Fear of Success


We learn through failure.

I know this already and have most certainly experienced it repeatedly. It’s an ugly truth to face but, like most ugly truths, it is one that becomes beautiful when seen through willing eyes. So often I’m scared to even attempt life because I’m afraid I’ll fail — fail myself, fail others, fail God. I don’t love people how they need to be loved; I won’t be the best; I’m not as creative as I want to be; I haven’t made enough money; I don’t have kids or a spouse…and on and on the list goes.

We all do it.

And we’re afraid of it. Sometimes it’s ego, sometimes it’s trauma and pain and attachment, and sometimes its delight and desire. We’re so excited about one thing or person that when it falls apart, even a little, we come crashing down to earth with all the bruising that comes with it.

But sometimes for me, more than failure, I fear success.

Success means more expectations; more responsibility; more need to mature faster; more people, more relationships, more demands, more appointments, more learning, more eyes on me, more questions, more options.

And all those mores becomes definitive reasons for running away. Why would I want to make more money? I wouldn’t know what to do with that! Why would I want a brighter career? I don’t want people relying on me for “—–” (insert your own noun of choice). And so self-sabotage becomes a lifestyle.

Success, however I perceive it from small to large, means embracing the unknown. Failure, as ugly as it is, is at least known.

My pastor is working on an art project with our community. She’s handed out small wooden boards to folks around town, asking us to portray our perceptions and visions of “faith, hope, and love”. I took one board home and tried an experiment, knowing full well that a painter I am not. I had a look at some of the pro paintings others had already done on their boards, and I began from a place of insecurity.

But I persevered and worked it through anyway. Why could I not have stopped in THAT moment to realise that choosing expression over insecurity was success in itself? I have no idea.

I had my dad help me with some fractal burning on the wood. For those who aren’t aware, fractal burning is a process using two electrodes in a piece of wood and, using electricity, burns random pathways through the grain. It’s simple and elegant as well as rough. It’s beautiful. I thought that if I could start from a place of randomness, I could then seek faith, hope, and love in the patterns and paint around whatever the electrodes created.

It was a fine idea. It IS a fine idea.

Only…I’m not a painter.

Sure, I’ve watched Youtube videos about watercolours and acrylics, and I have learned a few basic techniques. And I even held a small hope that by holding my brushes in just the same way as the instructors in the videos, my end product would emerge triumphant.

Notice that I haven’t even had the heart to post a picture of my end result?

Art is a funny thing that way. It’s a process that takes us deeper within ourselves even as we express a multitude of things externally. Because it demands so much of who we are, when the end product doesn’t match our expectations we experience deep levels of disappointment and frustration. Not only did the piece not turn out, but all that we intended to communicate through that piece based on our original vision is also garbled, sometimes even lost. And then to imagine our kindergarten efforts hanging on a wall next to the work of a seasoned artist?

Heavens, no.

No, no, no, no.

I’d rather call the effort a failure, toss it in the trash, and berate myself for not learning art techniques more quickly. Failure is the preferable state, because I know it so well, rather than chancing success. I already know the piece is amateurish and lopsided. If I pass it along, it will hang next to works created by experienced painters. There may even be a few snickers and some criticism.

How often have I lived my life this way?

How often have a refused to take a chance because success is more of a reality than failure? How often did I limit my job opportunities? How often did I stagnate relationships? How often did I put off learning new skills? How often did I hide away for fear of actually ‘making it’?

Too often.

And in realising that I learn through failure, I have also learning that ‘making it’ can look a thousand different ways under the sun. I just as easily deliberately fail to nail the job interview; I deliberately fail in relationships because of my fear of “—” (insert your own noun of choice here). I deliberately fail at trying new things because I just don’t want people to see me.

But I’ve made some inaccurate assumptions of about the nature of success in living in such a contracted way. Making it doesn’t always mean nailing that job I applied for. Maybe facing a difficult potential employer, knowing how anxious I can be, was success in that instance.

Maybe I don’t have to spend a quadrillion dollars on my nephews for them to know I love them. Maybe success looks like reading my own favourite childhood stories to them.

Maybe I don’t have to be a seasoned painter to express faith, hope, and love. Maybe success looks like taking delight in discovering those precious states of being inside fractal burning and acrylic paint on wood AND having that childlike expression hang beside more mature expressions.

It makes me wonder if Jesus was ever afraid of success. We talk about how awesome it is that God was kenotic — self-emptying — of God’s own power, so Jesus was pretty limited for all his miraculous feats. Yet Jesus also had fears. I wonder if he was as scared of success as he was of failure. After all, no matter how successful his ministry, all paths led to death for him. Even with the promise of new life, facing death alone would have been frightful.

Perhaps success for Jesus wasn’t so much that he accomplished everything the needed doing before his death. Perhaps it was more about experiencing the all-too-human realisations that we love people more fiercely than we realise. Sure Jesus loved his friends with a divine love.

Divine love is easy.

Growing into humanity, Jesus discovered how powerful human connection is. He loved Peter for all his manic eruptions; he loved the traumatised Thomas; he loved Judas; he loved Mary Magdalene. He could have easily accomplished everything the needed to be done without human interaction.

Perhaps success for Jesus was learning to be human, whether his divine nature supported that process or not.

I will take my humble piece to church tomorrow and hand it off to my pastor. Not because I’m terribly proud of the outcome, and not because I’m cheap and don’t want the whole thing to be a wasted effort, but because I need to remind myself that sharing it is a choice to succeed.

It is a choice to be unafraid.

3 thoughts on “Fear of Success

  1. This really touched my heart in so many ways. I know other who need to read your words. You nailed the heart of this project! I never thought about a “God growing into humanity”. How much more intimate, humbling and life giving does this reflect on the gospel and the humanity found in Jesus?! So much Grace in this thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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