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You would imagine that success is something that we all desire. You would imagine that when we have it, we are delighted and we celebrate it. But there is a strange phenomenon, that many, many people have lurking in their subconscious, which can ultimately undermine their ability to be successful.
Fear of Success
It can be characterised in different ways. It could be fear of success. Sometimes this comes externally. You may be familiar with ‘tall poppy syndrome’. This is a cultural phenomenon: the ‘poppies’ that grow taller, those who are more successful, get their heads cut off because there’s this desire within society to level everybody down. Perhaps you experienced this at school, where your academic success was translated into social isolation, because you were a swot, brain box or a geek. Maybe your success in a team, where you are highlighted as an excellent member of the team prompts jealousy and resentment from people around you. Maybe the fact that you are promoted faster, puts you in a place where you have left your natural peer group behind and you start to feel isolated. Those fears of the consequences of success are real. They’re not imaginings. They are a reality from your experience. Success carries personal costs.
But there is another aspect of this fear of success, which is much more deeply rooted in what we believe about ourselves. It comes from two related but distinct aspects of our own expectations of ourselves.
The first is Imposter Syndrome: you believe that you are inadequate. You believe you’re not able to perform the role that you’re currently in. You constantly live in the fear that sooner or later you’ll be found out as an imposter. If you believe you’re an imposter, you are continually undermining your belief in your ability to be successful at your current level.
When I talk to successful people, they tell me again and again how they’ve lived with the bane of Imposter Syndrome. But what they have come to learn and to realise is that this is just completely normal. Most people get promoted beyond their level of current competence. ‘The Peter Principle’ first identified by Laurence J. Peter in his book of the same name in 1969, demonstrates that this is inevitable in any hierarchy. You carry on getting promoted until you are promoted beyond your competence. At this point, you can stay that way and fail, or you may develop the confidence to meet the needs of that role and step up, ready to be promoted again. Once you have identified and named Imposter Syndrome then you can address it.
You don’t Deserve Success
The most deep-rooted belief that undermines our attitude to success is when you don’t believe you deserve success. There’s a well understood phenomenon called Survivor’s Guilt. People who come out of an air crash or people who survive a concentration camp, feel guilty that they haven’t suffered in the way that others have. I think there’s something of Survivor’s Guilt in believing, you don’t deserve success. A psychologist or psychiatrist will be able to give you a much deeper and richer explanation of why you don’t believe you deserve good things. But, for whatever reason, there’s part of us, in too many of us, who believe we don’t deserve to be lucky. We don’t deserve to be happy. We don’t deserve to be successful. The bottom line is if you believe you don’t deserve to have what you want or you don’t deserve to have what you need, you will struggle to believe that success is available to you. Your ‘just deserts’ are far short of deserving success. Worse, if you get something you don’t deserve, you’ll will at some level expect to get punished for it. This lack of belief radically undermines your attitude for success, and your ability to achieve it. It can be very subtle.
I work with people who know exactly what they need to do to be successful. They have all the skills, resources and knowledge to take the steps to success. Yet, for some reason, they self-sabotage when they’re on the brink of success. Often, I suspect that, deep down, there’s something in them which says, ‘I do not believe I deserve it’.
Shaping a Positive Attitude to Success
We’ve looked at the negatives. Let’s flip those around and look at the positive. This is really where you need to have the right attitude to success. You need to believe that you do deserve success, you need to believe that the success you’ve got, has come out of the capabilities you have. Any capabilities you are missing, you can develop to stay in that success. You need to believe that success is available to you; that it is within reach. The stronger your attitude to success grows: your belief that you deserve it, you can attain it, will survive the tall poppy syndrome and the prize is worth the cost, the more successful you will be.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.