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Fears of Failure and Fears of Success


Most people are afraid of failure. Failure has this weird ring to it – a kind of setback. The stigma behind it, I think, goes back to thinking that failure is “stolen time.” Because time is a limited resource, fear of failure indirectly becomes a survival mechanism. If we can’t live forever might as well live a life of progress and prosperity, and so a life free of failure.

But I think failure inherently means we’re comparing it against something, and that something is one of our prior states that was more successful than the current state. Conroy's Achievement Goal Theory posits that people's fear of failure is directly tied to how they interpret achievement and their related goals.

Failure is then envy … of a self that once was.

Just think about how unusual that is.

I heard the sentence “fear of success” today and stopped to meditate on what success really means, and I couldn’t find it. So instead, I went to look for its opposite, failure, and that’s how we ended up here.

Fear of failure is common, but the fear of success is something that I never thought of until that very moment, and I think it boils down to a few behaviors that we often don’t look at as a trait of character and we try to solve them separately.

We default to fear of failure because we might think of being afraid of success as a little pretentious. After all, doesn’t it mean that if someone is scared of success, they can achieve it quickly?!

Fears of Failures, and of Success

Matina Horner was the first to study this “fear of success” in the 1960s, and she theorized that women developed high anxiety levels because they couldn't reconcile their desire to excel with society's view that ambition was unfeminine. Later studies expanded on this, showing that fear of success can affect anyone, irrespective of gender, mainly due to the changes and increased responsibilities that come with success.

Fear of success is equally real and existent, and complements the fear of failure. People are either in a state of being afraid of failure or afraid of success. The third scenario is the stoic kind; for that, detachment from the outcome is necessary – removing resistance to create flow.

So how does fear of success manifest itself?

  1. Fear of change: success usually brings change, and only some people are comfortable with the idea of changing. Success inherently is a constant detachment and evolution from an initial condition, and so is continuous change.
  2. Fear of increased responsibility
  3. Fear of not meeting expectations
  4. Impostor syndrome: to feel impostor syndrome, one must be objectively successful. However, the psychological pattern makes it so that the person has an internalized persistent fear that their accomplishments are a “fraud” and that they will be exposed. I have no clue where, evolutionary speaking, this fear comes from, but it’s a really interesting one; maybe it has to do with the next point and our need to fit within a group.
  5. Fear of isolation: sometimes success can lead to feelings of isolation or disconnect from peers or social groups.

At any given point, we’re working with a mix of being afraid of failure, success, or detached from the outcome. Fears bring along negative behaviors, and detachment can bring serenity and peace. Fears can also be strategically used to motivate, and detachment can create the laziest couch potato.

Fears aren’t inherently bad, and detachment isn’t inherently good.

I see these two fears (success vs failure), in addition to detachment, as part of the human cognitive toolbox. At any point, we can decide to step in and tune the machinery using fear of success or failure and then step back and detach from the outcome.

This state of equilibrium between these three “brain gears” is where I think healthier living is. After all, all outcomes are relative; it just depends on where -and how- you look at them.