Fear of Success

Fear of Success

January 14, 2013 1:00 pm 0 comments
Single Geared > Articles > Fear of Success

Recently Dave McClure of 500Startups wrote a post called Fear of Flying. He starts with this line:

Failure is hardly the worst thing that can happen to you in Silicon Valley.

He takes his piece in the direction of being afraid that if you experience success, then you will at some point crash and be exposed for the fraud that you really are (he assumes, and I think correctly, that we are all afraid that we’re frauds). While I do echo this sentiment, I’ve always wanted to write a post called “Fear of Success” (the title of this post) for a different reason.

I think, like Dave does, that we are afraid of success. But another reason people are afraid of success is:

We’re used to failure. If we succeed, we doubt that we will have the strength, skills, time, or vision to continue executing on our success. And the truth is that we’re probably right – we don’t and won’t.

Failure as Comfort

We’re used to failure, or at least to the status-quo. The status quo is comfortable. It earns us a good living, gets us good performance reviews, lets us live in a nice enough house and drive a nice enough car. We have nice enough clothes and take nice enough vacations.

For many, this is all they’ve ever wanted out of life – a mid-sized house in a moderately nice neighborhood with fairly well-behaved children who play in a yard surrounded by a sturdy white fence that also keeps in the frequently washed dog.

If you’re one of these and you’re ok with that, then you can stop reading now. Because I am not ok with that life. The character Bruce Nolan (played by Jim Carrey) in the movie Bruce Almighty sums it up with these lines.:

Newsflash! I’m not okay. I’m not okay with a mediocre job. I’m not okay with a mediocre apartment. I’m not okay with a mediocre life!

But let’s not get sucked into thinking this is just a personal mindset. Mediocre, or the status quo, can be a business mindset as well. There’s nothing worse than working with a company that has a lot of potential, but the people at the top are concerned about keeping the shareholders happy and not rocking the boat at all, so they block (even if unconsciously) the efforts of others to push the company forward.

“We’re not a publisher. I don’t care if that’s where the trend is going. We make products.” Sigh

“But we’ve never done that before. It seems like a big risk and we can’t take risks in this economy.” !!!

I think the state of shareholders is hilarious these days. On the one hand you’re told “Don’t rock the boat. Just keep the revenue coming in.” That is, just maintain because there’s no reason to push. The people at the top are still getting rich. But on the other hand you’re told “Why didn’t the stock price increase by 25% last quarter? It did the quarter before that. If you don’t get back on track your job is in jeopardy.”

Most people are sent confusing signals. Main stockholders want to maintain their steady flow of cash. Small stockholders want to see their investment grow. Why else would Google always be under such pressure to increase revenues when they made only $89 billion (I hope that math is correct) in Q3 of 2012?

Dreams as Scary

Having dreams is scary. Shipping is scary. This guy knows the feeling. So does Seth Godin. Being a big dreamer, one of those whose head has always been “stuck in the clouds”, a daydreamer of large proportions, is one of the scariest types of people to be. And an optimistic daydreamer who wants to change the world? Now that person is dangerous (in a good way). And probably scared out of their mind.

“What if…” this actually works?

“What if…” people enjoy this product and I have to keep answering support emails and fixing bugs all while talking to potential investors?

“What if…” I actually have a happy family and can enjoy the vacations I’ve always wanted to take? Then I’d have to handle a lot of money and worry about losing it all and my family ending up on the streets. (Fear of failure still exists, mind you. I never said that it didn’t.)

The Power of Roles

I hope that last paragraph did not come across too strongly. Actually, I hope it did and that it has elicited a reaction from you and that makes you want to keep reading, because it gets better.

No one has all the skills we could ever need to make a company successful. This is why startups that get over that first adopter hump, get V2 out in the wild, and are starting to gain traction do one thing very quickly (usually) – they hire people. The smartest thing a founder or boss can do once their company/department/role grows is to hire someone to do the work that they are not able to do.

And this is a good and natural thing. Why else do we have CEOs, CMOs, CTOs, CIOs, Directors, Consultants, Analysts, and so forth? Because every person has different skills, and no one person can do all the job for very long and still do a good job.


This site is about moving forward. When you’re scared of success you don’t put your heart and mind fully into your work. You start to slack off, because you’re scared that you’re only going to disappoint. The irony there is that with this mindset, then you are sure to disappoint because you won’t give your best.

So take care of yourself, your body, your mind, and prepare to dig in and keep pushing forward. Keep your momentum going. Don’t seek to double your output from last year. Seek to keep producing, and in 3-6-12 months look back and see how far you’re come.



I'm the online marketing manager for HotPads.com based in San Francisco. In my free time I'm a Brooklynite, where I am also a rock climber, skier, and avid traveler. I entertain myself with photography and cycling as well. I also founded HireGun, where you can hire an SEO consultant.

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