Fear of Success


I used to scoff at the concept. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Once upon a time I worked in New York. At CBS. At Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, aka, The New York Shakespeare Festival. At New York City Ballet. At a host of other venues with innumerable other denizens of the entertainment industry. Among the hundreds of people with whom I had contact, two performers stood out. One was a struggling comedian. The other a struggling actor.

Both were tall, dark, handsome men. Both were talented. Both had that depth and grace of soul that merits the label ‘genuinely nice guy.’ Today, the comedian lives in Atlanta, working as a headhunter for technology corporations.

He didn’t ‘make it.’ A couple of weeks ago I asked him why. A thoughtful silence ensued. But then, with the perspective of years… “I didn’t know how to market myself. It wasn’t enough to want it, or to be good at it. I needed to be a business man, too. I just wasn’t.”

Who knew when or if we’d talk again, so I took the plunge with what I considered much more important questions. “Are you sorry?”

“I wonder about it sometimes; what life would be like if I’d kept at it.”

And then the biggest question of all. “Are you happy?”

Not much hesitation this time. “Yeah, I’m happy. The way things turned out? I’ll take it.”

The actor, on the other hand, is by industry definitions, successful. He has television and movie credits under his belt. He’s climbed higher than he ever expected. He supports himself and his family solely by practicing his craft. In a strange quirk of fate, I found myself going over the same ground with him a short time ago.

“I don’t know why I made it.” His voice was low and contemplative. “I know I’ve been lucky. Maybe I was hungrier for it than the others? I needed it. Not sure…”

“But you’re happy, right?”

A longer pause than I expected from such an overtly ‘successful’ man.

“Sometimes. Not always.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been contemplating success and its attendant obstacles. Maybe it’s because I have recently touched bases with those two very similar, yet extraordinarily divergent men. But now I watch others who are caught up in the throes of having their work acknowledged, and I see them discovering how different the journey is from what they dreamed and expected. I wonder even more. Does Fear of Success stem from an innate desire to sabotage ourselves, or is there something inherently scary about achieving it?

Why is success frightening? Why do we think we want it, if it is? Is it that any change, even when it’s what we’ve been striving to attain, is scary? Or are we afraid of finding ourselves trapped in a situation in which we feel obligated to remain, because everyone else thinks we’d be crazy to abandon it?

Answers are as numerous and varied as the situations and people involved.

As for me, I’m still struggling to reach that golden pinnacle where the air must surely be sweeter. But what if it’s so rarefied that breathing is impossible? I guess I’ll never know until I get there. In the meantime, I keep wondering.

It’s kind of scary…