“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
— Marianne Williamson
I vividly recall the chat I had years ago with a teammate on a youth basketball squad. We sat high above the court, killing time between tournament games. The teammate, whom I’ll call Bob, was easily our most talented player — he had a near-perfect shot, was adept at dribbling with both hands and was highly skilled in all other facets of the game. Yet, he was not our most valuable player, did not lead the team in scoring and, in fact, shied away from taking the big shot at the end of games.
I asked Bob why he seemed to keep much of his talent under wraps during our games. This had mystified me, as I would have done virtually anything to be at least half the player that he was. Bob’s answer, which I’ll paraphrase, was: “I don’t need the pressure, don’t want to be the center of attention, and would rather let someone else have the glory — it’s just not me.”
This was a surprising revelation, as it seemed that the rest of us, who had no reluctance to shoot, even at the most tense moments, all wanted to be the hero. The rush associated with being patted on the back at the end of a game was a tonic that each one of us would have guzzled until we could drink no more. I also couldn’t understand not using all of your talents. I was puzzled, but filed the exchange away in the recesses of my mind.
As time has marched on, I have witnessed the same phenomenon that inhibited Bob play itself out with others throughout my career. As I have learned, Bob likely suffered from a fear of success, which may seem as strange to some readers of this article today as it was to me decades ago. After all, who doesn’t want all the positives that are associated with succeeding? As I know and have worked with lawyers who have that same fear, it is even more surprising, as the legal profession is populated by persons who have achieved at very high levels throughout their lives. Shouldn’t lawyers thus be immune to this infirmity?
Although there may not be a formal definition of “fear of success,” at least one source has described it as a “need to refrain from maximally utilizing one’s abilities in achievement situations because of expected negative consequences.” Unlike the fear of failure, where one worries about falling short of expectations, someone who has a fear of success actually has anxiety that is associated with him meeting or exceeding those expectations.
Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for years. In fact, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay in 1916 that was titled “Those Wrecked by Success.” In that piece, Freud observed the “surprising” tendency of some persons to crumble “precisely when a deeply rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment.” He noted that it seemed that these persons “were not able to tolerate happiness.” Many other psychologists have analyzed the topic and cite a wide range of causes. Many believe that this fear is deeply rooted in the subconscious.
So, how do you know if fear of success may be holding you back in your career? The following are some tell-tale signs:
• Do you refrain from setting defined goals? Or, even if you do establish goals, are they easily attained? These are typical indicia of the malady, as this is emblematic of not fully pushing yourself to succeed.
• If you are truly honest with yourself, have you engaged in self-sabotage as it relates to your career? Excluding the rare occurrences that were out of your control, have you been late for, or even missed important meetings or interviews? Worse — have you demonstrated reckless behavior that you knew was well outside the bounds?
The business world is rife with tales of persons who were incredibly gifted, and even were at the top of their fields, but figuratively threw it away by committing an irresponsible act. While this type of conduct could have many causes, psychologists have observed that fear of success is a frequent trigger.
• Do you have a less than positive image of successful persons? For instance, have you observed the behavior of successful lawyers — and executives in other professions (or even celebrities) — and learned that you did not like many of the character traits that these persons demonstrated? If those impressions have become deep-seated, they may be holding you back, as you may feel that becoming successful means that you will act much like those persons.
• Do you feel unworthy or that the position you have attained is above your abilities? A common thread in these studies is that a person suffering from a fear of success was “put down” earlier in his life or may have been told that he was average (at best). This often results in a person believing that others are better than him. This can deter someone from trying to achieve at high levels, as he may not believe that he deserves such success.
• Are you concerned that even if you make it to the top, that you will be lonely? This is cited as a common worry, as a person who has a fear of success is concerned that many of his friends and colleagues may abandon him if he fully succeeds (due to envy or no longer being in the same circumstances). This is exacerbated by the many stories that are told of executives who do feel isolated the higher they rise in an organization.
• Do you have concern that even if you succeed, the pressure may only escalate? This was one of Bob’s root causes, as he was concerned that even if he made the winning shot in one game, the pressure would mount on him to do it again and again. I see this often with some partners, who have observed that the biggest hitters in their firms seem to be under much more pressure than they (even though those lawyers make much more rain). These partners ultimately decide that the added dollars and recognition are not worth the perceived additional anxiety.
• Do you feel guilty about earning a lot of money and wielding significant power? Some persons grow up believing that money, especially if one has a lot of it, is the root of evil. Similarly, those persons may have also been taught that some persons in power are not to be trusted. These feelings play into a fear of success, as someone who has those concerns will worry that he will become like those he was taught to distrust should he also become successful.
• Do you struggle with change? This, of course, is something that affects all of us to some degree, so resisting change cannot necessarily be equated with a fear of success. However, studies have shown that struggling with change is often one of the combination of factors that epitomizes someone who has a fear of success. As such, it is posited that simply getting by on “autopilot” is much more tenable than wrestling with the changes that are often needed to succeed at your highest level.
• Do you no longer have the energy or desire to work harder? No matter how gifted someone may be, it often is the case that, to reach your personal best, it is necessary to work even harder. For many persons, in our seemingly 24/7 world, it may appear daunting, if not impossible, to work even harder to go after higher goals. Fear of success helps to shape that view, as many who suffer from the phenomenon tend to be overly negative (and thus lack the optimism that may be needed to see what still may be possible).
• Do you feel guilty when you succeed? Are you unable to accept compliments? These are common attributes of those who have a fear of success. In this respect, psychologists are not referring to those who display genuine humility when they succeed. Rather, they are focusing on those who denigrate themselves (or even those who give them honors) when an achievement is registered. This characteristic is closely tied to a feeling of being unworthy.
Psychologists note that success differs for each of us and thus needs to be individually defined. In creating our personal definition of success, we mentally do cost-benefit analyses. For instance, for someone who wants or needs to spend significant time with his family, it may require forgoing higher compensation and giving up the hope of becoming a managing partner or general counsel. Such a person then does not have a fear of success as it relates to pursuing those top jobs, as he has concluded that the benefits are outweighed by the negatives. However, there may be other goals that such persons can still achieve, that, if not pursued (due to some of the causes discussed above), may reflect a fear of success.
If you think that you may have a fear of success, how do you resolve it? For some, this may require working with a therapist, especially if the fear is deep-rooted. The experts also recommend the following:
• When you achieve a victory, enjoy it. This even holds true for seemingly minor accomplishments. If you become comfortable accepting and relishing your small wins, it should enable you to develop a mindset that will help you pursue bigger goals.
• Develop a support system of persons in your life. If you have a group of persons in your firm or company, and in other facets of your life, who believe in you, are happy when you succeed and support you in tough times, nurture those relationships. When one has such a group in place, it helps to remove the concern that you may be lonely if you reach the top, as those persons are not likely to abandon you as you continue to succeed.
• Examine the positives associated with the successes you have achieved to-date. You undoubtedly have achieved many milestones in your career, as simply becoming a lawyer is reserved for those of great accomplishment. There surely have been positives that have been connected to your achievements on the path to becoming a lawyer and since you have joined the profession. If you can focus on the positives that have accrued, it may help to tilt the balance more in favor of them by dampening the negatives you normally associate with striving for higher goals.
• When you do set goals, try not to make them slam-dunks that can easily be achieved. More importantly, do not allow excuses to stop you along your path. If you have a good support system in place, it should include confidantes and others who are not afraid to chide you if they see that you are slipping backward as it relates to going after your goals.
• Try to develop a positive image of yourself and change the limiting and negative “self talk” that you hear throughout the day. This may be the most challenging of all the remedies and may require assistance. For some, this may entail working with someone; for others, embracing self-help sources (whether that entails books, podcasts, seminars, etc.) may work better for you. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.