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Inspiration and Productivity

Why Does Success Scare Me?

by Andy Mort | 2 Comments

According to the OED success is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”.

In my last post I discussed the way that success is often seen as an extrinsic rather than intrinsic notion, as we are judged on the rewards we get for our work, rather than the work itself. Public opinion uses stereotypes to box its understanding of what apparently successful people in our particular field have been rewarded with in the past, so that it can judge us in the present. This brings with it the unhelpful yet prevalent idea of ‘making it’, which we hear in all fields. It is an abstract concept that nobody ever achieves, which only serves to make most people feel like failures at every stage of progress. It also leads to a life in which we are never content, and always living to serve the judgement of stereotypes rather than the intrinsic passions inside us all. This is the problem when success is evaluated by money and fame, both of which are in essence substantially valueless.

In this post I want to think about success as something that inhibits our incentive to work.

It sounds like a contradiction. Surely if we knew we were going to be successful we would do the work and be happy about it? That would be a breath of fresh air.

Or perhaps not…

Maybe we have a world full of brilliant people who are too afraid to do what they have passion and abundant potential for because there is a chance they might succeed.

The implications of success, especially public opinion success as we understand it through our limited fame and fortune lens, can be an overwhelming burden to bear. Note, I say the implications of success (the extrinsic) rather than the inherent success of the work itself (the intrinsic). The historic fruit of civilisations is the intrinsic successes of individuals; it is not brought about by the extrinsic rewards, which paradoxically encourage mediocrity, middle ground and completely forgettable work.

Fame and fortune are NOT incentives for genius; they are the carrot for foolishness.

Why do we want to be successful?

This is an important question and one we should constantly ask ourselves, along with that of what do we want to be successful at and what does success look like. Does a need to prove ourselves, maybe a desire to be accepted, or perhaps a yearning for respect drive our desire to succeed? What sort of success, and what sort of people will we become if this is our motivator?

The Fear

Fear can drive us to act and it can drive us to bury our heads in the sand. There is something very real about the fight or flight response when it comes to our own lives. Often there is a third response, which involves inaction rather than the active decision of fighting or fleeing the situation. We stall, we put our heads down and unquestioningly get on with it, we accept the status quo, we try to blend in, we try to stay comfortable, we keep our routine and we engage with a limited, safe and biased understanding of the world and other people. Even though we might have a great passion, desire and dream of breaking out of these patterns, the fear of actually succeeding in this can be motivating factor enough to stop us from ever doing it.

It is the fear of success. We might push a little bit every so often, before we allow what Freud called the ‘need to fail’ to sabotage our efforts. In other words we don’t actually want to achieve our dreams, but we want to feel like we have at least tried.

Common underlying fears of success are as follows:

– You will enjoy less time for yourself.
– You will have to assume more responsibilities.
– You will have less time with your family.
– You will have to hire more employers and that will mean more headache because you have to be concerned about worker motivation, office space and so on.
– You will have to uphold a higher set of standards because you are now a leader.
– Others will envy or be jealous of you.
– You do not like to deal with changes to routine.
– You suspect that you would not be as happy.
– You believe that it will mean never-ending work.
– You do not like being famous.
– You believe that the higher you climb, the harder you will fall.

These are all very general fears and what I would describe as big picture concerns. It is like looking at everything you have got to get done in a single week at work, and thinking of it all outside the context of time. The sheer volume of stuff can be quite overwhelming, but we do have time, and the ability to manage that time to make sure that everything gets done. Once we get going it doesn’t even feel like we are ticking things off that overbearing list from the start of the week. Similarly, we can have paralysing generalised ideas of success, with the belief that everything changes in the blink of an eye.

We have come to believe in the notion of ‘overnight success’ as a reality rather than a myth (it is not real – it is an illusion, outside of reality TV shows), and this leads us to irrational fears about our life being turned upside down. In truth, life is a process. It is a process of growing deeper in our understanding of ourselves, the world and one another, and success is an inevitable part of this. If we are moving forward then down the line the little fears that we have at the moment wont even be a factor, we will roll with the punches and get on with what we need to do without even thinking.

If we think beyond ourselves and fear an abstract notion of success the following consequences can ensue:

– You lack motivation
– You downplay your dreams
– You progress slowly
– You consistently underacheive
– You feel confused about what you want out of life
– You feel negative emotions like guilt, shame, denial, envy etc.
– You rarely feel connected to your ‘true self’.

Because there is disconnect between our present reality and our concept of success, the fear can consume us and totally stop us from doing anything at all. It is this that leads us to talk about our dreams but never act on them. It can also lead us to be damaging to other people who do act on them. We can become bitter, negative and jealous of people who don’t let fear control them. As well as having that ‘need to fail’ ourselves, we manifest a need for others to fail too, so we put our efforts into sabotaging their progress.

Do you recognise any of these fears in your own life? Make a list of any others that might halt your progress.

In the next post I will explore some ways in which we can get out of dwelling on big picture thinking, and move into a life of meaningful and intrinsic success that needs nothing more than a mindset to be achieved.

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  • I found this personally very relevant, but only by replacing “success” with “failure”. As in, it’s the fear of failure that scares me away from trying my best and in a sense scares me away from success. I think, in a way, you did touch on this briefly. In my experience it’s the fear of the fall and the fear of not being good enough that scares people into mediocrity, rather than the fear of success itself. Very interesting article though, thanks!