4 Reasons You Succeed or Fail — and 4 Ways to Do Better
Success and failure are not completely in your head, but your head can help.
Posted Mar 04, 2018
“I’m always a step behind,” a woman in her 30s told me. “My friends are successful doctors, entrepreneurs, environmentalists… I feel like I just can’t achieve what they’re doing.”
“I’ve gone to my third wedding this summer,” a young man said. “I love that my friends are getting married. But what about me? Why can’t I have that dream come true, too?”
The interesting thing about these individuals, as well as many other men and women whom I’ve spoken to recently about their achievements, is that they are, from all outward appearances, both very successful. The woman is doing an important job with a difficult population, and although she may never receive much recognition from the outside world for what she is doing, she knows that the service she is providing is actually immeasurable and greatly appreciated by the people she is working with. And the young man who wants to get married and settle down has actually been involved with two women who would like to do the same, but without realizing what he is doing, he has sabotaged both relationships.
There are a number of different reasons for both success and failure. Some of them, like luck, are pretty much out of our control. But some of them are more within our control, and we’re going to look at just a few of those reasons that you have some control over here.
Part of the problem is how we define the terms. For example, what is success? For some of us, it’s the accomplishment of a goal. For others, it’s the achievement of popularity or the attainment of wealth and/or fame. But sometimes the goal that we want to accomplish is actually bigger than what we can realistically do. Does that mean we’ve failed? Or do we need to redefine what we mean by success?
And then, of course, we must ask: What is failure? For some, it is not accomplishing a goal. For others, it is not accomplishing the same as a friend or a competitor. But for others, it is a definition of personality, as though if you fail at a particular thing, you are a failure as a person.
Obviously, these definitions themselves can create problems, so if you are feeling like you are not succeeding, it would be a good idea to review just how you are defining success. But there are several other issues to consider as well.
1. Do you know how to learn? It might sound simple, but many of us think we’re supposed to know so much that we don’t take the time to recognize — or admit — what we don’t know. Nobody starts a new job or new activity already knowing how to do it. Of course you bring skills and knowledge with you — but you don’t know that particular job, or that particular company or organization or team, when you start out. Acknowledging what you don’t know can feel scary, but it can also be a powerful tool for learning how to succeed.
2. Do you know the difference between success and perfection? Many people I talk to tell me that they are not perfectionists, because they are so far from perfect. But a perfectionist is not someone who accomplishes perfection, because that is an impossible goal. A perfectionist is someone who thinks that to be successful, you have to be perfect, which means that, if this is you, you are doomed to always feel like a failure. Do you have to be the best at every aspect of your job, profession, activity, or social life in order to feel like you’ve succeeded? Because the desire and expectation that you will be perfect is a perfect recipe for feeling like you never succeed.
3. Do you have internal conversations that sabotage you? Many psychotherapists, beginning with Freud, have written about unconscious fears — fears that you don’t even realize are operating in your psyche — which interfere with our ability to succeed. For instance, Freud believed that boys are often afraid of succeeding, because they unconsciously fear their father’s retaliation for surpassing them. Later, clinicians focused on both men and women’s unrecognized, or as psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls it “unthought,” fears of losing the support and love of parents who are envious or feel left behind as a result of their children’s success.
Are you perhaps worried that your friends won’t like you if you succeed? Or that you will hurt someone else by getting something that they want and can’t have? In an article in Psychology Today, author and editor Hara Estroff Marano writes, “Women especially fear success because they are afraid that being powerful enough to create the life they want will render them unlovable.” Psychoanalyst Joan Lang adds that women worry that success will make them unfeminine, as well.
As I was gathering material for my book on women’s friendships, I talked to many women who had lost a friend who could not tolerate their success — whether it was that they were doing well at work or in their profession, or that they were getting married and starting a family, while a friend was still waiting to meet her “person.” But many others told me of friends who cheered their successes, even in some cases expressing their jealousy at the same time!!
4. And finally, are you afraid of the change that comes with success? In an article about fear of success, author James Sudakow tells us that one of the problems is that success also means change — and that even if it’s a change you want, it might frighten you. Again, you might not even realize that you are holding yourself back — but you might figure it out if you think about some of the ways that your life will change if you get your dream!
What you can do:
1. Accept that you don’t know everything, and that the process of succeeding means being able to allow yourself to learn. One highly successful man I know told me that he learned in his first job that he needed a six-month period to get to know any new system. “I thought I was so smart,” he said. “Just out of college, full of myself… and it took me six months to recognize that I really didn’t know anything. I don’t know how my boss put up with me during those six months, but she did. But one day, after the six-month mark, she said, ‘Now you’re really starting to learn what I need you to know.’ It was an important lesson, and I keep reminding myself of it to this day.”
2. Face your perfectionism, even if you don't think you're a perfectionist! If you are afraid of making a mistake or showing that you don’t know something, you are being a perfectionist. Sudakow reminds us that everyone fails at some time or another. You might not like being human, but in fact your refusal to acknowledge that reality is very likely interfering with your ability to achieve your dreams!
3. Consider the people you know and love. Will they stop loving you if you are successful? If you genuinely answer yes to that question, you might want to explore why they love you — and why you care about them. Do you support their successes? Or is there a possibility that you are engaged in a kind of competition in which you each communicate, perhaps without even realizing it, that you are threatened by one another’s success. If you think that might be so, is there a way to change that dynamic? You start by becoming more actively supportive of their successes and by letting them know things that you truthfully admire about them. If that doesn’t work, if they continue to undermine you, you might want to consider that your own need to keep yourself from achieving has led you to choose someone who helps keep you from being successful.
4. And finally, acknowledge that success means change, and change, even if you are excited about it, can be a little anxiety-provoking. There are many productive, healthy ways to manage your anxiety, including deep breathing, exercise, talking to friends, to family, or to a mentor, listening to music, meditating, and mindfulness activities. Put those into action, and allow the forward motion to start!