Are you living your dreams?
Have you followed your bliss? Did you do that big thing you had in mind?
If the answer is yes, then you are the rare individual among the crowd of us ordinary mortals.
For the rest of us, fear stops us.
And what do we fear? Failure, humiliation in front of others, is the popular, and certainly correct, first answer.
But there is another fear, one subtly buried beneath the fear of failure: fear of success.
The Root of Fear: Fear of the Unknown
When you stop and think clearly of your fears about following your dreams, what do you fear in general? What is the underlying cause of your fear? The answer is fear is the unknown.
Does it frighten you to not be protected by the security of your parents home? Probably not, but wasn't it a little scary to leave home that first time? How about undressing in front of your spouse or partner? Not now but it did at one time, didn't it? First day on the job jitters? Naturally, but now just part of the daily routine. First day at school? Terrifying. Thirtieth day at school? Been there, done that.
In each of these cases, the fear was a fear of the unknown. Will I be okay? Will he or she like me? Will I be accepted by my co-workers? Simple, reasonable questions. Questions without an answer until you have taken the leap and had the experience.
Did you ever fail to meet someone new or change jobs because of this fear? I think most of us have had those experiences. What about doing something that really matters? Have you dared to follow your deepest desires, to follow your bliss?
Fear of Success
Stop reading for a moment and bring to mind a vision of life as you would like it to be, a dream of yours.
Okay, do you have it in mind? Good. Now, what is stopping you from moving towards that goal? I am not asking why you haven't reached it, only why you aren't moving diligently towards it.
If you're honest with yourself, you'll probably answer like I did for myself recently: I'm afraid to go there. There are so many unknowns. What if…?
What if I succeed? What will my life really be like? What about my friends, family, and lovers? How will I feel? Will I be happy? What if my vision is wrong? What if things don't work out exactly like I hope? What will happen along the way? Can I handle it? What if it all happens too fast?
So many questions and just one answer for each: I don't know. The harsh truth is you can't know, at least not with any usable degree of certainty.
Odds are, whatever you have planned will:
- Change along the way
- End up differently than you expected
- Get altered by forces beyond your control
- Respond to your guidance
- Be part of the adventure of life
Am I telling you something new? Not likely. Your fear of success knows this by heart (well, okay, by amygdala).
The Fear of Failure Gurus
If you do a quick search on the internet you'll quickly find lots of resources about fear. Even a search for "fear of success" turns up lots of articles that are really about fear of failure. Why?
It's because we all have a fear of failure that we know well. That fear is needed to protect us from life-threatening situations. Want to climb a mountain? Fear of failure is perfectly rational. Going on stage in front of a large audience? Fear of making a fool of yourself is a rational, if probably incorrect, fear. Stepping into a jungle with tigers, snakes, and spiders? Fear? Check.
Fear of failure is our primary and most instinctual fear. The problem is that fear masks our secondary fear. What if the challenge isn't about life and death, or social status? What if what you are doing is even closer to your heart?
Heartfelt Dreams and the Fear of Success
A few years ago I figured out what my deepest desires were. My bliss is to help other people reach theirs while respecting their uniqueness. Respect I found in short supply in my personal journey. Self-help gurus and religions all had "the answer" but they never seemed to have my answer.
Once I had my bliss figured out, then came the hard work to actually do something about it. At first what stopped me were the fears of failure. Who am I to bring my vision into the world? Read: Will others reject me? If I fail, what then?
Fortunately, I found sources of encouragement from some of those same self-help gurus I mentioned before. And I found something else to give me encouragement: self-trust. When you look at the people who have changed the world, who made a difference for the betterment of humanity, do you see them as children pre-destined to achieve or do you see ordinary, if uncommon, children who grew into their roles?
With the possible exception of Jesus, if the writings are to be believed, they were all ordinary children. Perhaps with some status or station in life, like Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Perhaps simply someone of elevated means, like Mohandas Gandhi. But for many, they were just like you and me. Until they had done what they did, they were no different than millions of others. They were no different than we are. Who were they to bring their messages?
The answer to that question is another question. Who is anyone before they are someone? Once you can trust yourself to be someone rather than just anyone then you can move forward. That is what I decided to do and to do it without attachment to the outcome (too much fear of failure otherwise).
So who am I? I'm me. And that is enough. Will I change the world for the better? I hope so. I'll do what I can but I know that, in the end, I have no power to make anyone else change. You have to choose that for yourself. I can only suggest some possible paths.
The Scary Part - Actually Living Your Dreams
Once I overcame the fear of failure, then came the fear of success. How would my life change in response to my actions to follow my bliss? I don't know. (Yikes!)
Right now, as I write this, I'm experiencing this fear. (Yikes!) I don't know what is going to happen. It's not because of this article. I'm okay with opening myself this way but I wasn't always, and that is a clue about how to move forward.
No, the fear is because I've started a new business that will bring not just my thoughts to you but tools that you can use to help yourself. A physical product entirely of my creation deeply endowed with my soul. Everything that I am is built into this new venture and everything I wish for the world, for you, is too.
Am I afraid I'll fail? Sure, but not that much. I believe what I'm bringing will have value to many millions of people. Arrogance? Perhaps. I've been accused of that before but that is not my main worry. What really scares me is what if I really do bring value to many millions of people? (Yikes!)
How We Sabotage Our Dreams
My fear of success holds me back and I can see small acts of self-sabotage emerging. Little mental distractions, filling in "safe" tasks in lieu of new challenges. Taking on a small work project for another company within my field of expertise, excessively monitoring the state of the U.S. elections (I'm an Obama supporter, in case you're wondering). Checking the weather, reading the news, watching a few favorite TV shows, whatever it is, it's not what I really want to be doing, just what my fear allows.
I am sabotaging my own dreams because I'm afraid of the changes that will come from living them.
Fortunately, it hasn't degenerated to sucking my thumb or trailing a security blanket, at least not yet.
How I Overcome My Fear of Success
Coping with this fear isn't easy. It's hard for me to say why, exactly, but I know that Donald Rumsfeld had it right:
It is what I can't foresee that most frightens me.
So how do I overcome this fear? Actually, I don't.
I simply push through but I have a little trick. In the movie "Contact" there is a little phrase I like, "small moves." That's the secret, small moves.
Achieving Success With Small Moves and Your Existing Strengths
To reach my goals, I make small moves into uncharted territory paired with bold moves into the known universe of past experience and success. I dive headlong into what I know, have already done, or feel confident trying, and I just dip a toe into the waters of the unknown.
By examining the tasks at hand, seeking the parallels with my existing knowledge and pushing strongly in that direction, I gain confidence and momentum. Then, when I come up along the edges of the pool of the unknown, I can safely dip in that toe to test the waters, inching deeper as I get comfortable.
After a few visits, what was once unknown territory is now familiar and accessible. Small moves.
Where to Begin to Achieve Your Dreams
Start by finding your dreams. The hard part is being truly honest with yourself and overlooking all the reasons you believe you can't do what matters most to you. Get the dream first, deal with the details later.
Second, overcome your fear of failure. Find sources of inspiration and courage to see you through. Know that all those who succeeded also failed in some way, often more than once. Persistence pays off.
Third, figure out how to make use of what you already know and feel capable of doing, then start to apply that to reaching your goals. At the same time, make those small moves into the scary unknown. Learning from others will help you but nothing will replace actually doing it yourself. Just knowing how someone else climbed Mount Everest isn't going to give you the courage or skill to do the same. Small moves.
Finally, revisit your sources of inspiration that got you over your fear of failure with a fresh eye to see how they now speak to your fear of success.
In the next article I'll post some of my favorite inspirational quotes about courage, overcoming fear, and achieving success. I'm sure you don't want to miss it so be sure to sign up for our newsletter right now in the box below.
Don't let fear of success stop you from living the life of your dreams.