Let’s talk about … success.
So here’s an interesting challenge for you.
Are you more frightened of failure, or of success?
If you ‘pshawed’ that question rather quickly, perhaps answering with only your instinct and no introspection, I guess you said failure. Maybe you shouted ‘FAILURE!’ loudly into the office and now everyone’s wondering what specific weekend debauchery has encouraged you to chastise yourself like that.
But. Being frightened of failure is a basic part of being human. Fear of failure is the thing which helps us judge situations fully, take sensible rather than impaled-by-a-bison risks, allows us to look before we leap.
We are all deeply scared of failing. The trick is whether you allow that fear to become larger than the joy you’ll have in doing The Thing you want to do.
So yes, ‘FAILURE!’ it may be. But I see so many of us that are frightened of success – and that’s what’s really motivating our lack of activity.
What is success, then?
You define it for yourself, of course, with a little social nudging. It could be an object, a person, a mindset, a place, a state of being or something else completely.
Sounds lovely. But in a goal-oriented and linear-thinking culture, however, success has a darkness to it. Success can signal the end.
Because if you set a goal you wish to achieve, and you succeed and achieve it – then what?
And if you plot out a path to everything you always wanted and achieve it – then what?
Success in a goal-oriented and linear-thinking culture can result in diminishing returns. We set an objective, achieve it, feel a fleeting sense of success … and then go about setting ever more complex aims … which we achieve, have a hit of success … and then repeat this cycle indefinitely.
There’s some folk who will tell you that this is a Good Thing and that you should always be pushing yourself and striving and setting yourself harder goals and yada yada yada.
Yes, goals are good. Yes, motivation is good. But if that is the only way you are viewing your life you will find success a deeply disappointing thing.
I used to be a big goal setter – someone who loved having a huge ‘something’ to try and achieve. When I first went freelance I had a Big Plan (which was of course a Good Thing) of things I wanted to achieve in five years. These included breaking even in my business, teaching at a university and doing independent academic research.
Five years, I thought. Fine. That’ll take that long, no problem. It’s going to be tough.
And yet through cosmic design and complete luck and some hard work but frankly just being in the right place at the right time, I had achieved all those goals in a year.
Maybe those goals weren’t very ambitious, I don’t know. All I know is when I had achieved them, I felt … not quite right. I had achieved and yet felt like something had dropped out of my world.
I’d got what I wanted. And I wasn’t happy.
I was successful. And I wasn’t happy.
Succeeding in those goals hadn’t brought me the magical singing pixie unicorn fairy dust eternal happy life I thought it would. It just gave me more shit to do and less time to do it in.
I sense that we are aware of this tension.
We are aware of how success can feel fleeting, can be terminal, can disappoint us, can make us question whether those were things we really wanted in the first place. We are aware of that and so we shy away from doing things because we might, actually, for once, absolutely fly – and then what if we fly and we are still unhappy?
So between a fear of failure and a fear of success, we may feel immobile.
The solution is not to stop having aims, or stop trying to do anything at all. It’s to work out what youreally want to achieve which the Big Plan or the Good Thing or the Ambitious Goal is acting as a front for.
Let me give some personal examples:
“My goal is to break even in my business.”
What I really wanted was to trust my own financial capabilities, and have proof I was good at what I did.
“My goal is to teach at a university.”
What I really wanted was to help others in the way that I didn’t get helped, and have proof I was good enough at what I did to help others.
“My goal is to do independent research.”
What I really wanted was to be taken seriously as an academic, and take myself seriously.
My goals were fronts or facades for deeply-entrenched behaviours or beliefs I had about myself: that I was bad with money. That I was no good at what I do. That I am not taken seriously.
And the trouble with those type of fronting goals is that when we achieve them, the basic problem is still there. I still believed I was bad with money, I wasn’t any good at what I do, I wasn’t taken seriously … and I didn’t trust myself.
What I really wanted was not breaking even or teaching or research – those were fronts. What I really wanted was
to trust myself
to have my abilities be acknowledged
to be taken seriously.
The achievement of those goals, those deep-down-dark-in-the-psyche goals, came not when I succeeded at the ‘front’, but when I succeed, every day, in
identifying those needs
doing the personal and spiritual and psychological work
I trust myself, without question. I know and acknowledge my strengths and weaknesses and skills and lack of skills. I am truly serious (or rather, sincere) about all that I do. And no other fucker or Big Plan or Good Thing or Ambitious Goal will help me believe that.
We can absolutely use Good Things and Ambitious Goals and the love, respect and care of other people to help us change our belief and behaviour. But, ultimately, you are in charge of that inner world.
You are in charge of identifying what success really means to you, what deep-down-dark-in-the-psyche goal you are trying to achieve.
And you are in charge of looking inward, doing the tough mental work, and practising, every day, a true and deep and unequivocal love and belief and dedication and commitment to yourself.
That is what true success is, in the end.
Success is the full realisation, acceptance and celebration of who you are.
And if it feels frightening, it’s probably worth doing.