A blog post I wrote a while back talked about the fear of success.
Called Is Success Scarier than Failure?, it outlined why I thought it was real, how it had affected me in the past, and how it continued to do so. And then I heard someone explain why it wasn’t real at all.
Their explanation made so much sense that I could only agree. I had to change my mind, to give up an opinion I’d had and made public, and admit I’d been wrong.
I genuinely didn’t mind, though. Something else I’d heard and very much agreed with was the term strong opinions loosely held. I’m not exactly sure where I heard it but I’d guess it was from Tim Ferriss on his podcast.
I’ll get more into what that means to me later, but I want to give you something else first. I want to republish that old blog post here and then explain why I now think it was a wrong belief to have.
I’ll also give some thoughts on why this matters for your creative output.
After this next photo begins the old blog post. I’ll let you know when we’re back in the present.
Is Success Scarier than Failure?
The idea that success is scarier than failure is not a new one. This post is not introducing a never-been-heard-before concept. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and that makes me want to explore it further.
I understand for some people failure means not putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads. And that probably is scarier than success.
I’m not really talking about that. I’m talking more about creating things. Be it art, a product, a side business, or even a blog like this. Things that only cause change when they work; when failure means nothing changes. That’s the crux of the theory.
The reasoning goes along the lines of success bringing:
It means your life may take a new direction. It means people will expect more from you, and an increase in pressure on you to deliver.
It means being exposed to a greater audience, which increases the chance of someone criticising what you do. It can also increase your workload to a level you find unmanageable – unless you learn how to say ‘no’.
You know how many of these things failure brings? None.
For creatives and side-hustlers – or those who can afford to fail – failure brings comfort. It brings you the right to pat yourself on the back as you sit in your underpants watching Casey Neistat or Steph Curry or whoever else is doing exactly what they (and maybe you) want to do every day.
Because at least you tried. God loves a trier. It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part. You’ll get ’em next time.
Failure gives you license to massage your ego in your safe place while those who get success are the ones being torn apart by people happy to never try.
And which of those is scarier?
My (imagined) success being scarier than failure
The title of this post is a question – Is Success Scarier than Failure?
For me, the answer is ‘yes’.
I did some freelance writing a few years ago and had the worst client acquisition system possible. That’s not to say I didn’t get any clients, but I had an awful way of going about it. More importantly, I felt awful doing it.
It basically involved being a dirty spammer. Using tactics that were outdated even back in 2014 when I was doing it, I was sending a cold introduction email 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 came in 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 ridiculous looking back. 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 thing, I worked on setting up an eCommerce website. 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 get the issue sorted 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 it made a few sales. It’s not my fault if only a couple of people bought anything. There’s not much more I could have done anyway – I’m 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. I did my bit.
And it’ll be nice not to be ripped apart in the comments or on Twitter by people who disagree with it…
Faux-psychoanalysis on success being scarier than failure
I’m no more qualified to talk about the idea human attitude, mannerism, experience, and thought is largely influenced by irrational drives that are rooted in the unconscious than anyone else who can go to the psychoanalysis page on wiki and find that very quote.
But I’m going to throw out some ideas about why success might be scarier than failure anyway.
Looking back at my own experience, it reads like a confidence thing. There was another fear at the time of the cold emails. A fear of successfully getting some work, and then doing it poorly.
This was unfounded in any of the clients I did get. Some asked for minor edits, but none told me I’d done a bad job.
They may have thought I had, but they never told me. So there was absolutely no reason for me to fear a successful email reply based on the quality of the work I would do.
On more than one occasion, I took on work I had no idea how to do. Like writing actual sales copy instead of simple SEO articles.
The cliche of jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down was put into practice. And it always worked out. I said ‘yes’ before googling ‘how to’ and nobody complained about the work I returned.
But still I was scared of landing work I knew I could do, and do well.
This lack of confidence idea leads to another well-worn term: impostor syndrome.
“Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.”
I’d imagine there’s a connection between confidence and impostor syndrome and the idea of success being scarier than failure. But I’d also say there’s more to it than that.
Some people genuinely don’t care what others think of them. Or are so driven towards success that the idea of it being somehow scary is completely alien. Lucky them.
I’d think they’re in the minority. I’d think more people have personal insecurities that could lead to a fear of success than don’t.
Issues of not wanting to be judged. Of not wanting to hear criticism. Of not wanting to open up. It’s not easy to get over these.
I know. I have them myself.
Fear of success as a self-fulfilling prophecy or not
The first time I heard of the fear of success was a real moment of clarity.
I began to think about why I’m really, really good at starting projects but never finishing them. Perhaps because the failure of not publishing something is more comfortable than the success of it being seen and judged.
I’ve worked long on things without success. I sometimes think I can see it, but there’s always something stopping me from taking the last few steps to get it. Or rather, something stopping me opening up and allowing others to judge whether I deserve it.
I fear one danger for all of us, now we’re aware of the theory of the fear of success, is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That it can become a crutch or a ready-made excuse for people to remain in the comfort of failure.
That instead of dissecting and using this understanding of being scared of success as a way to fix our problems, people can use it as justification to keep failing.
Because now someone has told us we are scared of success and it’s okay and natural to be that way, and that it’s one reason why we fail, it’s easier to just accept it and wallow in it than to change.
If you suffer from a fear of success, the other option is to, you know, at least try to do something about it – whatever that means for you.
I can’t tell you that you’ll definitely get past it though. I can’t even tell you if I’ll get past it yet.
But taking a breath and hitting Publish is one way I’m trying.
What about you?
The death of the fear of success
Welcome back to the present. ^^That was the blog post. It explored ideas like the following:
- What if my writing business takes off? How will I handle all these clients?
- What if my photography is well-received? How will I make sure my future work lives up to it?
- What if those songs you’re working on blow up? Are you good enough to play shows in front of people?
Success is scary because it leads to change. Failure is safe because we can stay in our cave.
I was all invested in the concept until Aubrey Marcus came out with the following on his podcast, which I’ll paraphrase and butcher as I’m not going back to find the exact quote:
There is no fear of success. There’s just a fear of an even bigger failure further down the line.
I’m not sure how I’d missed such an obvious issue with something I’d spent time writing about. I even touched on it with the following: There was another fear at the time of the cold emails. A fear of successfully getting some work, and then doing it poorly.
Look again at the second question in each of those examples above. They’re all concerned with a future failure. That’s what this perceived fear of success really is.
That’s where this strong opinions loosely held idea comes in. I heard a different opinion on something I truly believed in and it changed my mind. It took no time at all. As quickly as the words were processed my opinion had changed.
Who knows. Maybe in the future, someone else will give me a reason change it back. I’d be fine with that too.
People get pilloried for changing their minds on issues. For having no conviction or for flip-flopping. If it’s being done to please others, the criticism is probably justified. However, changing an opinion based on compelling new evidence is personal progress.
Don’t be scared to it.
Overcoming the fear of success
So what does this mean for you if your perceived fear of success is affecting your creative output?
I’m no doctor but if a friend came and asked my advice, I’d suggest thinking of it as I now do. Not as a fear of being successful, but as a fear of a bigger failure in the future.
Exactly how to overcome that I don’t know, but a good place to start might be the exercise Tim Ferriss describes in this video.
Fear setting isn’t the only way to overcome a fear of failure and it might not be the best way. That’s not the point, though.
What is important, if you’re finding what you think is a fear of success to be hindering your creativity, is to ask yourself if it really is that or if it’s a fear of a future failure.
You stand a much better chance of overcoming this if you know what it actually is.
The other theme here was the strong opinions loosely held statement. Again, ask yourself if that’s affecting your output in any way too. Holding on too strongly to an incorrect belief can be keeping you from achieving more. Be open to having your mind changed.
I’ll end with this. I think both of the ideas here – the fear of failure and not wanting to change your mind – are firmly rooted in caring too much what other people think. You don’t want to fail in front of others and you don’t want to somehow seem weak-willed.
If you want to achieve something though, at some point you’re going to have to stop caring what anyone else’s opinion of you is. How else are you going to get anything worthwhile done?
… p.s. if you’ve enjoyed this post on whether the fear of success is real or not and think others will too, why not share or pin it?