Fear of Success: What Will Happen if You Succeed?

Sometimes you find yourself with a goal you think you should want to achieve, but you just don’t seem to be taking enough action to reach it. You aren’t really afraid of failure or rejection, the path to the goal seems clear enough and might even be an interesting challenge, and occasionally you’ll make some progress. But most of the time you can’t seem to get into that flow state, and you’re not sure why. This often happens with long-term goals that require intermittent action, like losing weight or transitioning to start a new business and eventually quit your job.

One question I’ve found helpful to ask in these situations is this: What will happen if you succeed? Forget about what you hope will happen or what you fear might happen, but realistically consider what probably will happen. So you achieve your goal. Then what? What else will change?

I’m not talking about giving a 5-second cursory answer, like “If I lose the weight, then I’ll be thin.” Set aside at least 15-30 minutes just to think about how your life will really change once you achieve your goal (with no TV, radio, or other distractions). There are often unexpected side effects that you may not be aware of consciously, but subconsciously they can be enough to prevent you from taking committed action. For example, if you lose a lot of weight, here are some possible side effects: people will notice and will comment about it, other people will ask you for diet advice, you may feel you need to continue with a permanent lifestyle change to maintain your new weight, you may need to buy new clothes, you may become more attractive to others and thereby attract more social encounters (wanted or unwanted), overweight friends might become jealous, your family may resist your changes, you may feel stressed about whether you can keep the weight off, you may worry about the loss of certain favorite foods from your diet, and so on.

It’s rare that a goal is all roses. Success requires change, and change has both positive and negative consequences. Often while people claim to want to succeed at something, the reality is that the negatives outweigh the positives for them. But one way to overcome this problem is to consciously think about what those negatives are, and then uproot them one by one. Uprooting a negative side effect could mean figuring out how to eliminate it completely, or it could mean just accepting it and learning to live with it.

It’s certainly helpful to focus on the positive side of a goal. But don’t forget to take an occasional survey of the dark side and accept that you’re going to have to deal with that too.

Unlike fear of failure and fear of rejection, fear of success can be far more insidious because it’s almost always unconscious. But it’s not fear of success itself that is the problem but rather fear of the side effects of success, many of which may be genuinely unwanted. Fears that are never evaluated consciously have a tendency to grow stronger. The reason is simple behavioral conditioning — when you avoid something you fear (either consciously or subconsciously), you automatically reinforce the avoidance behavior. So when you (even unknowingly) avoid working on your goal because of a hidden fear of success, you actually reinforce the habit of procrastination, so as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to get yourself to take action. Insidious!

Asking, “What will happen if I succeed?” can solve this problem because it focuses your conscious attention on those fears. Fear has a tendency to shrink under direct examination, making it easier for you to take action. When I say that fear shrinks, another way of stating this is that subconscious behavioral conditioning weakens under conscious scrutiny. I know some people dislike the word “fear” with respect to their own behavior — don’t get hung up on the exact wording; call it “avoidance behavior” if that’s more to your liking.

But an additional benefit is that you can also devise intelligent work-arounds for those fears-made-conscious, some of which may indeed be valid signals of unsolved problems. For example, going back to the weight loss example, if you lose a lot of weight, you probably will need new clothes. And if you don’t have the money to buy new clothes, then that is a real problem you’ll need to address (unless you don’t mind wearing oversized outfits). Left unacknowledged, even a simple problem like this can be enough to subconsciously sabotage you from achieving your goal. But once you examine the situation consciously and figure out a way to deal with it in advance, you’re sending a message to your subconscious that you needn’t fear this problem because you have a practical way to solve it.

Now let’s consider the opposite side. Suppose you ask, “What will happen if I succeed?” and upon considering all the side effects, you realize that you don’t actually want to achieve the goal at all. The negatives outweigh the positives. I encountered this when I made a plan to grow my games business but didn’t seem to make as much progress as I wanted. When I asked this magic question, I realized that I didn’t really want to achieve the goal with all its side effects — what I really wanted was to transition to writing and speaking full time, and further building my games business would actually take me farther from that more important goal. Growing my games business seemed like a goal I should want, but when I really thought about where I’d be if I achieved that goal, I realized it wouldn’t be the success I truly wanted. That was a difficult realization for me… to recognize that my original ladder of success was now leaning against the wrong building. So I actually had to “unset” that goal once I really understood the likely consequences of achieving it.

Even now as I set goals in the direction of writing and speaking as my new career, I recognize that there are big side effects. I simply don’t have the mental bandwidth for two full-time careers. One of the hardest side effects for me was letting go of the goals and dreams I had for my games business. All those creative ideas for new games that will never be… and the would-be players who will never experience them…. But this is outweighed by what will happen as I succeed in my new career. To create a new game that challenges, entertains, and uplifts people is wonderful; however, being able to help people grow fulfills me even more. I found it a very enlightening process to review all these side effects and one by one to acknowledge that I accept them.

What will happen if you succeed? If you lose the weight… get the date… earn the promotion… start the business… get pregnant… quit smoking… become a millionaire… stretch yourself?