ARE YOU AFRAID OF SUCCESS? A SURPRISING NUMBER OF TALENTED PEOPLE ARE. TO FIND OUT IF YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, TAKE OUR QUIZ ON PAGE 110. THEN TAKE HEART. THE DREAD OF DOING WELL IS ROOTED DEEP IN THE UNCONSCIOUS, BUT YOU CAN OVERCOME FEAR OF SUCCESS.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – "An amazing day. Amazing. I don't know how it happened. He had played so great. It was the strangest turn of events I've ever seen. I feel so sad for him." So said Nick Faldo about Greg Norman, while wearing the green jacket that everybody, including Faldo, had assumed was finally going to be Norman's at Augusta this year. The man is a mystery. Far and away the biggest moneymaker in pro golf, he wins and wins and wins--until he gets to a major tournament. At the Masters, he took a six-stroke lead and the next day, in just five holes, handed his six strokes and then some to the guy behind him. He's done this not just once, not twice, but over and over and over again.
If you're a fan and didn't send Norman a fax, you're apparently in the minority. "We have thousands of faxes here, so many thousands we haven't counted them all yet," says Frank Williams, Norman's manager and friend. "People worry about him. Some of these faxes have tearstains on them."
What is it about Norman that is so riveting? Maybe we recognize in him something of ourselves. In a world that seems determined to sort out winners from losers, he is that terrible enigma: a gifted loser, a player who clearly can win but, when the stakes are highest, somehow hamstrings himself. It almost looks as if he's doing it on purpose. And yet, how could he?
You don't have to be a sports fan to see the parallels between golf and business. The same phenomenon is far from rare in corporate life: the talented person, with everything going for him or her, who self-destructs for no reason that anyone can fathom. Some of these tales--and everybody knows a few-- are as spectacular in their own way as Norman's, although they mercifully aren't broadcast live via satellite around the world. Robert Meuleman, president and CEO of Amcore Financial in Rockford, Illinois, tells of a bright young banker with a solid marriage who, shortly after his promotion to the presidency of a division, began an affair with an employee, whom he then knocked down a flight of stairs. "We don't know why he destroyed himself that way," says Meuleman, who fired him. "His career has never recovered." Then there's the executive at Union Pacific in Pennsylvania who, despite his $500,000-a-year salary, claimed lavish business outings with imaginary customers on his five-figure expense reports. "Even after he was spoken to, he kept doing it," says another Union Pacific executive. "In fact, he did it more." He too was fired.
You'd never be so reckless, you say? Probably not. But hold on. Most often, being your own worst enemy is a far more subtle thing. You're in line for a promotion you've worked toward for years, and suddenly find you can't get to work on time. Or you start losing your temper in meetings with higher-ups where cool is the rule. Or you somehow misplace the data for a client presentation that could make or break your team. Or maybe you haven't made any obvious blunders, but you haven't been doing your best work for quite a while now, and you don't know why.
Any of these examples may share a common cause: fear of success. It's strange to think, at a time when so many people are struggling just to hold on to what they've got, that fear of succeeding could be much of an issue or do much damage. It is and does. "Fear of success is a terrible problem in this culture," says Brian Schwartz, a psychologist and consultant in Greenwich, Connecticut. "The vast majority of people I see are afflicted with it." What is so treacherous about this anxiety is that the people who suffer from it most acutely are usually not aware they have it. Those who do know are not eager to own up in print, at least not by name. In an ever more Darwinian business world, an admitted weakness is a dangerous thing.
The dread of doing well in life is rooted deep in the unconscious. Nobody deliberately sets out to wreck his or her own career. And people are so adept at rationalizing their own mistakes, or misinterpreting those of others, that fear of success can be hard to distinguish from, oh, let's see, incompetence, arrogance, inattention, burnout, or any of the 101 other gremlins that can send a career into a tailspin. Often fear of success shows up in the exceptionally talented as a long pattern of underachievement, of schlubbing along in the same old rut. "People who have an unconscious fear of success won't set ambitious goals for themselves, so they achieve far less than they're capable of," says James O'Connell, a psychologist at the outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin. "And this is the tragedy of it, because ultimately it stops people from getting what they really want or even from asking for help."
If this is an unconscious fear, how can you tell if you have it? Shrinks have been studying the problem since 1915, when Freud wrote an essay called "Those Wrecked by Success." He noted the "surprising and even bewildering" tendency of some people to fall apart "precisely when a deeply rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment...as though they were not able to tolerate happiness." As with the Illinois bank president, a spate of self-destructive behavior--often involving drinking, drugs, sex, or all three--immediately before or after a major triumph is a dead giveaway. Says Elissa Sklaroff, a therapist in Philadelphia who treats success-fearing executives: "Being on the brink of success brings a crisis, and all of our neuroses pop right up to the surface. On some level, success-fearing people are running from change--especially from having to change their secret self-image as an unsuccessful or undeserving person." Sometimes, Sklaroff says, people about to take a big step up in their careers become convinced, without any medical evidence, that they have a grave illness, usually cancer. Ever watch Seinfeld? Remember the episode where Jerry and George have finally sold the pilot of their TV show to NBC, and George starts believing that a tiny white bump on his lip is a deadly malignancy? "God won't let me succeed!" he shouts at his pals. "He'll kill me first!"
Donnah Canavan is a psychology professor at Boston College, a practicing therapist, and co-author of a textbook called The Success-Fearing Personality (from which the quiz on this page is adapted). For 15 years she's taught a course on this subject; many of her classes are full of business people. "I keep expecting to run into some skeptic who'll say, 'Fear of what? Oh, come on,' " says Canavan. "But I never have. Everybody seems to know exactly what I'm talking about."
That's probably because, at one time or another, most of us have had occasion to ask, What was I doing? Maybe you once procrastinated until a crucial deadline sailed by, or inserted foot firmly in mouth at the worst possible time, or had one cocktail (or was it six?) too many at the office Christmas party, or showed up inexcusably late for a big job interview--well, hey, nobody's perfect. Over time, though, too many of these missteps should be telling you something. "Self-defeating behavior feels, to the person doing it, like an accident or like bad luck. And of course there are such things," says Lenora Yuen, a therapist in Palo Alto who specializes in treating the chronically self-sabotaged. "But after a while you may notice a pattern of 'accidents,' a whole run of 'bad luck.' " Warning lights should flash.
Likewise if you, or someone you know, has been stuck in the same job despite obvious talent. "Often people who fear success do succeed, eventually," says Canavan. "But it takes them longer than they or their peers may have expected. They get less far. And it causes them a lot more mental turmoil and emotional pain than it does someone else to get to the same level."
Where does all this angst come from? Ah. Please lie down on the couch, get comfortable, and we will proceed. Freud postulated an unconscious need to fail (not just a desire, but a need) that arises from the unresolved competition between parent and child--mainly father and son--for the approval of the opposite-sex parent. Because a child cannot distinguish between thinking or wishing something and actually doing it, he is afraid to express, even to himself, his rage at his father, for fear that his father will die. So he represses his anger, which in the murky brew of the unconscious alchemizes into guilt. One of the inconvenient features of the unconscious mind--call it a design flaw--is that it has no sense of time. Something that occurred there once, with traumatic effect, will keep on happening--is still happening--30 or 40 years later.
By this reasoning, success in any competitive realm is a blood sport. Beating one's father, vanquishing the primal foe, is, in the complex metaphorical world of the unconscious, an unspeakable act. It is not merely murder, but patricide. (And all this time you thought you just wanted the three-window office and stock options.) This is why, according to Freud, some men feel terrible unease at the prospect of getting ahead in business, in sports, or anywhere else. It's guilt.
Today's shrinks acknowledge that, compelling as Freud's theory is, most fear of success springs from less dramatic sources-- mostly the bad stuff that happened to you as a kid and hammered your opinion of how good you are. "People will only achieve the level of success that their image of themselves can absorb," says Brian Schwartz, the Greenwich psychologist. He notes that the human species has, in the course of evolution, made a trade: a bigger brain than any other mammal in exchange for a longer period of dependence on others while that brain takes its sweet time to develop. During the helplessness we call childhood, all kinds of psychic harm is done. When finally an adult achieves success, says Schwartz, "that old structural damage is still there."
Long ago, if somebody important to you--a parent, a teacher, a sibling--convinced you that you aren't very smart, or very competent, or very likable, or that nothing you do is ever quite good enough, you will have the devil's own time believing that you're capable of doing well in life or that you deserve to. This conviction of unworthiness is rarely something people take out and examine, except in therapy. It's just there, lurking around the edges of life like a creature out of a Stephen King novel, spoiling everything. People with rotten childhoods do become successful, of course, but often they can't enjoy what they've achieved. The archives of American popular culture (Marilyn Monroe), politics (Richard Nixon), and sports (Dennis Rodman) are crammed to bursting with examples. Consider a recent one. Don Simpson, co-producer of hit movies like Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun, had it made in the shade--by everyone's standards except his own. Simpson died of a drug overdose a few months ago. Shortly before his death, he said, "The degree to which you make enough money to then feel like you don't have to make any more money is the degree to which you have to deal with something pretty interesting. It's called You." He chose not to.
David Krueger, a Houston psychiatrist, has treated some very rich go-getters who come to him because they can't figure out why they're so miserable, and they know all too well what Simpson was talking about. "If someone is used to feeling bad, feeling good is hard or impossible," Krueger says. He asks his patients how long they can stand to feel happy. "They always know what I mean.They say, 'Not more than a day.' Or even, 'Not more than an hour.'"
A childhood belief that what you are is never enough, that you must live up to others' lofty expectations of you, can lead to a lot of self-sabotaging behavior later on at the office. Sometimes successful people don't want to be where they are. They're there because someone else--a parent, a spouse--expects them to be. They can't imagine how to extricate themselves except by messing up. If I provoke my own firing, the unconscious logic goes, I'm off the hook. I can get out of here, and the decision can appear to have been someone else's. The ex-railroad executive who partied himself right out of a job, says an erstwhile colleague who knew him well, "didn't want to be here so bad, he didn't even know how bad he didn't want to be here." He got his unconscious wish, but in a way far more damaging than if he'd been able to figure out his motives beforehand and leave the company on his own steam.
Even if you manage to get through childhood unscathed, along comes adolescence. Alas, when Kurt Vonnegut remarked that "life is high school," he wasn't kidding. Much of our grown-up self-image is formed at a time when, let's face it, most of us are no prize. "Does anybody not remember how godawful those teenage years were?" asks a well-known CEO who has wrestled with a deep distrust of his own accomplishments. "Everybody feels ugly and inadequate. I think that as a result, a sense of peace, the idea that 'I am good enough' eludes most of us." There may be many adult moments when doubts about your achievements are nothing more or less than your old high-school self coming back to nag that you'll never be (or date) the football quarterback or the head cheerleader because you're just too tall, or short, or smart, or dumb, or teeth-braced, or--fill in the blank. Dennis Rodman perfectly captures this vague feeling of inadequacy in his autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be: "I wasn't accepted there [in his Dallas neighborhood]. I was too skinny, too ugly, too something."
The trouble with teenage self-loathing is that a severe case of it may make you spend the rest of your life with a chip on your shoulder--or to put it in shrinkspeak, suffering from a compensatory disorder. This can be a dandy way to wreck a career. Steven Berglas, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and specializes in treating fear of success in executives, tells of a CEO who is very short and who has been self-conscious about it ever since he was ruthlessly razzed back in high school. As part of a lifelong campaign to prove his masculinity, this CEO started sleeping with a board member's wife. Yes, that's right. Out of all the women in the world, he got mixed up with the wife of a member of the only group of people with the power to fire him. And sure enough, they did. "Compensatory disorders use success as a vehicle for masking or suppressing old traumas," says Berglas. "Succeeding--being CEO--can't fix or cover up a painful feeling of inadequacy. You have to deal directly with the feeling itself and put it behind you, or it will sabotage you."
Few things cause more fear of success than a sense that if you follow your dreams, you will betray the people who love you. The loss of love, and of the security it engenders, is the mother of all unconscious terrors. In adolescence, when you're trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, this fear can stop you in your tracks, or it can set you up for some major self-defeating stuff if you pursue your ambitions in spite of it. Pete Hamill, an accomplished journalist and fiction writer, tells in his memoir A Drinking Life of growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where factories were closing, the good life was moving to the suburbs, his own dad's job had been relocated to Georgia, and "in the daytime, there were more men in the bars, drinking in silence and defeat." Hamill's father urged him to learn a blue- collar trade, but he wanted to be a writer. He feared it was an arrogant wish: " 'Who do you think you are?' some collective voice from the Neighborhood called to me. 'Who the hell do you think you are?' "
It turned out that Hamill was exactly who he hoped to be: a talented guy who went far. But as a kind of penance he drank too much for years, often "in the company of friends who thought they were failures and I was a success. Who could accuse me of snobbery, a big head, deserting my friends, if I was just another bum in the men's room throwing up on his shoes?" Getting drunk, he writes, "was a way of saying I would never act uppity, never forget where I came from." Meanwhile, whole decades flashed by in an alcoholic blur. Eventually Hamill realized that despite his feelings of guilt about leaving, he didn't owe the Neighborhood an early death from cirrhosis--or even one more hangover--and he quit drinking altogether. Not everybody in his situation does. Psychiatrists say that excessive drinking and fear of success are often closely linked, especially in people with one or more alcoholic parents.
Through everyone's past, whatever the individual circumstances, flow the cautionary tales of Western civilization. If you have any ambivalence about getting ahead, these stories will reinforce it. They have a way of sinking into the unconscious and lying in wait like old banana peels for the unwary to slip on. The ancient Greeks came up with the notion of hubris--provoking the wrath of the gods by acting godlike--and illustrated it with, among others, the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on his wax wings and plunged to his death in the sea. The Judeo-Christian tradition echoes with similar warnings, from the Tower of Babel and the injunction that pride goeth before a fall to the New Testament idea that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven. And look at some of the most enduring characters in literature and film: the Great Gatsby, a rags-to-riches golden boy who ends up dead in the swimming pool behind his mansion. Or Citizen Kane, as rich as, well, William Randolph Hearst, on whom the character was based, but who dies friendless and heartbroken amid his collected treasures.
It's no accident that some of the most popular TV shows--Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty--have been soaps about unhappy rich people. As a culture we love the idea of hitting it big, but we also fear and distrust it. Some scholars maintain that Elvis's fantastic, almost mythic, popularity is so enduring because it ties together powerful and contradictory elements in the American, and perhaps especially the Southern, psyche: Yes, you can come from a humble background and become a huge star, but you will pay a tremendous price. The bitch goddess success, as William James called it, in the end will kill you.
If this all seems too abstract, consider a specific case. A New York media executive was taught in Bible school as a small child that money and power are evil. He has enjoyed a thriving career despite occasional fits of self-sabotage. But he refuses to handle cash, which he says is dirty. When you go through a tollbooth with him, he makes you hand the money to the attendant and take the change, even if he's the one driving. And whenever things are going particularly well at work, this fellow develops a stubborn (and medically mysterious) rash on his hands.
Cultural archetypes that equate success with isolation are so persuasive that in some highly accomplished people they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Says Bill Morin, who recently left Drake Beam Morin to start two new businesses: "I was always envious of my parents, and they never had any money; they lived from one paycheck to the next. They never had a damn thing except each other. Now I have a lot of money, but I still envy them, because as I've gotten more and more successful, I've gotten more and more alone. I knew that would happen, and it did."
This brings up a conundrum, according to psychologists who work with troubled executives (many of whom are on their third or fourth marriages). It may in fact be lonely at the top--but perhaps only if you insist on it. People who fear they will end up alone often bring it upon themselves. They may actively shut out their nearest and dearest, usually with work as the pretext, and allow old friendships to wither from neglect.
The generation of women now in middle and upper management has had to grapple with the same personal and cultural aspects of fear of success as their male peers--plus a few marked Women Only. Long before there was anything like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, girls were routinely taught that being too capable, too smart, or too ambitious would make them unfeminine, unlovable, and unmarried. The primal fear of abandonment, of success as a road map to loneliness, hits women hardest of all. Obliged to choose between success at work and fulfillment after hours, some women consciously or unconsciously choose the latter.
Conscious choice is a wonderful thing--the Holy Grail of therapy. It's where the shrinks separate the neurotic from the normal. If you decide you really don't want to scale the corporate or professional heights, good for you, as long as you know what you're doing and why. Jill Natwick Johnston, a trademark lawyer at Stroh Brewery in Detroit, just turned down a far better job at another company to spend more time with her 8-year-old twins than the new position would have allowed. The decision wasn't easy. "It's a job a lot of people would have killed for," says Johnston. "But I decided it's not worth it if it's going to kill you." Economist Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, discovered last year in a survey of 1,000 men and women that 28% had downshifted--that is, voluntarily accepted a lower income and less stress to do a better job at life outside the office, especially raising kids.
This is not fear of success. Steven Berglas, the Harvard psychiatry professor, wrote The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top, based on years of clinical sessions with business people who needed help figuring out what success really is. "What we call success may have consequences that you know you don't want," says Berglas. He suggests that if the idea of the next promotion makes you queasy, do a cost-benefit analysis. "Approach it as you would any other business decision," he says. "What are the pros and cons? What will you have to give up to get this? Is it worth it?" Are some losses, such as having to spend weekends in the woods with a beeper strapped to your fishing pole and a portable fax in your pack, not worth a new title and a bigger paycheck? If not, say, "no, thanks," and let somebody else sweat it. As Berglas puts it, you're being "rational and adaptive."
Or think about this: Do you have the right personality and the requisite skills to take on the role of the person above you? If the idea of getting promoted is keeping you up nights, it may be that you ain't got the chops, as jazz musicians say, and you know it. That's not fear of success, it's fear of failure, and it may be a realistic fear indeed. Berglas believes the long-standing American career path of promoting people from technical to managerial jobs is wrongheaded for lots of reasons. Some people have terrific technical skills but the personality type known as "empathic." These are folks for whom the task of controlling someone else's fate, which is what management comes down to, is, in Berglas's words, "stressful to the point of toxicity." If that applies to you, turning down the Big Management Job is no sign of neurosis; it's common sense.
Work keeps getting more precarious, more complex, more demanding. The last thing you need is a jumble of unfinished psychological business to trip you up. Before you can decide whether you're a success fearer or a commonsense downshifter--or neither--and then act accordingly in your own best interest, you have to know yourself, including those parts of your psyche that you might rather ignore. You have to like yourself too. And that, initially, can be even harder.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Joyce E. Davis