Believe it or not, one of the most paralyzing fears is the fear of success. That’s right, the fear of achieving one’s goals. It seems insane, because of course, we want to reach our goals, right? I mean, don’t we?
The short answer is that yes, we do want to accomplish our goals, but that it’s complicated. There are several factors that complicate our relationship with achievement. For example, we may fear that pursuing our goals might cause tension between ourselves and our family, friends, and other acquaintances. People close to us can exacerbate this by scolding us for having a big head, being too big for our britches, or thinking we’re better than them. Success can feel like abandoning the people we care about.
Or we might fear the way that accomplishing something big opens us up to criticism. Even one negative review among dozens of positives can feel like failure if we’re deeply-enough invested into a project’s outcome. Accomplishment also brings with it heightened expectations, new responsibilities, and new goals more difficult than the ones just realized — all of which can cause us to fear the accomplishment itself.
Finally, our projects are often so much a part of ourselves that finishing feels like a death of sorts — what will I do, or more importantly, who will I be when I no longer have my novel/dissertation/degree/start-up/other big project to define my days and my self? That’s a pretty big whammy!
Working on any big project can cause conflict with the people around us. There are practical concerns — not being able to socialize, for instance, or neglecting day-to-day chores to work on our life’s work — and there are emotional ones — feeling selfish about choosing your work over your family and friends, for example. This is why it’s vitally important to build relationships with supportive people (and be genuinely supportive in return) and to nourish those relationships no matter what else is going on.
No matter how big a project or goal, we must make time for socializing, relaxing, and playing. For one thing, non-work time can be just as crucial to our success as the time we spend directly working towards our goals, because it recharges our batteries and lets our minds move our work to an unconscious part of our mind where it often continues to work (ts is why the solution to so many problems pops into our heads as soon as we stop thinking about them). But just as important, this “together time” with the people who matter to us strengthens our relationships and lets them know that they are a big part of the life you’re working toward your goals to create.
Of course, there are always one or two emotional vampires who, because of jealousy, resentment, or just an overly negative nature, will never be quite satisfied. If you can cut them loose, do so — life’s too short to try to please theunpleasable . If you can’t, though — if they’re family, for example — then do what you can to firewall them from your life while you’re working, and let the results speak for themselves down the line. If you can learn to see their negativity as their problem, not yours, all the better.
Not achieving our goals has something really big going for it — if you don’t get off the ground, it won’t hurt if you fall. Striving for success always involves a risk — and the higher you climb, the farther you have to fall. Dreaming without acting can even be soothing: we can dream of a brighter future without risking anything. At least for a while.
A fear of failure or of negative criticism can instill in us a perfectionism that leads us to shy away from finishing a big project, and even from starting. We internalize and amplify the criticism we expect, and almost always find ourselves lacking. “Who am I to attempt something this big?” our inner critic asks — and all-too-often, answers, “Nobody.”
While that inner critic may not be totally unavoidable, you can make an end-run around it by giving yourself permission to suck. Realize that some of the greatest works of art were profoundly disappointing to their creators, that the greatest entrepreneurs are always striving to make their companies better, that some of the most brilliant scientists of all time made incredible mistakes. Einstein almost undermined his entire Theory of Relativity by adding a cosmological constant to his formulae because he couldn’t accept what his work was telling him about the universe. Bill Gates became the richest person in the world releasing software that consistently failed to live up to expectations.
The biggest psychic beast roaming the jungles of our mind is the fear of the unknown that comes when we’re done with whatever big project we’re working on. In it’s mild form, it is simply a fear of deferred failure — we may succeed in the short term, but that success will give way to more and greater projects that will, eventually, overwhelm us.
In its more chronic form, this is a fear of becoming someone else — finishing a novel makes us an author, finishing a dissertation makes us a Doctor, building a company makes us a CEO, and so on. Life may be better, we hope — but it will also be different. Our lives will change in ways we cannot imagine, and that’s pretty scary!
It’s important to remember, though, that life doesn’t work like it plays out in our imaginations. We don’t suddenly jump from wherever we are into some unknown future where we have no idea what we’re doing. The responsibilities that might evolve from the successful completion of a big project will build on the skills and talents we developed in executing that project. That is, the entrepreneur hustling to make her first big sale today isn’t going to be the CEO of her company when it’s successful; the CEO will be the person she gradually becomes as she amasses experience and know-how in the course of building her company.
But most important of all, we need to cultivate joy and satisfaction in the work itself — and in our lives as they are. That might seem counter-intuitive; after all, why strive to improve your life if you’re satisfied with it as it is? But how can we expect to be satisfied with some unknown future life if we can’t be satisfied with the life we already know? We have to replace the notion of a better tomorrow with a sense of purpose, with each step towards that purpose being equally as important as the next and the last. It’s not that who you are today is lacking, somehow, but that who you are today is essential to the realization of your life’s purpose.
Where you get that sense of purpose will differ from person to person. For some, it is religion; for others, a commitment to their art; for still others, humanitarian ideals; and others will find purpose in the face of their newborn child, their spouse, or their parents. Each of us has our own path to walk, and each of us has to find it on our own — though there are plenty of markers out there if you just look, given that the quest for purpose is humanity’s oldest preoccupation after the sheer fact of survival. And even just accepting that there is some purpose in your life, without necessarily knowing what it is, can be a huge motivator — that alone can give you wings and help overcome the fear that keeps you from using them.
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