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Stepping into your power
confronting fears of success
I realized the other night that I’m terrified of my own success. I’ve surpassed my own expectations in a few ways this year. After reading a book about psychology that I loved, I emailed the author and ended up making contributions to the upcoming second edition of the same book. My blog posts now regularly get thousands of views, and hundreds of thousands of people have heard about events I host, including hundreds that have asked to join. None of these developments are unprecedented—I've observed friends attain more drastic changes of circumstance more quickly—but it's unnerving to pause and recognize that the things I experience regularly today were things I once dreamed about.
It feels good and it feels scary. It’s surprising to consider that I could want something badly and be afraid of it at the same time. But it was unmistakable as I tried to vividly imagine both the best and worst outcomes for my life in the next few years. Visions of failure evoked sadness, while visions of success provoked fear. My mind immediately raced to paranoia: what happens next? how will this change other people’s perceptions of me? can I handle the pressure of it? what if I fumble and all of it abruptly ends?
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We fear success because, much like failure, it’s destabilizing to our sense of self. How would you feel if you knew for a fact that one day you’ll be admired the world over for your life’s work? Most of us walk around with the belief not just that we won’t be recognized, but that it’s an embarrassment to even entertain such thoughts. But actually think about it for a second: how would that belief change the way you carry yourself, the kinds of things you pay attention to, how you interact with others? To believe that I will achieve something remarkable is threatening to patterns of behavior and thought that I’ve practiced for years, behaviors that lead me to minimize myself and dismiss my own yearnings and intuitions. This is the self-image I’ve grown comfortable with, so discarding it feels threatening.
There’s a podcaster who recently broke everyone’s expectations of what podcast growth can look like. She’s a mom-influencer-turned-podcast-host named Bobbi Althoff, whose third and fourth podcast guests ever were Drake and Mark Cuban respectively. There are clips of her interviews circulating on the internet, and they’re distinctive for her tendency to cut off her guests, talk down to them, and generally come across as rude and disinterested. Unlike other podcasters who would treat such guests with adulation, Bobbi’s bit is that she barely knows anything about them.
It’s a good bit, and it’s also the antidote to fears of success: to stop treating other people’s accomplishments, along with your own, as such a big deal. By treating them as ordinary humans and putting them in awkward situations—like interviewing billionaire Mark Cuban on the floor of a dirty garage—Bobbi’s podcast cuts through their façade. Bobbi isn’t afraid of the successes she’s headed for. Or at least she doesn’t appear to be.
As best as I can tell, this fearlessness is a learned skill. Maybe some people were born with a nonchalance about how “important” the person they are interacting with is. But other people learn to deprogram it. I still remember the time that Drake, in the same year that he released his most popular single yet, Hotline Bling, spent ten minutes nervously stuttering and flailing about at Apple’s annual developer conference. You can see it in Bobbi’s interviews too, the occasional moment where she breaks out of her nonchalant character and belies the excitement of someone thrilled to be interviewing world-famous people. Everyone fumbles; the question is whether you learn from your mistakes and keep going.
It’s a trope that success doesn’t change the way you feel about yourself and it doesn’t fill the hole you have inside. But I think it’s worth asking yourself whether you’re coming to this conclusion from genuine self-transcendence, or if it’s a mask for a fear of what you’re capable of. It’s easy to exit the game by saying “none of it matters”; it’s harder to keep playing and simply accept the good and the bad that will come with your participation. Ultimately we want to direct our attention beyond ourselves and towards interesting problems and the suffering of others. But maybe we can also lean into the moments where the attention is on us, to step into our power rather than shy away from it.
I was struck by some advice I saw a few days ago about how to respond to praise. Usually when someone says something like “you’re crushing it”, our instinct is to dismiss and deflect, to say “yea but I could have done more” or “yea but I just got lucky.” Next time I’ll try what the person suggested instead: when someone tells you you’re awesome, just give them a slow, wide grin and say, “Yes. Yes I am.”