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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Creative Blocks

Are You (Subconsciously) Afraid of Success?

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. Presenting three classic versions of fear of success, and what to do about them.


Have you ever found yourself on the verge of a big success, and noticed things starting to go wrong? It begins with a feeling of agitation. The tiniest details irritate you. Reliable people start making alarming mistakes.“What’s up with them? Can’t they see how important this is? Why are they being so careless?”

It becomes hard to concentrate. You find yourself procrastinating over things you know will lead to success. You say something stupid in an important meeting. “What’s wrong with me today?” You get into arguments with your partner and friends, who wonder why you’re being so “touchy.” All of these are classic symptoms of fear of success – a condition that is all the more dangerous because it’s so unexpected. You want to be successful, right? You’ve sweated blood to get to this point, so why would you sabotage yourself? But in our success-oriented culture, we don’t give much thought to the fact that success can be downright scary. We’re used to seeing fear as the enemy, so we do our best to ignore it and soldier on. Which means the fear remains subconscious, expressing itself in the kind of “stupid” behaviors above. So what can you do about it? Sometimes all you need to do is “out” the fear by admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, afraid. Paradoxically, it can have the effect of helping you relax. “OK, I’m nervous, which is pretty normal considering what’s at stake.” (Deep breath) “Right, what’s next?” And sometime it helps to focus on exactly what you’re afraid of, and find a way to deal with the threat. Here are three classic versions of fear of success, and what to do about them.

1. Fear of Not Coping With Success

As Hugh MacLeod points out, success is more complex than failure. On some level, it’s more comfortable to stay in a familiar situation, even if it doesn’t feel great on the surface. But achieving success (however you define it) means you are entering uncharted territory. You are putting yourself out there to be scrutinized and criticized, and exposing yourself to new pressures and demands. It’s only human to wonder whether you’ll be up to the challenge. A small anxious part of you would rather not take the risk.

What to do about it:

Although the idea of success can be scary, the reality is generally easier to cope with than what you had before. If you’ve been resourceful enough to keep yourself going during the tough times, you’ll probably be able to do the same with the good times. Yes, you’ll have to make changes and learn new things, but you’re creative and adaptive enough to do that. If you experience doubts, remind yourself of all the extra resources success will bring you:

  • A boost to your confidence
  • A bigger, more powerful network
  • A healthier bank balance
  • A growing reputation that opens new doors

2. Fear of Selling Out

Creatives have a complicated relationship with success. On the one hand, you wouldn’t be reading 99U if you weren’t ambitious to succeed; on the other, you don’t want success at all costs – especially the loss of your artistic integrity. Whatever choices you make, if you achieve any kind of public success, it’s a sad fact that someone, somewhere will be thinking (and even saying) nasty things about you – including accusations of “selling out.”

What to do about it:

Firstly, accept that you’ll never please everyone. Backbiting is part of the price of success. Secondly, make sure you are comfortable with your choices. Make a list of all the things you would consider “selling out,” and which you’re not prepared to do. Then keep the list handy. As long as you don’t do the things on that list, you can look yourself in the mirror. Whatever anyone else says about you.

3. Fear of Becoming Someone Else

Because we habitually put successful people on pedestals, the idea of becoming “one of them” can feel daunting. You start to worry that you’ll turn into someone else, a person your friends and family won’t recognize—and won’t like. This fear has some foundation in reality. After all, if you were satisfied with the person you are now, why would you want to change? But it’s also founded on a false premise: that change is about leaving your old self behind and replacing it with a completely new one. Change is more complex than that. You are definitely more complex than that.

What to do about it:

Instead of thinking about change in terms of subtraction (losing your old self) think of it in terms of addition. You are about to discover and develop new facets to your personality — adding to who you are and what you bring to the world. Getting used to your new role will feel tingly and exciting. And you can still be the person you’ve always been to family and friends. Spending time with them will feel like slipping on your old comfy jeans after spending time in your trendy new clothes. More selves = more choices and a richer life. — Over to you Have you ever suffered from fear of success? Any tips for dealing with it?

Comments (119)
  • Dennis Akervik Coelho

    This came to me at the right moment. With the challenges I have endured over the past couple of years it is good to see that these topics are available. My story is a bit different as I suppose eaches is. I have dealt with mass confusion. I create projects and move around at one point each of my six studios was chaotic half done and new ones begun, of course then the frustration smacks you in the face. This is how I have dealt with it. I have always received great reviews, my followers have always been more than kind to me, and I have emails and other correspondences informing me and attesting to how I have touched someone; one day I received an email from a gentleman from Philadelphia informing that his wife was severely bipolar and that I had touched her on a very deep level where she had become obsessed with my works, that she studies them etc… I was flawed as I had been questioning my own work at that time. I replied and asked that they phone me at once. I wanted to do something for this family. I wanted to give her a painting. I was so moved by this I no longer questioned anything. We as artists are the most sensitive of animals, (Unless of course you are an ego maniac) . I have welcomed change in my own way. I go thru what I suppose most due where I avoid my studio. I think I found the solution to that. I have made a friend of my fears, my doubts. A friend of mine had told me once. “You must make a friend of pain” he was absolutely correct. I think all serious Artists come to a point where they must accept themselves. I no longer am questioning my abilities. I know I am highly talented. I just had to make a friend of it. Now I am looking at it differently Being an Artist is not a hobby it is a way of life and we must accept it for what it is. When I paint I add subliminal triggers, I want my observers to be moved and touched on deep levels. I want every emotion to be affected, but also I want the observer to leave with a sense of contentment. My advice is to just paint and let it come to you because it will, your brush will do it’s thing and before you know it you will be in a different world, it’s almost like being on autopilot. Afterall we are master storytellers.We tell stories all on one surface we go inward and thats what we want the observer to do, to go inward and deep, we want to suck them in take them on a journey and deliver them back with a sense of gratitude for that brief break in a chaotic world. This is a job I do well and I am just now beginning to appreciate my own abilities.
    Thank You For Reading this I hope to take you on a journey sometime. I have come to appreciate myself.

  • Thijs Kroon

    While I read this article about Fear of Success and particularly, how to deal with it, there was this constant urge to go do something else, and not just the usual “I want to go do something else” but the “I want to Go do something else NOW.” This is typical in every situation that I can imagine being a success in. I automatically start sabotaging by either wanting to take a nap, watching a movie or TV episode, get something to drink, anything at all to get away from working on my project or working towards lowering my fear of success. So thank you for your post, Mark! I definitely need to do more in releasing this fear.

    • Prince

      Dead on^^^^

  • Ayesha Tariq

    My biggest challenge is starting something. For instance, I know I want to illustrate children’s books. I got opportunities as well. However, over here you need to provide a sample before they go ahead with the job. I either, never start, or take waaaayyy to long. I have also often left my projects midway. This has usually happened in my solo projects. When I have somebody managing me, like in my part time job, I am way more responsible and active, though my initial fear is always there. I think I have similar feelings towards travelling, teaching or applying for grad school, all things that I really want to do. This fear, it really effects my performance and my feelings towards myself.
    The thing that annoys me the most is that I always thought that once I graduate with a degree, I’d have it all sorted and I’d be a way more confident person. That is however not the case.

    • Ayesha Tariq

      I feel like I just vented here :p

    • Noa

      I know that feeling, believe me. And I used to think I was the only one in that situation…

      • Ayesha Tariq

        Thanks Noa! I hope we combat it soon.🙂

  • victoria farrand

    My hardest challange is finishing something. I’m the one who will stand up in the face of “you can’t do that” and say “yes I can, you just watch me”. I get pumped, I get everyone around me pumped, I make a plan and I get going. But 95% of the way through I’m almost there, it’s almost go-time and I freak out. The more people tell me they love what I’m doing the more I excited I get and in equal measure the more I freak out. To the point where life and work grind to a hault, I procrastinate and put off getting it live. The only way I’ve found to get myself to push past that point is to set a comitment that others are reliying on me for. So that if I don’t do it, I’ll be letting them down. Which to me is worse than my fear of success. I didn’t realise that I was entirely normal in doing this, well maybe not normal but at least not alone. Thank you for writing this article and helping me hit it head on!

  • Marty Mcmasters

    So, thanks for writing this article. Ive had a great fear of success for a while now even though I’ve accomplished a few things, Im not where I want to be just yet, and I know that a lot of this comes down to me stopping myself for other people. I cant help it, I get pretty focused on a project (writer) or Ive got something I need to study or have to work at home, and I get nervous and anxious that I’m being selfish or someone will not like who I am if Im this determined. I’ve met up with some pretty nasty characters for accomplishing something great, and lost some (what I’d thought at the time) pretty important people. I will admit though, that being afraid of not accomplishing things i want to do in this world and still being stuck on this fear later on in my life, scares me a little more. My goal is to fell the fear, but move forward anyway. I believe there is always a way to make things happen. im not sure how I’ll get past this, but Im sure I will. Onward and upward….

  • Thomas Mrak

    Yes. Unfortunately because I’ve known people who ONLY care about the power, prestige, and things they can get from it. People that also don’t want to see other people have them or refuse to go after anything, so they resort to sabotage and belittling.

    I am so afraid sometimes that if I succeed I’ll be like them.

    The reality is, I’m a lot more interested in seeing what I can do than attempting to outdo everyone else or put someone down. I’m here for the journey, because you can’t predict for better or worse how all of it will go.

    I’ve tried more and failed at more things than I can count, so clearly I am not afraid of failing.

    Part of me has a musical side as well, and yes, selling out is definitely a part of it, as well as feeling “too old”.

  • http://andrewspenceonline.com/ Andrew Spence

    Excellent article. I have experienced this many times in my career, although managed to rid myself of it around 2009. I believe that you nailed it with the reasons and what can be done about it. I think many people just have this fear because in some ways, its the unknown. We all often fear the unknown. Other times, we feel we don’t deserve it or because it will push us outside our comfort zone. By applying your tips people will definitely be able to push through and thrive. Great stuff.🙂

  • shoaib

    Hello. I am a grad student from India. Until a few months ago I was a total wreck(atleast thats what my mom would tell me). I could never walk up to anyone because I beleived I was worthless. Then I had a thought that changed my life. Rrmember at this point, I had no life skills whatsoever. My grandfather has a few acres of land filled with all kinds of floura. A man, in his mid forties knocked on the door. He chatted with grandpa and after an hour or so I saw him plucking coconuts off our trees. Minimum wage work. A man in his mid forties. This was what he did as young boy, for fun then. But now this is how he fed himself. The moral of the story for me was that after forty something of his existence all he could show for was this.
    Had he taken a moment in his twenties and reflected, things would be quite different. Here at 99u I learned the importance of small changes. Learning does not stop at school. I beleive that if I dont keep learning and growing I will die.
    In his 30 year carreer, he could have learned quite a few skills. It just amazes me how some people are content with mediocrity. What is life if not an adventure?

  • http://deevranorling.com Deevra Norling

    I have been analysing my situation recently, and even before reading this article, I came to the conclusion that there is a part of me that is afraid of success and possibly sabotaging myself. I am not even sure why. But there is some nagging fear. At first I thought it was fear of failure (which there is to some extent), but I realised much to my surprise, that more so, it is a fear of success. And I think it is the first fear you mention, i.e. fear of not coping – fear of getting in too much work and feeling overwhelmed. I’m still trying to figure my emotions out. In the meantime, I am soldiering on even in the face of fear!

  • http://Madblkman.tumblr.com Mad Blk Man

    This article just made this place one of my new favorite websites. Well done!

  • Naomi Hefter

    Im an up and coming Stand up Comedian and I find myself constantly HOLDING BACK. I do reasonably good gigs, get people talking. Im inside im hating myself as i havnt written and delivered as good as I know i could have. Im just scared of letting go and letting good things come to me. I even find myself coming up with excuses to not write or i may even cancel a gig and feel guilty for ages. I just feel frustrated as comics who have been going as long as i have ( 5 years ) are now getting agents, and tv deals etc..and im just there afraid of the changes that could happen. Not really sure how to break out of this but I wish i could and just let go and show the talent ive kept inside all these years.

    • Guest

      It take’s small steps to be free of these mental hurdles, it’s like a self fulfilling prophecy. The more you resist the more it persists.

      I’d set tiny goals, firstly simply aim to feel good after a gig, to be comfortable and know that you did the best with how you were feeling at the time. Beating yourself up only adds and perpetuates the problem.

      The procrastination one is very common among acts and you have to ‘learn’ to enjoy the process. Viewing writing as work/chore will not help creatively you may as well watch a film. Find a way to love writing comedy, find a way to love performing, be creative with the process of writing, find your way have fun with it, you don’t have to sit in a library on a laptop.

      Do a little bit each day maybe.

  • vaughn e. itemuagbor

    In a fight against the fear of success, realization is your ally. realizing you are afraid of success and having the guts to face that truth is all you need to strip this fear of its power!. Thanx for this great article

  • disqus_aQnzyZMXDh

    I actually am trying to cope with this now. I left college 2 years ago after achieving to get myself on the Dean’s list (3.2GPA+). Ice always been self conscious of people’s criticism. How do I move forward?

    • http://www.marksmarketingblog.com Mark'sMarketingBlog

      No matter what, people are going to criticize you. You just need to know that you are worthy of that which you are trying to achieve. If when you wake up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror and if you can be proud of who it is that you see, then you can handle it. Zig Ziglar was quoted as saying, “People say motivation doesn’t last, well neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.” You just need to surround yourself with love and support and need to eliminate the negatives from your life. Easier said than done, but it’s possible.

    • http://www.rpg-media.com/ J. N. Race

      Just to expand on what Mark has already stated, you HAVE to find that inner strength to rise above the critics, namely the non-constructive ones. Approval seeking was a huge issue I had, but going online and reading articles about celebrities changed my views a lot.

      It wasn’t the articles themselves but the comments that provided an in-depth look at how vicious people can be. It didn’t matter if the article was centered around having a baby, or fashion, or dealing with drug addiction. About 80% of commenters would find some horrific thing to say.

      We ALL have something to offer this world. Don’t let the words of others snuff out your personal light. Where would Bill Gates be, or Beyonce, or Meryl Streep if they gave in to all the negativity? Think about it.

  • March April

    Lol yes I am aware this article has been first posted months ago, I just need to say that, after reading, it is very rare to finally feel comfortable with who we are, and what life has in store for ppl. Especially when it comes to something as odd as a success-phobia, it is a big deal to find other people can experience, or at least understand it, like you do Mark. AND it really helps that it was written articulately. The advice is awesome and point 3 feels groundbreaking to me lmao. It’s just awesome people understand. Tx Mark

  • kdrnec

    I think this is a very important topic. I am a veterinarian (was- I quit) and now have a PhD in Neuroscience. My current job is so prestiguous and I work with people who literally dwarf my intelligence without effort. But h the reason I took the job with the Army Research Lab was because I thought I was passionate about learning more about cognitive and computer modeling. In addition I thought I would be able to put a lot of academic papers and research under my belt.
    Not I’m there I am honoured. I work with scary smart people and I think deep inside I wonder why I am there! I’m not an engineer, I am not a computer scientist…I am cognitively flexible, but still, there’s a limit to what someone can do without training.

    I like my environment. I like the idea of the army research lab. I like have a secret clearance. I like that people think I must be smart. But then I get to work and all my ambition just…dissipates. I don’t understand. I think through a diary I’ve kept that it is a combination of not wanting to think and most seriously, a thought that I can’t/could never/maybe could understand what’s going on.

    Does anyone else ever feel like this??? I’ve been a vet..and hated it…I’ve been a public health professional..and hated it…I’ve now got this job that I’ve always dreamed of because if validates my worth, and also, it’s a great chance to learn this math stuff etc. But why when I sit down at my desk do I feel a great sense of depression/guilt/equivocal…

    I’m sorry to go on but….
    I’ve been diagnosed many years ago with bipolar. There is a strong genetic predilection to alcoholism. I am very worried. I’ve gone from a person who wanted to exercise all the time, learn all kinds of shit all he time. And now….I am this existing person with mayb potential….but I’m not sure I will ever know!

    Anyone know how I feel???

    • Susannah

      What do you want to accomplish with all of this? Papers and research aren’t really an end goal. How do you want to change the world? Unfortunately, money decreases our intrinsic motivation for an activity (see this: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120509-is-it-all-about-the-money ). The trick we have to play is to have a worthy goal beyond that.

  • Patrick Gabriel

    I was told only this morning this is my diagnosis by my psychiatrist. I have been committing suicide on my career for years I received accreditation 2004 for completing a Medical assistant training. I have been scared out of my mind to even go and ask a doctor for an internship! What should I do?

  • Talya Price

    I have this very same problem and I am working on getting better and facing my fear and love success.

  • Scrapps

    Wow I just came across this article and I knew I was scared of success. since the longest I even asked my ex boss why was I scared of success and she didn’t know, but I figured it out I need to stop being scared of exposing myself I quit my job and I started my business and well things haven’t gone too well and I started asking myself what am I doing wrong and now I know what I was doing wrong my fear has pulled me back please let’s keep in touch and talk more laborforscrapps2@gmail.com email me to chat thank you

  • V-Way

    Great article, sir.

  • Forevergrateful

    Thank you for giving me the answer…….

  • Chrysalis

    I’m 4 weeks from graduating with my associates degree with honors and going on to a 4 year university. I love my current school. I love working with the professor I am assistant to. Everyone knows me here and I am well thought of. The thought of commuting to this huge university, knowing no one, and being an honor’s scholar with no experience at their school scares me. The thought of spending the money and time and possibly not getting a job or not having enough time for my kids is haunting me. I don’t want to leave them behind just to get what I want. your article helped me think things through a bit more. thanks

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