Is it better to have a fear of success or a fear of failure?

It sounds so much better to say I am afraid of failure. Interestingly, my informal Instagram poll shows people are pretty equally afraid of both. But is it better to have a fear of success or a fear of failure?

Saying I have a fear of success sounds a little, well, dumb. What exactly am I afraid of? Awesomeness? Good things in my life? Opportunity and financial increase?

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash – thanks!

Yeah, wouldn’t that be awful.

But being afraid of playing all out and achieving success (as we each define it) is holding a surprising number of us back in our personal, professional, and creative lives.

To be clear, you might think you’re afraid of failure and not afraid of success. The results of being afraid of failure and being afraid of success look a lot alike, so it’s possible you haven’t teased it apart. And they can be running at the same time, driving different parts of us. One response might be coming from fear of failure and creating a specific action in us while another response could be coming from fear of success and be creating its own action.

They can both look like procrastinating, setting low goals so no one expects much-including ourselves, not even starting something due to worry that it/I won’t be good enough, and quitting before success or failure can be realized. (My habit of drawing back JUST before things could work out was a key indicator that I had some fear controlling me…)

Does any of that resonate? I do them all. Because I am thorough.

But knowing which fear is running the show has been really helpful for me to figure out what to do about the fear. Fear of failure (which sounds nice and humble to my ears) comes from a place of beating the crap out of myself when things haven’t worked out the way I thought they would.

It’s a very internal focus. This fear is running me when I feel like I am not good enough to step into the opportunities in front of me, I don’t know enough, I don’t have the experience, haircut, outfit, blah blah blah. Who do I think I am? I keep my expectations of myself ‘reasonable’ and stay in my zone, doing the same things I know I can do well. No pain, no gain, but also—no pain.

Fear of success has some of this, but has an external focus—what will people think of me? It can look like:
  • Avoiding success because it will change me-even if it’s in good ways, what will people think?

  • Will I look like a tryhard? Or like I think I’m better than everyone? Eek.

  • When people notice my growth/success/change, will they still hang out with me?

  • Avoiding success because what if it isn’t as awesome as I thought and then I’ll be alone and sad.

  • I don’t want anyone to notice me or draw attention to myself. If people see me…what will they see? What if I don’t look like I should be successful? Imposter! Can I just succeed in secret?

  • What if I get some success and people notice and then I fail with all that attention on me?

Are you tracking with any of this? I think fear of success AND fear of failure can run us at various times. I like to access a diversity of controlling fears, personally.

Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and connection might illuminate some of the fear of success as really a kind of fear around authenticity. She asks these similar questions in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection:

“What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?”

“What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known and nobody likes what they see?”

“What if my friends/family/co-workers like the perfect me better…you know, the one who takes care of everything and everyone?”

Fear of success might look like authentically being willing to share the parts of me that I feel reinforce my story of smallness with the world—my messiness, vulnerability, and imperfections while also being unwilling to share authentically my strengths, possibilities, and growth as I stretch towards success, or what I want in my life that is beyond my current reality.

Which one is running you? Fear of failure or fear of success?

Here’s a tool I use in my coaching work and in my personal life all the time. Want to get clear about your action or inaction? Understand where you are at, where you want to be, and what is in the space between.

The space between, or the gap—will help clarify if it is fear of failure or fear of success that may be driving your action.

  1. Start with where you want to be. What is ‘success’? If you knew you could not fail, who would you be, what would you do, what would you have?

  2. Get very sober-minded about current reality and the difference between where you want to be and where you are actually at. The more specific, the more powerful. Consider if your goal is to make ‘more money’ or  ‘impact people in a positive way’. How much money? How many people? What is the measure? If you know how much money you make (current reality-let’s say it’s $200k) and know you want to make $250k by the end of the year, that’s specific. The gap is clear—it’s $50k. If you want to impact people, how many are you currently impacting? What’s your measure (lunch dates? social media followers? phone conversations?) What’s the goal? What’s the gap?

  3. Once you are clear on what the vision is (the measure of success) and what current reality is, then you can look at what is in the gap. If I want to have 20,000 readers on my articles and I currently have 2,000, I can see an 18,000 reader gap. So NOW I can brainstorm what I want to do to close the gap. And what I am afraid of. 

Let’s say I don’t know what to do. Maybe that’s true (or I do know but am afraid to do it). What can I do to close the knowledge gap? If I DO know what to do and find myself afraid to do it, why? Because it might work? (Fear of success) or because it might not work? (fear of failure).

Once you know what the gap is and the fear that might be causing inaction, then we can start to get really granular about what we know would close the gap between success and current reality.

A really useful tool to look at what’s stopping you in the gap is the technique that Tim Ferriss discusses in his famous Ted Talk on the subject of ‘Fear Setting’. Basically, the process gives you a chance to explore the ‘what ifs’ around fear and the outcomes of doing or not doing the thing you are afraid of. Once it’s known, fear has a lot less power to control us as we freak out or freeze in place.

We often think of all the bad things that might happen if we try something. But what if fear could be a signal to pause and think and see who we could authentically be as we stumbled toward imperfect growth and success.

Failure AND success are both parts of the story. No reason to be afraid—every reason to pay attention to what the fear of either is telling us.

If you knew success was possible, what would you try?

(If you would like to have a 1:1 conversation with me about what could be in the gap between where you are and where you want to be, email me and let’s chat: [email protected])

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash – thanks!

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