The Fear of Success

In a recent post, I mentioned the fear of success in passing, as one of the dreaded Seven Demons we must confront as writers. Many scoff at the idea that anyone should be afraid to succeed. It’s what we all want, isn’t it? It’s the desired end-state of just about everything we’ve been taught: Study hard, so that you’ll succeed. Practice hard, so that you’ll succeed. Throw the ball farther, so that you’ll succeed.

False Assumptions about Success

There are a lot of assumptions tied up in the concept of success, and these assumptions can feed the fear of the very thing we’re supposed to desire so much. But if we unpack them, maybe we can take some of the terror out of them and make the fear of success more manageable.

First, we have the myth of the “self-made man.” You know the story: “I started with nothing. My mom bathed us in piss because she didn’t have clean water. To get to school, I had to walk ten miles uphill—both ways. But I pulled myself up by my own boot-straps. Started selling newspapers when I was still in the womb. And now look where I am.” Against all odds, through the power of sheer tenacity, success can be achieved. All you have to do is follow the plan, and—POOF!—you will succeed.

The problem with this, of course, is that life never goes according to plan. Every prize-fighter walks into the ring with a plan. Every general commits troops to the battlefield according to a plan. Every mother goes into the delivery room with a plan.

But a plan survives neither the first punch, the first contact with the enemy, nor the first labor complication. We all have limitations and obstacles, impediments and weaknesses. The mother of my children was all gung-ho for a natural, un-medicated delivery—until she wasn’t. Then you couldn’t smack her up with painkillers fast enough.

“But honey, what about the birthing plan—?”
“I DON’T CARE! MORPHINE! NOoOoOoOW!!!”

The second myth of success is that only the “gifted” will succeed. In this scenario, you have no control over anything. Agents and publishers control the gateway to legacy publishing success. Sales ranks and reader reviews are the only gateway to self-publishing success. Unless you have some special gift, circumstance, or opportunity, you’re doomed to failure. Fatalism takes hold, life has no meaning, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. Que sera, sera. Destiny is inescapable.

But where’s the adventure in that?

Learn to Enjoy the Trip

A lot of writers consider “being a writer” to be their life’s purpose and feel they were born to some sort of destiny. And this is often how a facility with words and language is described by others: “You have a gift.”

But is it really an innate reason for living, or is it something we have to create for ourselves? If it really is destiny, and if we’re all right to think we’re “gifted,” wouldn’t there be more of us on the best-sellers lists? Wouldn’t we all be making money hand over fist?

The truth is, becoming a writer isn’t a carefully-laid plan. It’s not a goal you set and then plow through until it’s achieved. But it’s also not a random series of events and genetics either. It’s a mix of mystery and intention, practice and self-perception. And it happens a little bit at a time.

Dealing with Success

Selling your first book is a dramatic event. Here you’ve been working on this manuscript for months or years, and that’s all it is—a manuscript. Then, you get that call from the publisher, or that email from CreateSpace and—POOF!—you’re a published author. Your manuscript is suddenly a book.

Huzzah. The sun is shining. Life is perfect. You’ll never doubt yourself again.

Except that—of course—you will. You know that your fundamental conflicts aren’t so easily solved. Even after you get a really sharp book cover and a pile of gushy reviews, you’ll have to confront all the things you don’t like about yourself and the world all over again. Life is hard. Your ears are still too big, you could get called for jury duty at any moment, and the car needs an oil change.

This is why, after an initial period of euphoria, people sometimes feel depressed when they get good news.

fresh_ambition_morningBut what happens then is that you shift gears, you set the next goal for yourself—the second book, the more ambitious sales target. The ambition you have, the ambition it takes to write a novel, will not be quenched by your first publication. Trust me on this.

Your friends and family will have to adjust to your success, too. They’ll have to reclassify you in their own minds, relabel you from “struggling wannabe” to “published author.”

Change is always difficult—but there will be rewards that more than compensate. If you’re moderately humble about your achievements, your old friends will admire and respect you even more.

At the same time, you’ll be entering into a new circle of colleagues. Invitations to sit for interviews and offers to guest-post on blogs will start to come in. Artists in other media will start to seek you out for collaborations. Suddenly you’re not just “Robert Writer,” you’re “Robert Writer, Author of.”

But for all this change, here’s one thing that will never, ever go away: Your writing will always challenge you.

The more things change, the more they stay the same after all.

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About

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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