The Joy Menu #18: Fear of Success

Your author contemplates one of the twin fears which appear amid an artistic endeavor — the friendly twin, the smiling brother: the fear of success.

Dear Creators,

I’m thinking about fear.

Not the fear of confrontation (of tension, of disappointment, of letting someone down). Not the fear of death or danger (of walking an unlit road in a strange city at night, or of leaping across a gulch when you don’t know if you can make it). Nor the fear of fear itself (of catching a fright, of a jumpscare, like in the movies I will not watch, or the video games I refuse to play).

I’m thinking about a deeper fear, one that nags, and pools, and seeps into the baseboards of your life.

I’m thinking about the fear of success.

If a fear of failure can inspire—a fuel-like apparition running behind you with horns and an evil stare; its threatening growl reminding you not to stop—a fear of success takes on another, more insidious, form. It sits with you at the cafe. It offers you a third cappuccino. It smiles when you suggest another revision, another version, another even loftier goal: “Yes, yes. Don’t release it until it’s perfect. You are the artist, after all.”

It understands you, calms you; it would never admit what it’s doing.

For years, I thought of the “fear of success” as an absurdity. I don’t remember the first time I read of it, or heard it explained, articulated as one half of the twin impediments to the desire to create. Next to the much more obvious and understandable fear of failure, fear of success seemed an outright joke. How could a fear of getting exactly what we want hold us back from...getting what we want?

“Give it to me now,” I thought through my twenties and early thirties. “And you’ll see how scared I am!”

But what do we mean when we say “success”? It’s easy to imagine it as the external rewards of ego: praise, money, readers, glowing reviews, dances in your honor in the streets of life, ten thousand followers on the social media site du jour. If anything, these material rewards tantalize, inspire, excite. Why fear such delights?

Yet these past few months, as I’ve made my way through a first novel draft (free-written, unrestrained, a “vomit” draft) and on to the second (equally fetid, if substantially less “free” feeling), I’ve become aware of new elements, new nuances, new layers of fear. I’ve begun to investigate them, in hopes of disarming their more pernicious effects.

I will put this simply: my novel is bad.

And not a coy “tell me it’s good” bad; not a “fishing for compliments” bad. Bad by design. Bad because if it doesn’t start bad, it’ll never get written.

But to engage in this bad art every day, my bad art, to wade through it as if through a bog, to attempt to dredge some semblance of good from it, from the muck, some semblance of art — it’s a tiring and uninspiring process.

And in that toil, a constant thought stalks: is this worth it?

What if I “succeed” at this lofty task — after years of labor, a hundred-thousand hours of work, thirteen hundred material sacrifices, endless days of frustration, summers untraveled, Netflix shows unwatched, trips to friends untaken, relationships left undernourished, hobbies left behind — and the result is a novel of some aesthetic worth...and that’s it?

What if the art is a “success” (in that quiet, unnoticed, uniquely artistic way) but the material rewards aren’t forthcoming?

What does it mean to succeed, but to do so privately, incrementally, insubstantially?

There is something scary about that. And it’s not the grandiose fear of dismemberment, nor the heart-pounding fear that wrenches us awake when we need to throw ourselves into battle — metaphorical or otherwise.

It’s a pernicious and subtle fear. And one which, when our ego picks up on it, seeks to derail much of what we want to get out of life.

I’ve come to understand that when we speak of a “fear of success,” we aren’t talking about a fear of material success — that external approval we all seek in life. Rather, we’re talking about a special secondary breed of fear, a deeper, darker brand: an ego-protection racket.

How the ego — that hungry engine of self-aggrandizement — fears the silence of a small win. How it works to stop the subtle indignities of the incremental; the yes which is also a no, the gain which is also a loss; self-sacrifice for an immaterial, private, or invisible reward.

How the ego fights to protect us from the humble shame of success with a small ‘s’.

How it fights to ensure we don’t “succeed” when nothing more than silent satisfaction is at stake.

How this vision of soft success frightens the ego.

“Maybe another revision will do it, yes. Or a week off? You do seem tired…”

My father’s colored pencils are worn down. Tucked into cups, the nubs facing up, rubber bands holding the yellows together, the oranges together, the reds together. I unloop a bundle — the reds — and lay them out on the table.

When he worked, he covered the table in brown butcher paper, like the paper we used to cover our textbooks in elementary school. Fold the corners, tuck them in.

I fold the corners now; I tuck them and tape them down.

I begin to sharpen the red pencils, one-by-one, by hand. Not because I need to, but because I can. The pastels, thick as thumbs, and as greasy, cannot be sharpened. They must be used.

When my father would stand at this table, he’d take a piece of poster board — a discarded scrap — and hold it across the paper, along one straight edge, and draw in jagged randomized repetition, lines, again and again, each a downward stroke, each a single tree in the distance, a crashing wave in the vastness of a far horizon, a crested bird against a blank, bright sky.

I watch him work: No music on. Nothing to feed the moment. A simple silence. A trance, a rhythm. Flow.

Line after line after line.

This accumulation — a life lived forward. The result, an unadorned coat-of-arms. A porous shield (as they all ultimately are).

A suggestion of unlimit. A mirage of shapes. A picture.

Like this moment: a series of scratches toward…what? Success?

Whatever that word means; whatever it — and its shadow — might imply. The quiet day of labor. The picture which takes form. The shape in which it leaves a life.

A life lived onward

toward creative joy.