Images shot on Ilford HP5 Plus 400 in Yashica Electro 35 GSN
If you’re a hobbyist photographer with a job you don’t like and would love to be making a living with what comes out of your camera instead, I have a question. It’s a little blunt but, if that’s your dream, why haven’t you made it happen yet?
I’m not here to judge. Not when I can help you come to a constructive conclusion instead. So let’s move on to another question. If you’re holding yourself back by not putting yourself out there enough, why is that? What is it you fear?
Some people would point to the fear of failure, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. As we’ll get into later, failure alone is nothing to be scared of. In a lot of ways, it’s actually comfortable. Others would say it’s a fear of success, which I can understand too.
In both cases though, the real fear is often something else. The fear of being judged. If this sounds familiar and is something you want to work through for yourself, please read on.
How can success be scarier than failure?
This section needs to begin with a caveat. Of course I understand that for some people failure means not putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads. And I’m sure that is scarier than success.
That’s not really what this is about, though. It’s not about having a job or not. It’s about being successful at a creative endeavour. Be it photography, music, art, a blog like this, or anything else you make and put out into the world, possibly so successfully that you can replace your job with it.
In all of those cases and many others, the fear of success rather than failure really can be what is holding people back.
The crux of the theory is simple. Change is scarier than things staying the same, and things only change when something has an impact. In the instances mentioned above, failure usually means nothing changes.
This change could mean being exposed to a greater audience who will expect more from you and increase the pressure on you to deliver. It also increases the chance of someone criticising what you do, which is something we’ll get into later.
All of the above is brought about by success. If you fail, you don’t have to deal with any of them. So for creatives, failure maintains the comfortable status quo.
More dangerous than that though is how it gives you permission to keep doing what you’re doing because hey, you may not have broken through yet but at least you’re trying.
It’s okay to pat yourself on the back while shrugging your shoulders and scrolling through your phone watching other people do exactly what they – and maybe you – want to do every day. Because at least you gave it a go.
Failure gives you license to massage your ego in your safe place while those who got success are the ones being torn apart in the comments section by anonymous people who are happy to never try.
I know which of those sounds more comfortable and I believe that’s why the idea of success can be scarier than never succeeding.
Examples of my own fear of success
I know this idea of the fear of success is a valid one because it’s something I’ve experienced on multiple occasions myself. Perhaps going through some of those is the best way to illustrate the point further.
A few years ago, I did some freelance writing for other people and their websites. At the time, I had the worst client acquisition system possible.
That’s not to say it didn’t get me any work, because it did. But it was an awful way of doing so and I felt awful doing it.
The method was to send cold introduction emails offering my services, BCC’d to around 200 companies at a time. I don’t recommend you do the same. Ever.
The idea of success being scarier than failure comes in with what I wanted to happen with regards replies – if we take a reply as success.
I kinda didn’t want any, because no replies would mean nobody telling me to stop spamming them. I needed work but I’d wake up and hope for an empty inbox if it meant nobody criticising me. I wanted the endeavour – the emails – to fail.
It’s a ridiculous thing to look back on. I was sending emails I didn’t want to send to people who didn’t want to receive them and kinda hoping these people wouldn’t reply to them.
After the freelance writing, I worked on setting up an online store. It’s now shut down due to it not really working out.
One thing I noticed was the longer I spent trying to make a success of it, the scarier the idea of making sales became. This stemmed from one interaction with one unhappy customer, although we did resolve the issue very quickly.
In the beginning, I imagined every sale would result in a happy customer. After a while though, the fear a sale would lead to a complaint was almost as strong as the desire to make a sale in the first place, which made making no sales a comfortable place to be.
But hey, at least I tried. I got the store up and running. It was online, it got some traffic, and I sold a few things. It’s not my fault that number wasn’t higher. There’s not much more I could have done anyway – I was too busy patting myself on the back in my safe place.
This website is similar. What if nobody reads this article? No worries, I guess. At least I wrote it. And it’ll be nice not to be ripped apart in the comments or on Twitter by people who disagree with it.
Why the fear of success is really the fear of failure
We mentioned earlier all the things that may happen if and when you find success. You get exposed to a bigger audience, which increases the expectation and pressure for you to keep delivering.
Your photography takes off and people want to see more. Your songs take off and people want to come see you play. Your outreach works and people want you to actually do the work you said you’re really good at.
And that’s where the real fear comes in. Fear of now failing in front of them. So really, this so-called fear of success is just a fear of an even bigger failure further down the road now that some people know who you are.
There might some impostor syndrome at play here, but that’s a topic that deserves its own separate post. It’s definitely a confidence thing of some sort, though.
Looking back at my own experience, I did fear in the beginning that my freelance writing work would get sent back to me with huge changes needed. But it never did. Some clients asked for minor edits, but that’s completely normal in that game.
The longer I did it, the smaller that fear became. But I never really pushed myself to get bigger clients or more difficult work than I was comfortable doing.
If I had and I’d been successful in getting some, I’d have been again scared of failing at it – until of course I did enough that I wasn’t anymore.
I think that’s where most of us are with whatever it is we do. We’re not at the bottom anymore, but every time we climb we acclimatise to the current plateau that’s naturally more comfortable than the one above it.
And we’re hesitant to climb again because while getting up there would be another success in the now, potential failure is waiting for us should we make it.
The fear of judgement is greater than failure or success
To recap what we’ve said up to now, success is scarier than failure because success brings change and failure maintains comfort. However, digging deeper, we see the real fear of that success and change is just fear of a bigger future failure.
Failing at the first thing is comfortable because nobody will notice you crash and burn. But a failure that comes after a success will have far more eyeballs on it. And what are you worried those eyeballs will be doing?
If you’re like most people, the answer there will be judging you.
And that brings us to the bottom of the whole thing. That neither the fear of success nor the fear of failure are the thing we need to be looking at. They’re both just leading to the same place. And that place is the fear of judgement.
The musician who puts out a few songs and never gets noticed remains comfortable. When they get some traction though and people want to hear more or go see them play, that success opens them up for a whole lot more judgement.
The photographer who posts on Instagram and never gets noticed is comfortable too. But should they get some attention and think about publishing their work in print, they’re also opening themselves up for wider judgement.
It’s not easy to get over not wanting to be judged or hear criticism of your work, and the fear of that happening is a very real thing that holds so many people back. I include myself in that.
One sign that people may suffer from this is how much they begin projects but never finish them. Because finishing something means having it out there ready to be judged. Not finishing it means nobody will ever see it.
If something is 90% done to you, it’s 0% done as far as the outside world is concerned, which is great for your comfort levels. The problem though is that nothing good will come of it either if you don’t give people the chance to see and judge it.
Nothing will change and you’ll stay where you’ve always been. So what’s the point in even doing that 90% if you’re never going to push it over the line?
A more important question though is, how can you put aside your fears and become someone who does get things out there to reap the benefits of having them judged?
Overcoming the fears of success, failure, and judgement
It’s all well and good figuring out that the fear of success is probably a fear of future failure, which is probably just a fear of being judged, but you can only really benefit from that realisation by knowing how to overcome it.
One way I’ve come across is a technique developed by Tim Ferriss called fear setting. As a starting point for this section, consider this quote by Seneca:
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
When you’re struggling to get something done because of what you imagine might happen, Tim recommends going through the following process on paper.
First is to write down what would be the worst things that could happen if you do the thing that’s worrying you. Next is what can you do to prevent them from happening in the first place, and how can you repair them if they do come about.
Second is to outline the benefits of attempting to do the thing, and the benefits if it’s even only a partial success.
Third is to consider the cost of inaction six months from now, one year from now and also three years from now.
Those three steps in fear setting are designed to get you to weigh up the potential pain of doing something versus the positive impact it could have. With creative endeavours, the latter usually outweighs the former.
One example is that not everyone likes whoever is currently at number one in the music charts. I most likely don’t. But I’m sure whoever that is doesn’t care what I think.
Another example is that not everyone likes what I write or the photographs I take. But I get some nice feedback sometimes and the people who don’t care for it tend not to voice that anyway.
Of course, fear setting isn’t the only way to overcome a fear of failure or success or judgement and it might not even be the best way. But it is a way you can try if you never have before.
Here’s a video of the man himself going through it:
Please don’t think I don’t suffer from a fear of judgement just because I write and post stuff on this website. There’s a lot I don’t do that I could if I cared less what people thought.
Writing about topics like this one is a bit more difficult though, as I tend to think “who am I to be exploring that kind of subject?” And not because I shouldn’t be doing it for myself, but because of how people might judge me for doing so.
Telling people about the zine I made is another thing I found harder than writing posts for this site. Putting it together and publishing it was easy. Having it sit there on MagCloud technically available but in reality unseen was comfortable.
But publicising it wasn’t, because people are then able to judge it. Again though, if nobody knows it’s there, how can anyone buy it, enjoy it, tell others about it, and any other good stuff that I’d like to happen?
If I were to put that situation through the fear setting exercise, I’d see the balance of potential pain versus the positive impact it could have is heavily weighted towards the latter.
The same is true for whatever it is you’re thinking of doing and haven’t yet because you’re scared of something happening that hasn’t and probably won’t.
And even if it does, the benefits you bring to yourself will more than likely far outweigh any negatives that come from anyone else’s judgement.
So let’s end with this. Don’t be scared of success. Don’t be scared of failure. Work through your fear of being judged.
And if you have something creative that you want to put into the world, please, do whatever it takes to get it out there. 🙂
If you found that post on the fear of success, failure and judgement useful, why not take a look at these also to stay inspired or learn more about the Ilford HP5 Plus I used here:
- Playing finite and infinite games with your photography
- How cognitive biases could be affecting your photography
- My comprehensive reivew of this Ilford HP5 Plus film
And if you think others will enjoy this post too, help them find it by sharing or pinning. 😀