The real reason you are stagnating: you are not owning up to fear of success

By Susan September 30, 2015 22:28

The real reason you are stagnating: you are not owning up to fear of success


Are you afraid that you’ll succeed?


During the past few weeks, this is the question that I put directly to my audiences at the IOD Manchester Women’s Directors Forum and the TEAM event in Dublin. It sparked a very deep reaction. Several attendees came up to me afterwards, wrote to me, tweeted me and called me to say that I had truly hit a nerve with them. Yes, fear of success is real, and I know the feeling very well.


“I would so love to do this… but I can’t, it’s not



I recently had a conversation with a consultant who wanted to grow her business. She had a stretch goal of a certain number of one-on-one clients per week, paying a certain amount. And as soon as she had stated that goal, she continued with “…but I can’t.” As we peeled back the layers of “buts” and “can’ts”, the answers were surprising. She was afraid of getting too busy.

I was puzzled: what’s wrong with being too busy? Isn’t it an excellent problem to have? I put it to her that if you get too busy, it means you’re in demand. That is your cue to raise your prices and let the market decide. To this she visibly blanched: what if clients wouldn’t accept the new price and walked away? I couldn’t wrap my mind around this: if a few clients walked away she would be less busy – wouldn’t that address the fear she had in the first place, of being too busy? I had a feeling I was missing some other element.

After a bit of additional digging we finally got to the heart of the matter: she wanted to spend time with her family and didn’t want to work over a certain number of hours. After all, flexibility is one of the perks of entrepreneurship. What she was really afraid of was having to work outside of her preferred hours to accommodate her clients. So I asked: Why are you giving your clients the power to decide on your home life? Why would you let clients dictate to you the terms of the relationship?

After a shocked silence she said “I didn’t realise I had that power.” But that is it: it’s your power, and you don’t have to give it away.


If you are starting to imagine all those catastrophic

scenarios, it is fear of success


I have been there myself. In January 2011, only a few months after I had started my company, I went to Malta for a week, trying to see whether I could export my services there. The first day was exhilarating and exhausting. It was an emotional rollercoaster of trying to tame my nerves and feeling elated that my interlocutors seemed very interested in what I had to offer. I started to think “You know what, I could do this!”

At the end of the day I sat down for a Skype call with Ardle – and even as I was dialling up I could feel the sabotaging questions starting. What if it works, and I have to move to Malta? How would that affect our relationship? In my mind I thought I would have to move lock, stock and barrel to Malta to make it a success. I was already thinking of the problems this would create in the worst case scenario… just because of a couple of conversations.

Ardle listened to this outpouring of fear and then asked : “Did you actually make sales in Malta today?”

“No…but what if I do?”

“If you do deliver training or speak at events, how long do you think you will be in Malta for?”

That was the very first time I had actually thought about this properly.

“Maybe a week or two?”

He sounded delighted: “Wouldn’t that be great? Imagine all of the things you would learn, and I could come out for a few days in between.”

I truly can’t put into words the relief I felt. Even writing this is bringing back how light my heart was after that conversation.


Fear of success is irrational because it assumes

we suddenly have no control over things


With the 20/20 vision that hindsight affords, fear of success sounds a bit silly… but it didn’t feel like that at the time. If we’re honest with ourselves, we will recognise the grip of fear as soon as something starts to go our way. We might worry about our friends not recognising us, about our children feeling abandoned, about all manner of outlandish scenarios that all have one aim: slamming down the brakes on our enthusiasm and our progress by assaulting us with “what ifs”.

One thing we need to be very clear on is that, in our imagination, these scenarios steamroll over us as if we didn’t have any control whatsoever. In real life, though, we do have control, we can communicate with people, and people are happy to share their feelings with us. We can monitor all these things, make sure we spend quality time with our friends and our children – or whatever measure you want to put in place to make sure the important things in your life are not neglected.

Fear of failure stops us starting, but it is fear of success that stops us growing. Today we can’t even hide behind the recession anymore.

So many people say to me, “Does your husband not mind that you’re travelling so much?” And I smile to myself as I remember that Skype conversation years ago. I remember how his wholehearted support simply knocked the wind out of those fearful sails. If I hadn’t confessed to that fear, if I hadn’t been honest with him – it might have been as easy as putting a lid on my feelings and saying, “No, really, there was nothing to it, Malta doesn’t sound very promising, let’s forget about it.”

Admittedly, this is not comfortable, but we absolutely must stop hiding for a minute. Simply stating the fear, putting it out in the open, will remove most of its power. As with me, you might realise that your fear of success is really just panic and doesn’t have any solid basis in reality.


Remember to ask “What if it works out – what



“What’s the worst that can happen?” is an important question to ask when contemplating any new venture. Really calculating the worst-case scenario allows you to see that this scenario either isn’t as bad as you feared, or can definitely (and sometimes easily) be avoided by putting certain safeguards in place. In other words, you make worry work for you by ensuring you have considered what can go wrong and how you will deal with it if it does.

There is a technical term for this: “downside risk management”. Often people will talk to me about their new ideas and while they may not use this term, the equivalent question “What could go wrong, what if it does?” is very much on their minds. To manage this scenario, they imagine capping the money they put into the venture, giving themselves a certain timeframe and if their project doesn’t take off by a certain date, they will stop; or taking a slight dent to their confidence if things don’t go as planned. These worst-case scenarios are acceptable to them as the price for the possibility of success.

After they tell me this, I ask them – what if things go better than they expect? This is usually met with surprise. They’re so focused on getting it to work at all that they’re afraid to get their hopes up. However, managing upside risk follows the same “problem-solving” process. For example, what if we have too many bookings? We can have a bigger room on standby or put extra dates on the web site. If I have a greater workload than I can handle, then I can search for an assistant. If I make more money than I’m comfortable with, then I can seek out a charity partner or re-invest it into the company.


Fear of success can be tackled – here’s how


In order to surmount this issue, you need to do the following:

  1. Acknowledge that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed by thoughts of success, but there are many factors in your control.
  2. Ideally talk it through with somebody who has your best interests at heart but isn’t affected by the situation – as was my case in the conversation with the consultant.
  3. Consider the actual “problems” you think your might encounter and consider the things you could do, which processes you can put in place and which boundaries you don’t want to cross, based on your values, to make sure these “problems” don’t arise or are tackled early and effectively.
  4. Seek out your role models who seem to be doing this very easily and read about or ask them how they do it.
  5. Go for it!

Yes, success is scary. It brings its own host of preoccupations. However, would you prefer to wistfully nostalgise about what might have been?


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By Susan September 30, 2015 22:28