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Fear of failure isn’t the only thing we have to worry about. Fear of success can keep us just as paralyzed!

The very possibility of success can be incapacitating. Say you attain success… then what?

  • How will you evolve?
  • What if you make enemies?
  • What if you’re forced to continue a path because you succeeded?
  • What if it means more responsibility?
  • What if it means more vulnerability?
  • What if it changes you—and not for the better?

I never considered myself someone who feared success—neither did Ben or Cory. Maybe you don’t either. But after this episode, we all realized there were deeper fears beneath the surface that we didn’t even recognize until we did this show.

We help you identify and overcome some limiting beliefs you may not even realize you have right now.

Show Notes
  • 05:39 Ben: Where does this idea of fear of success come from?
  • 05:57 Sean: In my newsletter autoresponder, I ask people what they’re struggling with and what’s keeping them from pursuing what they’re passionate about. This is something that people often say in response to those questions. In response to this, I tweeted and asked on Facebook what people fear about success. I heard things like:
    • How will I evolve?
    • What if I make enemies?
    • What if I’m forced to continue a path because I succeeded?
    • What if it means more responsibility?
    • What if it means more vulnerability?
    • What if it changes me—and not for the better?
  • 06:51 It sounds weird at first. Who’s afraid of success? Everyone wants success, right? But there are things that hold us back from it.
  • 07:01 Ben: I think it’s the fear of the results of success.
  • 07:05 Sean: You might initially feel like you can’t relate to the feeling of fearing success because you really want it! I’m going to try to help you get into the mindset of the person who fears success because I think you’ll relate to some of it more than you realize—I know that’s true for me. It’s not success in a broad sense, it’s a fear of all the little things that people attribute to success. Once I started understanding these fears better, I realized that some aspects actually are scary.
  • 08:26 Ben: Yeah, that really stuck out to me. We have these underlying fears that manifest themselves in the way that we behave and we don’t understand why. Sometimes, it takes someone else articulating that fear for us to realize we’re feeling it.
  • 08:46 Sean: Let’s say you’re a blog writer and your blog takes off. You’re audience starts to grow and people come to expect a certain type of content from you because that content is what grew your audience! They expect you to continue that path. As your audience grows, you get more and more vulnerable. There are more eyes on you and that can be a scary thing.
  • What if people don’t like you?

    Maybe in the beginning you’re trying to get recognition but what happens at scale if something blows up and it goes viral? What happens when you do start to get negative comments?

Fear of Peaking

  • 10:07 When I started digging into this topic, I realized I can relate to a lot more than I thought I could on the surface. Someone said, “It feels as if every success must be followed by a greater success unless one is to be seen as ‘falling off’ or in decline.” It’s like you have to keep one-upping yourself, otherwise people will think you’ve peaked and you’re on the down hill. It’s the pressure that even if you make it, your next thing has to be even more successful.
  • 11:04 Ben: It’s like a one-hit-wonder situation. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, actually talked about this years after she had great success with that book. She talked about how difficult it was living in the shadow of her own achievement. She felt so much pressure to out-do herself or at least live up to the expectation she’d created with her first work, that she imploded—she lost motivation. I recently retweeted something from Austin Kleon that pertains to this topic. He said, “I’d rather peak later in life than peak too early.”
  • 12:01 Sean: I saw that when you shared it. The article he linked to was about people who had a lot of success in their early 20’s. It’s a lot more common now to see those kinds of successes because they rise to the surface and go viral. You see the anomalies because of confirmation bias and you think, “I’m never going to be that. It’s too late for me!” Really, those anomalies are plagued by their own success and they spend the rest of their life fighting to get close to that again.
  • 13:05 Ben: What if the idea of a “peak,” is really just a misconception? What brought you to that success in the first place may not be the same for a future success—the journey looks different every time. You can’t base your next journey to success on the previous one. It’s harmful to look at a success and think you’ve got to do better than that this next time.
  • 14:39 Sean: Yeah, that’s really good. The reality is: you’re going to peak at some point. Eventually, your life will be over and from the outside, someone will be able to see a career peak in your life. There will be higher points in your life than others, but I don’t think you should compare your other work to that. You shouldn’t even think about the high points or peaks in your own life. That’s something someone else can choose to observe about you if they want to.
  • It’s never productive to wonder whether you’re peaking right now.

  • 15:31 You shouldn’t even be asking yourself if you’re peaking right now. Do you think that the creator of a viral YouTube video considers that their best work ever? I’m going to say they probably don’t and they probably would rather not have their life defined by that. They probably feel like that video took off unexpectedly and they have more to offer than that.
  • 16:20 Say that video got 20 million views and they put out another video that got 20,000 views. What if the 20,000 viewers of the second video all got something amazing out of it? What if it changed their lives and each of those viewers went on to change a hundred other lives? That was more impactful than the video with 20 million views, but you wouldn’t know it looking at it from a perspective of peaks, valleys, and view counts.
  • 16:58 Ben: It’s based on a really narrow measurement. If life is a graph with peaks and valleys made up of data points, and if you define success on the narrow piece of data that is a peak, you miss all the other data points. When you start playing that game, you start to pick apart your life and lose the meaning of what you do.
  • Peaks don’t define you, it’s all the things you do along the way.

Fear of Being Locked Down

  • 18:13 Sean: See your big success as an entrance point to people—that’s how they discovered you. Now, what other value are you going to provide? What are you going to do with that? How are you going to help people? Just because something else you put out only gets a fraction of the exposure the first big thing did doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. Don’t use that as an excuse. Don’t say, “Well, I tried and I can’t put anything out equally as successful so what’s the point of trying anymore?”
  • 18:59 Ben: Don’t allow your initial success to hold you captive to doing the same thing. Maybe the value you have to offer past the initial success is in a completely different sector. You might feel an obligation to stay in the sector of your initial success because that’s what’s expected of you, but that’s not a way to live. You can get rid of a lot of that fear by not letting your initial success determine the choices you make going forward.
  • 19:56 Sean: People may expect a certain kind of thing from you because of a certain kind of success but what if you’re not feeling that direction anymore? Are people going to be better served by you forcing it, or will they be better served by you pivoting to something you’re really passionate about? How can people say that this other direction isn’t going to be more helpful?
  • You won’t know if another direction will be helpful until you go in that direction for a while.

  • 20:42 If I had continued with lettering, maybe I could help more people with lettering but I was feeling that I should pivot from that direction. I knew I had more to offer in a different direction. It seems weird right now because I’m not known for this. I haven’t gone in this direction yet, but I’m going to go with it anyway. It’s not like I lost everything I did before I pivoted. People still know me for lettering and they still benefit from what I put into that industry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pivot to something else. I’m not locked down. As of right now, the Learn Lettering courses have been my greatest success, along with my exposure in the lettering world and this podcast.
  • 21:30 Ben: Someone might look at that from the outside and ask, “Why wouldn’t you continue moving forward with that momentum?” Even up to this point, think about the number of lives that would have gone untouched had you not pivoted?
  • 22:28 Sean: How do you know who you’re going to help and you’re not going to help? I could have snowballed my lettering pursuit but I felt like I gave what I had to offer in that realm. I put out my contribution and I felt momentum in a different direction. Even if everything I put out in business isn’t going to help as many people within the lettering world, what if the business stuff makes a greater impact? It doesn’t matter if it impacts more people, it just matters if it impacts people.
  • 23:15 Ben: Exactly. There is a person right now whose life was impacted because of the choice that you made to go into business, who wouldn’t have been impacted otherwise.
  • 23:28 Sean: For the person feeling like they’ll make it doing something and be expected to continue doing it even though they don’t want to: don’t worry about what people think. People are always going to think things, no matter what you do.

Fear of Selling Out

  • 23:50 Someone else said they feel like they will loose their true essence, they’ll sell out, or they won’t know how to handle so much exposure and fame. When you’re making it big at something, you’re growing an audience and they have expectations of you because you’re known for a certain thing, it’s easy to feel trapped in that.
  • People are always going to have opinions and, at scale, you have to come to expect it.

  • 24:31 Every time I put anything out—a lettering piece, a tweet, a podcast, a video, a blog post—every single time, there’s always someone who has a little remark to say. When you get big, you know that whatever you post will get nasty comments but before you reach that scale, it’s really hard because you don’t know. You don’t know if you’re going to get a negative comment and so you worry. What if someone says I shouldn’t have done a video on this topic? What if someone asks why you’re pivoting your podcast? What if someone says you should have stopped with your last book?
  • 26:15 There’s something freeing about reaching the point where you know the negativity will be there every time because it’s no longer if, it’s when. It’s purely a scale thing. Now, when I send out a newsletter, not only am I going to get unsubscribers that say negative things, but every time I send something out, someone is going to tell me I’m doing something wrong. Tens of thousands of people aren’t going to tell me I’m doing something right—I just have to know that. If you’re not to that point yet, know that you’re going to get to that point.
  • Train yourself now not to worry about what other people think.

    People will always think things.

  • 27:23 If you want to pivot and you know people will complain, don’t worry about it. You have to pivot for you. If you think that’s selfish, think about in terms of what you’re benefiting other people: If you don’t pivot and you burn out from going a direction you don’t want to go, you’re helping less people. It’s lose-lose if you keep going.
  • 28:53 Ben: I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but the people who really matter are the ones who have bought into what you’re doing. They’re the ones who saw so much value in what you’re sharing that they decided to pay you for that value. If you allow your production to scale with the people who really matter, you’re not going to overextend yourself. Narrow your focus to the people who get what you’re really about, instead of feeling the pressure of all the other people who may love the value you’re providing but aren’t helping you be in a position to continue to do it sustainably.
  • 30:24 Sean: That’s what I love about the Community. They’re the people I’m doing this for. Regardless of the other outside feedback, I get their feedback and they let me know when I’m heading in the right direction. Heading in the right direction might mean ruffling some feathers and sticking to your guns. Brookes, in the chat room, says, “I actually love getting thumbs down, it means someone cared enough.”
  • If you have haters, that means you’re resonating with people.

  • 31:03 People are going to think what they’re going to think—either positive or negative. You’ll hear a lot of negative and not as much of the positive. If someone says something negative, that means they cared enough to say something against what you said. It means you had a strong message (Related: e095 Overcoming the Fear of What Other People Think and Doing Your Best Work Anyway). The middle is what you should fear: the apathetic, lukewarm content where you have no conviction.
  • You shouldn’t be afraid of offending the wrong people.

    Your message will resonate strongly with the people you’re trying to reach.

  • 31:48 Ben: Your audience is not made up of people in the middle.
  • 32:23 Sean: Destiny, in the chat room, says, “Ask yourself: are you really producing content from an authentic place? If you’re producing work that you’re satisfied with, then it doesn’t matter. Receive contentment from being happy with your work. Quality fans vs. large number of fans—which is better?”

Fear of Apathy

  • 33:11 Here’s another: “I don’t fear success. I want success. But I do fear the apathy that can come with success.” I get the first part but what do you think he means by the apathy part?
  • 33:29 Ben: In terms of achieving a goal, success is something that drives you to action and can cause you to make necessary changes in order to accomplish it. Those sacrifices and changes you make along the way shape you and make you a better version of yourself. The fear is that once you achieve success, those changes will go away. When you no longer have something driving your actions, you’re going to stagnate and revert back to what you once were.

Fear of Reputation

  • 34:36 The fear of reputation ties into this because it’s the opposite of the fear of apathy. I think we covered this in the fear of peaking section. With your reputation, you feel beholden to the expectations of others when you become successful.
  • 35:08 Sean: Someone said a fear they have is maintaining a large or lofty reputation. It feels like “too much” and like it would be unmanageable.
  • 35:20 Ben: Either way, you’re making the ideal the more important thing. In the same way we hold up ideals when we look at people we admire, we hold an idea in our minds of what success looks like. We only see a snapshot from the lives of the people we admire—their number of followers on social media or their published book—and we think, “I want that!” The reality is: we’re afraid the sacrifices we have to make along the way to achieve success may not be worth it. We need to shift our focus away from success being the goal and realize that success is achieved as soon as we take the first step in a direction. Movement should be the goal.
  • 37:28 Sean: So it doesn’t really matter if success comes of that or not. Even if we can control success to a degree, we can’t wield it fully.
  • 37:39 Ben: Once you start moving, you might find along the way that the ideal you had is no longer what you want. You can then shift your direction and take on another path so it continues to evolve. Maybe the ideal you held in your mind is a carrot dangling in front of you. Even if you never achieve that ideal, you can still see the results in your life because you have forward motion. That’s what success is. It’s not a portrait, it’s the rest of the photo album made up of pictures you took along the way.
  • 38:29 Sean: I like that. I think that solves the fear of apathy too. It’s not about reaching success and not caring anymore because success is no longer the goal in mind.
  • 38:52 Ben: This makes me think about Thor’s abs—he’s got a million abs in the movie! If I get super motivated to eat right and work out with the goal of getting the abs of Thor, I would find that I really just enjoy the feeling of being healthy and the good ache of sore muscles. All of a sudden, the original goal in mind becomes trivial.
  • You have to want the movement in order to have the results.

    If all you care about is the results, once you get there, there’s no way of sustaining them.

  • 40:38 Sean: The problem with having success as the goal is you never cared about the act of getting to the results. If that’s the case then once you reach it, you can’t help but be apathetic. You can’t help but think in terms of peaking or comparing the next success to the last success, because you’re focused on success. If it’s about the forward movement, then it will result in success. If you keep with the movement, maybe there will be another success.

Fear of Vulnerability

  • 41:29 I was talking to Laci about this in regards to this show the other day. She wants to start a blog and she’s been writing behind the scenes, but she’s been hesitant to make a commitment to posting weekly. She feels like she has more of a fear of failure than a fear of success but after discussing it further, we realized that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are elements of both that can be intimidating. For her, it’s a fear of being vulnerable—the idea that people will see her innermost thoughts and feelings. I told her to think about it this way: you love reading books where authors have poured themselves out onto paper. You devour that hungrily and enjoy the thoughts and feelings whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. That experience is what you’re providing people. When you’re reading, you’re not thinking about the vulnerability of the author.
  • People are focused on their own experience of something, not how vulnerable you are in sharing it.

  • 43:31 It’s like being a speaker—it’s intimidating being up on stage in front of hundreds of people. But really, the audience is made up of individual people who are timid, shy, afraid, and self-conscious. It feels scary when you’re the person putting yourself out there because you feel exposed and like everyone is looking at you, but every single one of those people is just one person experiencing your story for themselves.
  • 44:12 Ben: You have influence on people when you’re being vulnerable. People are looking for a reflection of who they are or who they want to be in what you’re sharing. There are going to be people who don’t see themselves in what you share but that’s not an invalidation of who you are, that just means it’s not who they are. They are not your audience. The people who will be influenced by you and will follow you are the ones who saw you when you were vulnerable and saw themselves in who you are.

Should You Share Your Dreams?

  • 45:55 Sean: Someone else said, “What will other people think of me? It’s vulnerable to put your dreams out there. People are afraid of the haters before they even show up.” You should share your dreams with the right people. Don’t put your dreams out there for just anyone because they will discourage you. If you share with the right people, they’ll encourage you and help you take action on it.
  • 46:40 Ben: Sharing your dreams with the right kind of people can work to the betterment of your success.
  • 47:09 Sean: What do you say to someone who is holding back or afraid of moving toward success because they’re anticipating haters they don’t even have yet?
  • 47:50 Ben: They’re not your audience. They don’t matter but they’re going to be there. The sooner you can accept that reality and care more about the value you provide to the people who will be your audience than about encountering haters, the sooner you can start moving forward.
  • 50:16 Sean: I love what Ryan Flannigan in the chat says, “Success is a subjective definition of terms. If the objective purpose is fame, then the goal in and of itself is dictated by the preferential whims of another entity, which causes one to be uneasy since the end result is determined by another being. Evaluate desires before defining personal success. Choose the purpose and desire the end result wisely.”

Why Success is Good

  • 51:01 Some people don’t like success and think it’s a bad thing. If that’s holding you back, look at the positive aspects of success. Can success enable bad things, corrupt people, and amplify bad character traits in people? Sure. But it can also enable good things.
  • 51:33 Ben: Apathy and stagnation isn’t going to inspire change in anyone.
  • Success doesn’t distance you from other people, it puts you in a position to help people.

  • 51:54 Sean: People often thing if you’re successful, you’re distanced and they can no longer relate to you. Actually, you now have resources you can put towards helping other people achieve success as they define it for themselves. As someone who is successful, you’re in a position of influence. You’re in a position to help those people reach their own definitions of success. You can do good things with success and there are lots of people who do. People think that the only way to be successful is to screw a bunch of other people over but that’s not true. You can become successful by helping people. Don’t think of success in such a negative light.
  • 54:23 Ben: If you shift your mindset away from the ideal of success in your mind to the daily decisions and sacrifices to get there, you determine whether you’re willing to do that and you’ll feel the effects of the success before you even achieve it. This will spill over into the lives of people around you.
  • 55:09 Sean: Emma, in the chat room, asks, “Sean, what is the worst thing you’ve experienced related to your success?” First, notice that she said, “your success.” It’s weird to think that people on the outside perceive you as successful, but do you see yourself as successful? In my case, I do consider myself successful. I see success as being able to do what I love without having to worry about money. Beyond that, I find fulfillment in helping other people pursue what they love to do and being in a position to do that is what my definition of success is.
  • 56:39 To answer her question, I would say the negativity I receive is the worst thing I’ve experienced related to my success. As positive as I am and helpful as I try to be, I thought I would be immune to it. People told me I’d get haters but I thought I would be the exception to the rule. If you’re familiar with the 5 Love Languages—acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, and gifts—you’ll know everyone has a primary love language. For me, it’s words of affirmation. If you tell me something I did helped you, I’m good for the next month.
  • 57:49 Negative comments or the absence of words of affirmation have a big impact. I’ve gotten a lot better at dealing with them but it’s hard. Now I know it just comes with the territory. Think about spending 2 days writing 4,000 words for a newsletter, proofing it, and slaving for hours over it, to send it out and know you’ll get negative feedback from it every time—even if it’s not a controversial topic. That’s the hardest thing for me.
  • 58:41 Ben: Yeah, and it doesn’t matter if that negative feedback comes back in a sea of positive comments. Those negative comments really stand out. I like what you said about looking at it objectively because once you work through it on an emotional level, seeing it for what it really is can be used to your benefit and the benefit of your audience.

Fear of Acquiring Success

  • 59:45 Sean: The fear of acquiring success isn’t the fear of achieving or reaching it but acquiring in the sense of what it takes to achieve it. What’s often true is that it’s the fear of what it will take to acquire success that people are really afraid of. People may present it as something else, like the fear of being vulnerable or being afraid of what other people think, but deeper than that, they know it’s not easy and will require a lot of hard work. It’s not about what life will look like once you get there, it’s the responsibility of what it takes to get there and knowing it’s not an easy task.
  • 1:00:54 Ben: That’s why you’ve got to love the forward movement more than you love the results.
  • 1:01:18 Sean: It doesn’t even mean that it’s going to be easy if you love it. The forward movement is only going to get you out of bed. Success isn’t easy. You’ve still got to show up every single day.
  • Show up every day for two years.

  • 1:02:12 This is the golden answer. Here’s what it will do for you:
    • It will solve most of your problems.
    • It will make you money.
    • It will build an audience.
    • It will establish you as an authority in your industry.
    • It will develop the tenacity needed to survive in this world.
    • It will teach you that those who are successful aren’t successful because of some condensed version of their story, but because they made a commitment to show up every single day when it was hard and it looked like nothing would ever come of it.
  • 1:02:57 Ben: It may not be the place you originally set out to go but it’s where you want to be because of the decisions you’ve made along the way.
  • 1:04:35 Sean: I worry that for a lot of people this fear of success is really fear of showing up and doing what it takes. It’s the fear of knowing success isn’t easily acquired and you’ll have to do the hard work to get there.