Fear of Success

What’s with the fear of success?

I can’t say that I understand it. Success is something I’ve been striving toward for years with my writing. Maybe that’s why the thought is so alien to me. I know lots of people who would say I’m already a successful writer – however, I’m not yet a success in my own mind. I’ve set the bar higher than that.

Apparently there are many who fear success – to the point where, when it comes knocking at the door, they cower in the closet, hoping the visitor gives up and leaves.

I have a friend, a musician who is a 20-year veteran of the Holiday Inn circuit. He started out in the 70’s in a rock band, determined to make it to the top.

So what happened? Was there an album that was ill-promoted, a tragic post-breakthrough concert overdose, or a manager who absconded with the bankroll?

None of the above.

My friend says, “We got our chance at the big time, and half the members left. It was like they couldn’t deal with the idea of success.”

That boggled my mind. I couldn’t imagine all of that preparation for something, only to walk away from it.

“I can’t figure it out, either,” said my friend. “But in the music business, it’s common enough to be a cliche. The band members who quit the day they make the big time.”

Thing is, this isn’t the exclusive territory of musicians. Now that I know what to look for, I see it all the time.

Our agency had a client that designed something innovative and wonderful. They sank a lot of money into R & D, and into having us help with research and come up with marketing tactics. We had all of the machinery in place to do a blitz with their innovation, to launch it into the forefront of their industry’s (and the public’s) consciousness.

And they backed off. They introduced the product with a whimper, and within a year they let us go and took their media in-house. The original version of their product seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.

The sad thing is, this company was ahead of the curve with their innovation. In the years since this thing withered, nobody else has done anything like it… but one aspect of their innovation is now slowly becoming a standard in the industry.

This company was two years ahead of everyone else with just that one aspect, and they blew it. I wrote scripts for TV and radio and print for it and they did nothing. They could have been visionaries. They chose to become sheep; they’re still ignoring this one innovation, and continue for the most part to do things the way they always have.

I don’t know how many clients I’ve seen come to our meeting room with a vision, have us put a plan together, and on the eve of implementation, back away.

They might even say, “We don’t want to spend the money.”

Personally, I think they’re scared. Of success. Just like my friend’s band-mates and other acquaintances.

Why are they scared of success? I don’t think there’s any one single element. It could be any one of a number of things:

1) They are comfortable where they are. Comfort is safe. If you’re only opening for a big name act night after night, you go out, you do your 30-minute set, you walk off. What could be easier? If you know your traditional widget will sell a million units a year, year in and year out, why rock the boat with innovation? If you step out and start publishing, there might be people out there who… *gasp…* might not like your work.

2) Success requires self-defense. It’s hard to be an original these days. If your band comprised of lipstick lesbians is a hit (see Tatu), watch for hordes of imitators (yes, that is a prediction). If your little company comes up with a modified, improved widget, all of the major widgeteers out there are going to come up with their answer to same. In either case, you’re going to have to work even harder to stay at the top of your game. Just ask Tom Clancy and John Grisham, who spawned their own sub-genres, and with them a host of imitators.

3) Success brings responsibility. If you become that big name act, you are suddenly responsible for the outcome of your career. You have to put together a successful concert, an album of hits, and you are put under the microscope of public scrutiny. The next improvement on your widget had better live up to customer expectations. And if your new novel comes out sounding an awful lot like your previous one? Well, sorry, but we’ve already got John Irving.

4) Success is hard work. Touring may have sounded fun, but after spending a year making the round of Holiday Inns, perhaps you’re thinking differently. And now the label that wants you is talking about sending you around the world? People love your widget – and now your customers want more options? It took you three years to write that first book – and now the publisher would like one a year? Hey, this is hard! Forget it!

5) The taste of success may not be the flavor you expected. As I said, from the viewpoint of a lot of people, I’m a successful writer. Likely their criteria for defining success are: published, foreign editions, e-books, movie rights sold. That’s not the flavor I asked for at the counter – it was writing novels full time and supporting myself and family with same. With frequent sojourns on bestseller lists. I could have said, “that’s it, I didn’t make it, I quit.” But I didn’t. I’m still working on getting served the flavor I asked for. Ani DiFranco took a different approach. When a major label wanted to turn her into a ToriAmosPaulaColeAlanisMorissette angry chick or a diva, she bailed and started her own label, determined to do her music on her terms. Other people, when they encounter things they didn’t expect, simply bail.

6) Success means that everything changes. I’m beginning to think that the spectre of change is a bigger fear, a nastier ogre than that of public speaking. What does change entail? Look at the first five items on this list. Then add to that: everything else. Change equals stress. Having a change in employment status can bring just as much (if not more) stress than a death in the family. It’s not just me saying this – it’s the research of people who study such things. And if finding your mug on the cover of Fortune magazine because of your prowess with widgets isn’t an indicator of change, I don’t know what is. Apply to the music and writing analogies as needed.

What to do about it? I’m no expert, but I’m thinking this could be the big brother of something I touched on earlier, namely my contention that a writer’s support group may cease to function once they reach the goal of publication.

After all, we go to school and pay for higher education so we can all learn how to be a success. But what is there to prepare us for success? Anthony Robbins leads people to the brink, but does he tell people to do once they get there? Hmmm, once you’re hypnotized in the elevator, you’re on your own.

The only thing I can think of is Biblical principles, which are only accepted by a few, but which form the backbone of our notions of morality. The New Testament is a model of what it takes to lead yourself to change (in this instance, the initiation of a relationship with Christ and turning your life over to Him), and how to apply the principles that got you there to the rest of your life. Considering that the book of Acts shows how the Gospel touched the lives of everyone from humble fishermen to career soldiers to successful businesswomen (!), it’s a short leap to apply those same principles to dealing with success.

It’s all a matter of keeping things in perspective, really. With God at the center of it all (of course, God isn’t accepted by everyone, so he wouldn’t be seen as being much help in situations like that.)

No matter where you stand on the Biblical perspective, I think the answer is to prepare yourself (although it’s interesting to note here that one of the key concepts of Christianity is self-accountability – imagine that). This is something I’ve been trying to do over the years – think through the changes that success would bring on a number of different levels, from spirituality to privacy, and trying to put plans into place now that will make the transition easier when success comes. Whether or not this work is yet to be seen (as are things I no doubt have failed to take into account).

On the other hand, it could be that I’ve simply overanalyzed the whole concept of fear of success. Perhaps it’s a simple mechanism to keep the field from getting too crowded so those of us who are ready, willing and able can meet up with our responsibility.

Nobody ever complains about how crowded it is at the top.

NP – iTSP (Phil Manzanera & 801, “Listen Now”)

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