The Fear of…Success
You probably know, as I do, that fear of failure is a psychological concept.
Do you ever wonder how that is possible? How someone can spend his life being afraid of failing?
I have come across a different pattern of behavior, of people who fear success.
Some of these men and women, particularly in the arts, were gifted. Often extremely capable and talented. For a brief moment, the world at their feet. But then they began to turn their success, almost deliberately, into failure. They created art, but when it was time to exhibit they retreated, maybe even destroyed their art.
One explanation: They were frightened of criticism, scared they would be judged a failure. And so like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they failed.
You might say it was not fear of success. It was obviously a fear of failure.
Ok, so let us try another example.
A businessman I once knew invented a product that the market needed desperately. After the earthquake in Los Angeles, he came up with a new design for a fence that was flexible and pleasing to the eye. It could withstand any earthquake. And it was reasonably priced. Cheaper than anything else on the market.
It took off like wildfire. More demand than he could handle. Orders almost overwhelmed him. Did he celebrate by consolidating and expanding his product line? By my raising the question, you already know the answer. No. What he did instead was use his newly found success to serve as an invitation to fight with his partners and destroy the company he had built into a success.
And it was not the first time it has happened to him. Before that, he failed a quite successful construction company outside USA.
In some strange way, he could not tolerate success. Failure was what he had learned to accommodate and expect. It was only by failing that he felt reassured. You could say that succeeding toppled his sense of equilibrium, his comfort zone. It made him feel unstable.
Note that every animal has an environment where it feels most at its element.
A swan would not like muddy water. Ox on the other hand, prefer mud. Give them a green meadow and they will start digging till they create the mud.
Is it the same with people?
Some people feel comfortable with success and very uncomfortable with failure. They will work hard to turn a failure into success. And there are people who feel at home with failure and if by some miracle they succeeded, they will work on turning the success into failure.
Such people always seems to find a way to fail even when the situation appeared to lead to success. Their unconscious would take over and they would find a way to confirm what they already knew: they are a failure.
This subject of being conditioned and then feeling most comfortable with that condition does not end only with fear of failure or fear of success.
I know a man, a friend whom I am quite fond of, whose method of relating to someone is to start an argument… It is almost a reflex action.
I suspect that it is ruining his marriage. It is also mapping his face with real wrinkles even though he is still young and quite attractive. Yet he persists. Why?
Because he is used to fight. When anger takes hold I notice he feels in his element. It is, in a strange way, his comfort zone; the time when he feels natural and in control.
In the case of my friend, a loving, relaxed atmosphere has always bothered him. The moment a conversation takes that turn, he begins to feel uncomfortable. The way he has learned to self soothe, to get over his discomfort, is to start an argument. That is his familiar territory and he knows best how to maneuver within it.
So what ?
Where is the insight?
We are managers. Leaders. Not therapists. We are not here to change people. We are here to lead them, capitalizing on the best they have to offer.
Human resource development is not to change people. It is to enrich what they already are.
Hire people who are used to success and are very uncomfortable with failure.
Best is to find a person who had a major setback in his life and overcame it to make it a success nevertheless.
I am often asked to help change the style of a certain manager who is hostile to people. He hates people. Likes to work alone and only with his computer.
“Please change him “ I am told. “.You are the guru of change, so do it!”
Sorry. Cannot be done. We can enrich a style. We cannot change a style.
Psychological theory tells us that personality cannot be changed. We are born with who we are.
Many people do not accept this theory and valiantly try to change their subordinates or leaders.
The sooner you learn to accept what is, the faster you move to what should be.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes