Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Fear of Success

Normally when I write about fear, I am discussing how to create it in a book through suspense, foreshadowing, or emotional response. Today, I will discuss fear as the author in his or her career feels it. There are two major fears in the writing industry. The first is the most common.  It is the fear of failure. Writers often talk about the fear of failure. That fear comes in many ways. It can be in the form of the fear that a pitch will not be right. It can be in the fear that your manuscript is not ready or in the fear that you will never make it as a writer.  The fear of failure can cripple a writing career.  The fear of success can kill that career while it is still in the womb of possibilities.  Those who feel the fear of failure can identify it easily. Those who fear success—at least in my personal experience—may only realize it in an epiphany.

That was my discovery of this fear. It is why I have chosen that topic for today’s posting.  Before I go into the fear of success, I would like to share a little personal background. Like most people I have fears. But I have usually pushed past them. I have the fear of heights, but I have angel repelled (that is repelling facing the ground) and jumped out of planes.  I have had the phobia of spiders, but it doesn’t stop me from either getting rid of them in a non-lethal way or killing them—nor from me camping in the woods.  I also know the fear of facing multiple opponents in the street and being attacked. That has not stopped my martial art training from kicking in (excuse the pun), doing all I needed to do, and resolving the issue satisfactorily (for me). 

On top of all of that, I know success. I haven’t had a lot in the writing world, but I have known it outside of that in my personal life and been able to prove the naysayers wrong. I have had a history of success against the odds.Why then do I have a fear of success?

Allow me to paint a picture for the reader. Over the past few years, my life has changed drastically. I think that now as it becomes stable I can finally see this fear. I have been divorced. I have lost my independence when I had to move in to take care of an elderly parent after my other parent passed away from complications from cancer.  Over the Iast year and a half, I have had to nurse back to health to be semi-independent again after a drastic change in their health. On top of all of that , I have had a chaotic and drastic work schedule that, when thrown in with all of the rest, as made my normal writing schedule resemble what you might see if you let toddlers loose to play “dump the boxes” in a jigsaw puzzle store. With all of this being juggled, I developed a fear of success—something totally unknown to me. Out of the chaos I believe came my fear.

What is this fear? What does it do to you? How do you overcome it? Fear is fear. No matter the fear, the effects can be the same. Frank Herbert once wrote a definition of fear that I feel transcends all of the definitions given to us by the sciences of psychology, medicine or law. He wrote, “Fear I the mind killer.” The feeling of fear can best be described, without going in to the various symptoms, as the dying into inaction.  

Before I go into how I am going to face this fear in my writing career with what I have learned in my martial arts training, I am going to share with you a great list of what the fear of success can be, result in and what those with this fear believe.  In preparation for writing this blog, I scoured various psychology blogs and posts. The following list is from one of the best blogs I found that summarized it into lay person language. The following is from “Handling Fear of Success” by Jake Lawson (

Fear of success is the following:
* Fear that you will accomplish all that you set out to, but that you still won't be happy, content or satisfied once you reach your goal
* Belief that you are undeserving of all the good things and recognition that come your way as a result of your accomplishments and successes
* Opposite of fear of failure, in that fear of failure is the fear of making mistakes and losing approval--Fear of success is the fear of accomplishment and being recognized and honored.
* Lack of belief in your own ability to sustain your progress, and the accomplishments you have achieved in your life
* Fear that your accomplishments can self-destruct at anytime
* Belief that no matter how much you are able to achieve or accomplish, it will never be enough to sustain success
* Belief that there are others out there who are better than you, who will replace or displace you if you do not maintain your performance record
* Belief that success is an end in itself; yet that end is not enough to sustain your interest and/or commitment
* Fear that once you have achieved the goals you have worked diligently for, the motivation to continue will fade
* Fear that you will find no happiness in your accomplishments--that you will be perpetually dissatisfied with life.

What are the negative consequences of the fear of success?

Fear of success can result in:
* A lack of effort to achieve goals you have set for yourself in school, on the job, at home, in relationships, or in your personal growth
* Self-destructive behavior, such as tripping yourself up to make sure that you do not sustain a certain level of success or achievement you once had in school, on the job, at home, in relationships or in your personal growth.
* Problems making decisions, being unable to solve problems
* Losing the motivation or the desire to grow, achieve and succeed
* Chronic underachievement
* Feeling guilt, confusion and anxiety when you do achieve success--this leads you to falter, waver and eventually lose your momentum.
* Sabotaging any gains that you have made in your personal growth and mental health, because once you become healthier, a better problem solver, and more "together,'' you fear that no one will pay attention to you. You are habituated to receiving help, sympathy and compassionate support.
* Your choosing to do just the opposite of what you need to do to be happy, healthy and successful
* Reinforcing your chronic negativity, chronic pessimism and chronic lack of achievement since you cannot, visualize yourself in a contented, successful life
* Denouncing your achievements and accomplishments, or seeking ways in which you can denigrate yourself enough to lose what you've gained

What do those who fear success believe?
* I have worked so hard to get this far, yet I need to keep on working hard; I'm not sure the effort is worth it.
* I know people care about me when I am down and out, but will they like me when I am on top and successful?
* I've never been happy before, so how can I be sure I'll be happy once I achieve my goals?
* I am nothing, and I deserve nothing.
* How can people like me if I succeed in reaching my goals in life?
* I can't sustain the momentum I would need to achieve my goals.
* How can I be sure that my good fortunes won't go sour and be destroyed?
* There are always more demands and more needs that have to be met in order for me to be successful, no matter what I do it will never be enough.
* They are all better, brighter, smarter, and more talented than I am. I really don't deserve to be successful.
* It's hard to be at the top.
* Everyone is out to shoot down the head man.
* No one really likes a winner.
* Everyone goes for the underdog.
* I am happiest when I am under pressure and challenged.
* Hard work, no play and constant effort make me happy. What would I do if it were different?
* I feel so guilty when I realize how much I have been given in my life.
* I'm always afraid I'm going to lose it all.
* Starting over again gives me meaning and a sense of mission and purpose.
* I'm so bored with what I've accomplished. What's left to do?
* Everyone has the right to fail in life, and I have the right to choose to fail if I want to.”

Facing this fear is not uncommon, even for the best of writers. There will be a link to a speech given by Neil Gaiman that you should listen to. He does not come out and say “hey, I have had this as well,” but if you have read the above you will hear him talk about.  It is good to know that we are now alone.  
How do you overcome this fear? Mr. Lawson further goes into ways to overcome this fear, as do many articles on Psychology Today and other sites.  Allow me to apply my martial art’s experience to this question.

Here are my seven steps:

Step 1: End Your Internal Focus
Stop thinking about what the “outside world” is going to do or demand of you. Thinking like that only creates FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. By creating FUD in you, you become distracted from your goals and your potential.

Step 2: Externalize Your Focus

When you focus on what the “outside world” is going to demand of you. This is where your opponent (fear) wants you to reside in your mind and it is the last place you want to be at.

You need instead to focus on having a plan. 

Before I go any further, let me make a drastic example of the difference between internal focus and external focus.  This is a concept that can be very difficult to understand. Many people, when faced with confrontation or of something unknown in their lives, want to focus internally. “What if I can’t make a living?” “What happens if . . .?” That path leads to fear.  You must externalize your focus and not fix upon what can happen to you.  Instead focus on what you can do for others with your talent and abilities. 

Externalizing your focus includes analyzing what exactly is causing your fear and how you can use that fear to your advantage.  It is analyzing what your specific reason is for even writing outside of the simple “I like to . . . need to write.” It is not about having something to say, but what is it that you are saying that can affect someone else—whoever that person is. Finally, externalizing your focus allows you to analyze the best method of attacking your fear as if it was a physical opponent. By turning the table s on the cause of your fear, you have taken control of the situation.

Step 3: Know Your Abilities and Trust in Them

With the fear of success comes the doubt in your abilities. Stop that. Most people fail to understand that everyone’s abilities are unique to themselves. I blame part of this on the way people are taught to write for school and another part on the “imitate other writers to learn your craft” mentality.

Many writers start by trying to imitate some other writer because they like the way that writer approaches a topic or what their method is. If you are just learning their method or approach to improve or sharpen your skills, then you are doing ok.  If it starts to be a road block because you don’t think you are as good as [insert any author’s name], then you are not trusting your abilities and I doubt you know what they are.  There is no perfect writer out there nor is there any magical method—formula—or 90 day process you can follow that will give you success unless you trust in yourself and your abilities.  If you can’t do that, you are on the road to either fearing failure or success. That is not a road you want to be on. Aren’t you better than that?

In other words: Take everything you are, even what you consider to be a disadvantage and learn to look at it in ways that you can see it as an advantage.

Step 4: Have Determination

The long hard road to get published will create FUD. Our changing industry and business models, where once stood a publishing house of great fame now is a crater of its collapse will create FUD.  FUD weakens your determination to succeed and will create the fear of success—because success is now seen as a possible road back into failure.

Someone has said that it takes at least ten years of hard writing practice and writing four novels to even begin to see the glimpse of success.  If that is true, that is a lot of effort you are wasting because you are afraid to take the next steps that you know to take to find success.

By turning your focus externally your determination strengthens.  See your plan in your mind, see your goal accomplished before it is, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Step 5: Have a Plan and Execute Your Plan

This is the number one mistake of over 90% of the world’s population in achieving anything their dreams.  What is your plan?  Before stepping into the dangers of trying to get your work published, do you have a plan? Why not? You have a plan if your house catches fire, right? What about a tornado? Or what if you are in an accident? These are events you are not trying to make happen and I bet you have a plan for them, don’t you? So why not a plan for your success as a writer?

What if someone, an agent or an editor you have met, suddenly asks you to pitch to them--have you thought about what you would do?  Go back to your abilities.  If you are any kind of artist (which writers are), then you have been training with everything you read and write. Do you belong to a writing group that has workshops or lectures? Then, if you have been paying attention, squashing your own ego and letting in the speaker’s message,  you have been training.  The question is what have you been training for?  BE HONEST with yourself. To win a competition? To show off to your friends?  To have just one book published?  These may be important to you, yet it is the mistake many l artists make if it becomes the primary focus.    When you train, think about the real “competition”, the one where the stakes are highest…and then create a plan of training that takes you into the competition with yourself.

Yes…yourself. You are your own greatest opponent and roadblock. If you weren’t then you wouldn’t have fear of success.

If you have done your job, you have a plan.  Actually you probably have many all of the things you have learned and tried.  The important thing to remember is to choose a plan before you find yourself in the situation.  This is how you beat your opponent—yourself and your fear.  First, by having a plan in advance you don’t waste the critical time you need trying to think of how you will face any level of success.  Second, your opponent (fear) has a plan.  That plan is more than likely as simple as keeping you where you are. But beyond that, it has no plan.  You, if you have thought about it properly, even are able to create variations of those plans as you execute your plan.  Third, the most important thing is to execute that plan.  If you focus on the plan then you have no room to focus internally.  Further by focusing on your plan, you can adapt and adjust.  By having a plan, you take the initiative in creating your road past your fear into success.   By having the initiative you overcome FUD.
Step 6: Know What You Are Willing to Fight For

What about defeating the odds and getting published or overcoming your fear of it makes you think that you are not engaged in a fight? With this in mind, what I am about to say may sound like I just contradicted the last five steps. I haven’t.

Despite of all that society may try to teach about grabbing opportunity, running away “to live and fight another day” is not an act of cowardice.  So ask yourself, what are you willing to put all of your dreams on the line for?  Be honest with yourself.  It is easy to say that you are willing to do it for the money or the chance to get published.  But think about it?  Is this worth putting up a everything for? Maybe it is. But then, why are you fearing it? Visualize the situation in your mind. Visualize where you would be two or five or even ten years down the line. Is it worth the fight then?

Now imagine someone offers you the chance to claim success on your terms, or near to it as possible, with some hard work on your part.  Is it worth the fight?  Did your answer change?  This is critical. Before you find yourself in a situation, you must decide what level of success you truly desire.  

Step 7: Have “No Mind”

The idea of “No Mind” may seem odd.  It most certainly does not mean to write and go into anything without thinking! What it means is to stop thinking about what others are thinking about your work.  Stop thinking about what any passersby or someone you may never meet again will think of your work—even stop thinking what your critique group may think.  Think only about your plan and executing it.  Control the situation.  Execute your plan as you have foreseen it, with adjustments as the situation dictates. This is the determination to execute the plan with a single mindedness that it seems as if you have had no other thought in your head and thus as if it required no thought on your part at all.

Now it is time for me to push past this fear, forget the man with the clipboard and make good art. (Watch the video and the reference will make sense.)

The Neil Gaiman video:

Thank you for reading and please visit and You can also follow me on twitter @Owlkenpowriter and the Writer’s Lens @TheWritersLens. Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.

1 comment:

  1. Then there's that fear of success where once the book is published, everyone asks awful questions like, "So what are you working on now?" "How many books have you sold?" "Are you making a lot of money?" And the memoir-writer's sudden realization: "OMG, everyone will know everything - how embarrassing! My family will hate me!"