How to Overcome the Fear of Success
Strange as it may sound, some people are afraid of being successful because of their own false beliefs about success. In this article, we debunk the two main myths about success and argue that this fear may be masquerading as its opposite: fear of failure.
In school, I took it for granted that success was desired by everyone. After all, every student wants to score as high as possible. They may or may not put in the needed effort to realize a good grade, but the wish to do well is always there. So it came as a surprise to me, post graduation, to see people turn down great offers such as leading a highly performing team, getting a highly visible role in a large organization, meeting with a well-known publisher who may develop their work into bestsellers, and so on. Time and again, I've witnessed friends and colleagues say “Thanks, but no thanks” to what I would have considered a no-brainer move. Why are some people afraid of success?
Please note: I am aware that success means different things to different people; and even for the same person, the definition of success will evolve with time and circumstance. I also know that not every open door is a step forward, and not every step up raises you up – a great offer might be a Trojan horse. At issue here, though, are instances when someone has clearly defined a state as success, yet balked at it when it arrived.
For instance, when a friend, who I will call Jack, was offered his boss’s position, he rejected it. This was a position he wanted and had worked hard for. He admired his boss and thought she was a successful leader. Yet, when he was given the coveted manager’s seat, he turned it down. Not because it didn’t fit his definition of success, but precisely because it did, and that (getting what he has always wanted) scared him.
In talking to Jack and other people who have faced success – as they defined it – and turned away, I realized the fear of success stems mainly from two false beliefs people have about success. We will discuss these myths below so you can free yourself of the fear of success and live your dreams.
False Belief #1: I can’t handle the new demands.
This is by far the most frequently stated reason for turning down a promotion. “My boss is a superhuman,” Jack once said, apparently thinking it will take superhuman strength for him to function as well in that position.
Overcoming Fear of Success Tip #1: Grow what you need.
The science of epigenetics and neuroplasticity disagree that you can’t handle entirely new tasks. Epigenetics states that external factors affect how a gene expresses itself. Neuroplasticity is shedding new light on how the brain works--in particular, that the brain can grow in size and complexity, regardless of age. Experience bears this out: you get better by doing. You may think you are not as great a leader as the person whose post you are assuming. But they didn’t start out as a packaged product either. They got better the longer they led.
The verdict from science and experience is clear on this: We can become new, possessing skills and abilities that would amaze our old selves. Don’t sell yourself short. Take that promotion, accept that challenge, because you can handle it.
False Belief #2: It will sour established relationships.
People often worry about the impact their success will have on cherished relationships. Jack, for instance, felt uneasy about leading his former colleagues. “I hang out with these guys all the time…the thought of being their boss?" (He forgot that his current boss used to be their peer as well, and she led just fine.)
Overcoming Fear of Success Tip #2: Know that your loved ones are rooting for you.
Success stretches your abilities, develops old, unused skills and creates new, useful ones. It progresses the self, which, over time, will turn one into an extraordinarily remarkable individual whose influence is far reaching. One big aim in life is to be all that we were meant to be.
Advice to graduates and anyone beginning anew:
"To exchange this opportunity for self-actualization for the shifting sands of people’s opinions is not a fair trade; it is to give bread in return for stone, substance for shadows."
-Michael Taiwo, author of DREAM
What’s more, you cannot accurately predict how everyone will react. Jack’s colleagues, for instance, weren’t happy he gave up the chance to be their boss! They felt the team’s atmosphere would be 100% better with Jack as the leader. He apparently misjudged how his pals would take his promotion.
What I have found, rising from extreme poverty in Africa to fully living the American Dream, is that your tribe gets your vibe. They don’t feel alienated that you are making it. They see it as a license that they can make it too. Your light illuminates their path. Plus, they have a new bragging right: their relationship with you.
Relationships often grow stale due to monotony. Success disrupts the humdrum, injecting life and excitement into an established relationship. Rather than sour a relationship, it sweetens it. (The insecure folks who can’t handle what you are becoming don’t count.)
To be clear, I don’t think success should come at the expense of cherished relationships. They are not mutually exclusive, so there’s no reason for anyone to think they must choose between achieving their potential and keeping beneficial relationships.
Fear of Success or Fear of Failure?
It can be argued that, when we dig deep to reveal our core fears, it is failure, not success, that some people are afraid of. Jack is not so much afraid of being the boss as he is of being the boss AND sucking at it. I know of someone who turned down the chance to be a keynote speaker at a large conference – something that would have launched her speaking career – because, to quote her verbatim, “What if I start getting these big speaking events regularly and run out of things to say?” She would love to be a successful speaker; she just doesn’t want to be a has been.
But as we have seen, the more you do a task, the more your ability to do it well increases. The task thus appears easier. Also, your true friends and well-wishers are rooting for you, making the journey more fun. I encourage you to go for gold in your endeavors. Success is a learned skill--start learning now.