Fear of success?

Many years ago, when I was in Seattle, I took a class at the community college on public speaking. In this class there was an older guy, kind of white trashy, who seemed almost functionally retarded. He would constantly interrupt the teacher with totally asinine comments which she responded to with either mild amusement or annoyance.

One day, during a class exercise, this guy gave a speech on what he did for a living. He explained that he would go to government auctions and buy vehicles that had been impounded by the police, repair them, and then resell them for a hefty profit. I don’t think this made him exactly wealthy, but he was certainly doing all right, which was all the more impressive due to the fact that he was a complete moron.

Now, recently I was talking to a guy I know about a business venture he is engaged in, and he was reporting quite a bit of success. I don’t consider this guy to be a moron, but he’s not Einstein either. He’s a person of average intelligence. So I was driving home last night and thinking, “You know, I’m always going on about what a genius I am (not to mention incredibly good-looking and possessing vast physical prowess) but I’m largely unsuccessful. Why don’t I try one of these relatively simple business ventures?” The answer arrived pretty quick. I have considered such ideas in the past, and I almost invariably overthink and outthink myself. I consider a scheme — at one point I was thinking of starting a business doing consulting for speech recognition software — and then I sit around thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and essentially talk myself out of it. My vast intelligence — my ability to analyze problems and concepts to an almost granular level (you could say I’m doing it right now) — is actually a detriment. I’m the opposite of the moron from my public speaking course who probably thought, “Hey, I could buy used cars and resell them,” and then just went out and did it.

Okay, so hold on to that thought. Recently I’ve started reading a new book from the general ouvre of books related to Dr. John Sarno’s theories of the psychosomatic causes of pain. This book is called “The Great Pain Deception,” and from what I can tell it’s self published by the author. He does have a nice chapter length overview on Freud’s theories (id, ego and superego etc.) and at one point discusses how people inhibit their own success.

Some people unconsciously set themselves up to repeatedly fail… This can be accomplished through repetitive obsessive behavior or more commonly to a lesser extent, by procrastination. Things such as cleaning and re-cleaning, thinking and rethinking, or doing and re-doing or checking and re-checking, or practicing and re-practicing are avoidance-flight mechanisms.

Now, I read that point about “thinking and rethinking” and thought, “This is exactly what I do and exactly what I was thinking about while driving home last night.”

Do I have a problem with procrastination as well? Hmm, maybe, I don’t know…

Well, I think I’ll get around to finishing this blog post later…

But, seriously: of course I have a problem with procrastination. (As well as general time management.)

Why would I and others tend to outthink ourselves from pursuing ideas that might succeed? The conventional response would be we have some kind of fear of failure — we don’t want to waste time and resources on something that won’t pan out. This book argues the opposite — it posits that procrastination/overthinking is a fear of trying and succeeding. But why fear success? The answer comes easily if you’re familiar with Freud. Freud argued that we have an id — an inner child full of insatiable wants and desires — and a superego, which is essentially the voice of society. These two modular components are always clashing. The id wants success. But the superego does not, because it knows success will offend and engender jealousy in those around us. The superego wants to be “one of the people.”

This struck me as quite interesting, and I actually ran through a short mental list of people I know who have been successful versus people who have not, and I have to say, the people who have been successful clearly are not particularly bothered by the wants of the superego, or larger society. And the inverse is true with the unsuccessful.

So, am I constrained by my superego? Overall, I would say I have become less and less so as the years have gone by, particularly the last three or four. But I would surely say that in my childhood and even 20s I was bound by my superego. Or more correctly, there was a definite clash between my rebellious id and my parental superego. (A guy too concerned with fitting in probably wouldn’t start a blog called “My So-Called Penis.”)

The main thought here is that the id wants glory and is not ashamed about it. To add some ammunition to this point, consider children. Children are thought to be largely id-based creatures, and experienced no shame in taking glory in the most miniscule of accomplishments (such as successfully stacking colored blocks on top of each other.) Toddlers are largely unaware of the needs of others, and thus have to be trained, often violently so, to respect those around them. (To throw some neuroscience in here: generally speaking, the superego part of the mind is presumed to exist in the frontal cortex of the brain, and this brain area doesn’t really “activate” until many years after birth. We can also recall the famous case of Phineas Gage, a responsible, dutiful worker (e.g. dominated by superego) who, after having chunks of his frontal cortex removed in an accident, became a childish brute (e.g. dominated by id).)

Of course, there’s an additional component to this. I’m not sure “success” (which I’m generally defining as wealth, status and nailing a lot of babes) equals “happiness.” When I run down that mental list of successful people I mentioned above, I’m not sure I would describe all of them as happy. (Some I would though.)

I’ll end with an interesting quote mentioned in the book, from new agey author Marianne Williamson.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… we ask ourselves, who am I to be this brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? But actually, who are you not to be?… Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

3 Responses to “Fear of success?”


  1. John Saleeby

    You typed up all that but couldn’t be bothered to comment on our hilarious “Caffeine In Shit” thread? You are so fucked up.

  2. Wil

    I practice a light touch when it comes to comedy.

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