What is “Fear of Success” Really?
You awaken in your waterfront apartment in Monaco. The sun is fresh and bright, the air is clean, you open your window and look down at your Perini Navi superyacht. The crew has been readying the boat for a voyage to the Seychelles. As you pass the breakwater, the electronic robots will lift those magnificent carbon fiber sails as your family takes in one of the most beautiful bodies of water on the face of the earth. Don’t forget to remind them that you’re all coming back by September 15th to take in the concert at La Scala. Perhaps you might take a little side trip to your villa in Lake Como.
How many of us wake up in the morning paralyzed with the fear of being our perfect weight, of having trunkloads of cash in our bank accounts and having the freedom to do whatever we want?
For years, participants have come into our programs and at some point, told me they have good old-fashioned fear of success. Typically, I ask, “What does that mean?” Because, fear of success doesn’t really exist. In fact, the phrase wraps us in a bit of psychic gauze to keep us from confronting what it really represents. For the vast majority of us, fear of us success is actually fear of attention.
For that last 30 years my company has made a science out of looking at what influences the decisions we make to pursue the work that we love versus the alternative. We have examined why people will lead fairly mediocre professional lives while others define their life’s work and also become successful in their careers. Our program reaches deep within someone’s truth to define the work they would most love, the work that would matter to them, the work that would represent meaning. These definitions are unique for everyone. The magic happens when they realize how they have distracted themselves from one of life’s most important opportunities.
We are afraid of drawing enough attention to ourselves to become wealthy. We are afraid of asking the right people to help us. Our culture does little to prepare children for wealth. On the other hand, we are quite adept at getting people to fit in. Our country spends more time demonizing the attention rather than elevating it and telling others it is key to our success. Many people carry around this fear that if they draw attention to themselves, they will get hurt.
Drawing attention to ourselves is one of the fundamental skills that gives us the option to do the work we love. But, far too many people have spent big portions of their lives flying under the radar. As traditional task-based jobs fall away, this skill deficit represents a growing crisis.
Many people avoid drawing attention to themselves because they are afraid of getting hurt. Almost all of us carry around a few wounds from getting attention. But, the alternative is worse. Because, when we avoid attention, we starve. Anyone who has lived through a protracted job search will understand. In the past, high visibility was reserved for a select few. But, accelerating change requires that all of us learn the game of connectivity. Why? The #1 reason people fail is due to isolation. Hide from the world? Nothing will happen because no one can see you.
Digging our way out of a mediocre career and livelihood requires building the chicken andthe egg. In other words, we find very little happens if someone isn’t taking the initiative to define the work they most want to do. At the same time, developing the skills to draw attention to our value, to build effective support, and to find healthy ways to manage fear are not only vital to someone who wants a great career, but they are also now vital to anycareer.
When people had jobs for life, none of this mattered except for a tiny few who did not to fit into the old model of work. Finding work that is meaningful has always been the best way to have work that adds joy and meaning to our lives. However, in the last 2 decades task work began to disappear. Traditional jobs are getting ground up every single day. Cycles of change between jobs, clients, projects gain speed every day.
Here’s the good news:
There is nothing spectacularly different from hugely successful people and the rest of us. They get frightened all of the time. So do we. However, they don’t allow fear to keep them from taking action. Successful people also ask for help all of the time. The rest of us are reluctant to ask for help. Good Lord, that might imply we don’t know what we are doing! Cher has crippling stage fright. If she allowed that fear to dictate her behavior, she wouldn’t be Cher. She’d be Charilyn Sarkisian, the crazy manicurist at the local nail salon. Richard Branson would have failed with his first business, a magazine called Student, when he was 16. To this day, Richard is terrified of making presentations!
Taking action whether we are frightened or not is one of the single two most important differentiators between successful people and the rest of us.
Successful people know that drawing attention to their mission, vision, and purpose is a fundamental element to thriving. Avoiding attention is the much used option for people who are just getting by.
Let’s tell the truth. I believe that most of us would love real success. I believe that most everyone would rather become a member of the 1% than spend energy demonizing them. But, blaming others is perhaps the single thickest skin humans can adopt in avoiding self-responsibility, active learning, and taking action – no matter how scary.
Stamping out underemployment, as all of my readers know, is becoming one of my primary aims in life. Right now, about half of our country’s workers characterize themselves as underemployed. It is going to get worse. Our school system doesn’t teach people how to succeed. It doesn’t teach wealth. We can’t find a graduate school that requires sales and presentation skills training. And yet, these graduates have a very difficult future without these skills. Last year, I made a presentation with my colleague Dr. Mary Campbell. This organization sponsors one of the largest and most well-funded charter schools in the country. They gave out an award for “Student of the Month.” She was about 17 and refused to come up to the podium to accept her award. I turned to Mary and characterized her behavior as a failure of our educational system as well as many parents.
So, the next time that someone around you announces they have “fear of success,” tell the truth. Every single one of us has the means and the spirit to become successful. Only we have the right and the choice to choose whether we will stand on the sidelines or go for it.
Let’s stop making comfort more important than happiness.
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