A few weeks ago I began this series on what holds you back in life; last week, I turned our attention toward the fear of failure, a somewhat common scapegoat in the world of excuses. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the Director of DARPA, Dr. Regina Dugan, argued that "you can't lose your nerve for the big failure, because the nerve you need for the big success is the exact same nerve."
Indeed, Dr. Dugan brings an important element into the discussion of what it takes to get ahead. You do need to be able to stomach the downside potential of any move you make to get ahead, even if it's as simple and mundane as the risk you assume when you get behind the wheel of your car.
However, when confronting the myriad challenges we face in life, one oft-overlooked limiting factor might just be what some have called the "fear of success." Fear of success and fear of failure can be very closely aligned. On the surface, this notion might seem ridiculous -- what on Earth could be scary about success? But if you dig a bit below the surface, you might discover some powerfully limiting aspects of your own mindset, of your own approach to life. Let's do a little digging.
Is The Familiar In Your Way?
Consider this question: have you become accustomed to life as it is for you now? What a dumb question -- of course you have, even if what you have become accustomed to is not quite what you would prefer. We've all heard of the "comfort zone," and most of us have been in a discussion or two about the role of the comfort zone in holding people back. However, most people miss the real power of this notion by wrongly assuming that the comfort zone refers to something about being comfortable.
I know this may sound a bit nuts, but hang in there a moment or two. As you think about this for a bit, you may realize that you are typically most comfortable in surroundings that are most familiar. Even people who engage in dangerous activities like rock climbing will attest that while it's not so physically comfortable out there hanging off a rock wall, and while the risks can be high, the experienced rock climber can still be quite comfortable, both with the lack of physical comfort as well as with the inherent risk. Why? Because she is extremely familiar with the environment and what it takes to succeed in climbing that sheer wall.
If you don't particularly like your job or some other aspect of your life, you may also find that you have become comfortable with it if for no reason other than the fact that it is familiar. If this is you, if you grouse about your daily circumstances yet keep returning to them, then you may be a member of what I call the "ain't-it-awful club." Members of this club love to engage in "one-downsmanship": "You think that's bad, wait until you hear this one." You may also know this one as "misery loves company."
Perhaps you have also settled for the "weevily peanuts" of life rather than going for life's banquet table. Settling for less is a very individual set of choices and definitions, and it is not my intent to define either the peanuts or the banquet table for you. However, if you have the sense that you have settled more than strived for what you want, then it might be worth your while to explore how your fear of success is in the way.
As much as you may complain about the job/company/boss, have you become comfortable or familiar with what it takes to get by in your current circumstance -- not necessarily to succeed, but to at least get by? Breaking out from the familiar, from what got you here, may not be very comfortable, and it may conjure up some fears or risks in your mind. Giving up membership in the ain't-it-awful club and letting go of weevily peanuts may have any number of risks associated with them, but the risks have more to do with new success behaviors than they do with the fear of failure.
What Are The Downsides To Success?
Consider this: what would happen if you were to achieve the success you think you would prefer? What if the job changed dramatically, the income surged, the relationships were vastly improved? Look beyond the obvious ("I'd be richer/happier/better off") and ask yourself, "What demands would there be on me if...? What would I have to do or be differently?"
This is where it gets interesting. Let's take a promotion as an example: if you did rise to a higher level in your job, what behaviors or skills would you have to evidence? What would others now demand of you? What would you have to do differently? How would you have to interact differently with co-workers, family or friends? Are these skills or behaviors that you already have, skills or behaviors with which you are already comfortable? There's a good chance that the answer is "no."
In my career coaching managers and executives in businesses large and small, I have often witnessed the changes that befall the person who wins a promotion, especially when someone moves from co-worker into a management position or from middle management to senior executive. Co-workers who used to be buddies somehow begin to distance themselves, and the newly minted manager needs to resign membership in the ain't-it-awful club. No longer is grousing about the boss acceptable; the challenge now is to fix rather than complain. Fixing and complaining are different skill sets. Are you more complainer than fixer?
What Do You Tell Yourself Before You Start?
Have you ever entertained thoughts about what might happen if...? Imagine telling yourself a story that goes something like this: "Well, first I'll be the one with the office. Then I'll be the one making decisions. But what if the decisions don't work out? What if I don't know what to do? What if I'm not very good at it? Now I'm going to tell them what to do, and then I'm going to have to do their performance reviews. How will my friends/co-workers respond to me being in charge? What if they start complaining about me? What if they abandon me?"
These negative "what if" scenarios may sound pretty darn close to fear of failure. However, underneath them lies a precursor fear: What if I get what I say I want and I'm not prepared to handle it? What if I'm just an imposter pretending that I know what to do?
The subtle little twist here is that while you might be able to imagine success and even create it, the doubt remains that you will be able to handle it. The fear of success then often shows up as self-doubt, as an inner voice reminding you that you probably can't handle the success you want.
As you can probably sense, there's a lot more to this, and we have only begun exploring how fear of success might be in your way. Next week, we'll go a bit deeper, looking at several other pieces to the puzzle.
In the meantime, keep asking yourself what you want out of life and why you want it. What have you told yourself about taking the risks necessary to create what you want? What have you found useful in overcoming obstacles, in creating your own version of success in life?
I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell@russellbishop.com.
If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, and on how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact him by email at Russell@russellbishop.com.