Sunday morning my friend, let’s call him N for “He shall remain nameless”, asked, “So are you afraid of success?” I don’t know what made him ask. I mean, there I was in his house, drinking Earl Grey tea, chatting with my friend, let’s call her C for “We met in college”, and sputtering when asked about my book. Yes, sputtering.
Sputtering after I said the phrase “my agent,” a phrase I’ve been longing to say for lo, on thirty years. I can indeed say it now. So I did. But it didn’t feel organic. My agent. It felt tentative. Possibly fake. Or perhaps that was just how I felt, talking about my writing. So when N asked how it was going with the book, I had to admit that I was worried. I was worried that I wasn’t feeling positive enough, and that I would therefore be sending negative vibes around to the potential buyers of my book proposal, and thereby killing my chances.
N is not your New Age kind of person, so he laughed at my fear. (Which of course I really wanted, which was why I told my fear to N, rather than to, say, the really spiritual, New Age-y lady in my NIA class that I like chatting with sometimes. Key to success, Readers: choose your support system wisely.)
And then he asked me if I’m afraid of success. This is one of those facile fears you would like to think you could avoid, especially if you are me, a feminist, who doesn’t want to have to deal with an extra helping of personal hang-ups on top of all the other difficulties I encounter as a woman trying to be a professional writer. With an agent. I remembered that my MIL had pooh-poohed the fear of success syndrome herself, back when I asked her about her definition of success. She was talking about her decision to not write her dissertation. This was in the 1960s. She said there were several books about women and the fear of success that came out in the 70s, and she just didn’t buy it. Fear of success had not caused her to abandon her dissertation; it was boredom with her subject.
And marriage and children, I might add, even if she wouldn’t. I’ll let her take that up with Anne-Marie Slaughter.
So, let’s just say I, too, have a bias against assigning that particular fear to myself. After all, there are many things about success I do not fear. Here are some fears I do not have:
- I do not fear having to appear on talk shows. I would like the opportunity to be on TV. I used to practice for this as a child, which I know I have mentioned. Me, the mirror, and the hairbrush mic spent a lot of time together.
- I would not mind reading passages of my book to crowds of four or five at readings around the country.
- I do not fear royalties.
- And I am pretty sure I would get over the horrible self-consciousness accompanying being a New York Times Bestselling Author.
But when N asked, I did realize that while I don’t fear success, I fear some elements that often are part of it. For example, I fear becoming a “relentless self-promoter par excellence” as he described my nemesis GR. (Close readers of this blog will know to whom I refer.) I definitely have that fear, the fear of becoming a sound-bite spurting annoyance, the cause of rolling eyes and gritting teeth.
How realistic is this fear? Probably not very. After all, I’m much more prone to self-deprecation than to self-promotion. This, of course, is another problem. Self-deprecation gets old and annoying, too. And if I were to become successful and famous, it definitely wouldn’t play well on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. People would want to throw things at me. Maybe, Readers, you already do.
Let me pause while I absorb that sad thought.
On the other hand, some self-promotion is important. Already, I post my blog to Facebook and Twitter, and I have my mailing list. I push “send” apologetically, but I do push it.
My ideal of success with my book is along the David Sedaris lines - people find me charming and funny, even if my voice is a little weird. They like to listen to me because I am definitely farther out on the limb of insanity than they are. I aim to reassure, not infuriate. And further, I would love to impart some helpful information I have learned about success.
So I have that fear. Also the fear of insanity. And death.
Anyway, my friends N and C spent a little time bucking up my spirits by saying nice things about how they know this book is going to sell and other such stuff, and offering to read drafts of it and provide whatever kind of commentary I might like on it, even if it’s just, “Great job, keep going.”
This conversation reminded me of two crucial lessons I have learned about success. First, the question of positive thinking and self-confidence is much more complex than I first thought. I've researched it a lot, because once upon a time I worried that the essence of my personality - unconfident and tending towards pessimism - indicated I was doomed to failure. While early writers on success certainly emphasized confidence and positive affirmations and unshakeable faith, recent research has proven that supreme self-confidence is not the only prerequisite to success. In fact, over-confidence can lead to missteps, because you forget to be careful and to weigh all considerations. It can lead to a fixed mindset, and a fixed mindset responds inflexibly to setbacks. More importantly, for some people - people who may skew towards pessimism - it’s much more helpful to think of what could go wrong than to try to be positive. By thinking of what obstacles might arise, you can then consider methods of dealing with them. That sort of thinking is more natural for worriers and pessimists like me. It helps make goals attainable. And, sneakily, it makes a positive of negatives. Because life is full of problems that need solving along the way. If you’re blind to the potential ways to improve a situation, or don’t consider how to handle contingencies, you won’t.
Second lesson. Readers: you need those loving mirrors. Loving mirrors is Noah St. John’s term for the people who see what you want to become and believe you can be that. They are not necessarily your family. They aren’t always even your friends. They can be, but they might not be. Mentors, bosses, teachers - any of these people can mirror the successful you at you. You need them in your community. These people might even be the ones who see positively for you when you are mired in doubt, fear, and self-deprecation. They might be the ones that give you a big mug of Earl Grey tea and casually give you a kick in the pants and get you back to work.
Harvard Business Review blog
Carol Dweck, Mindset
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Succeed
Noah St. John, The Secret Code of Success