Streamline Yourself: Rejecting the No-Win Stories That Make You Fear Success

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There’s a reason race cars, bullet trains, and supersonic aircraft have streamlined shapes. The faster a vehicle is meant to go, the more engineers have to take into account an invisible force bent on slowing them down: drag.

You probably experience a similar phenomenon when you get up to speed on a project. The more momentum you create, the more invisible forces seem to slow you down.

Unlike engineers, who can’t do anything about air and gravity, you can eradicate the drag in your work life. First, however, you must identify its source.

Fear of Failure — or Success?

To be sure, some drag comes from the outside, from other people’s wants or whims. More often than not, it comes from within. In other words, you can be your own worst enemy when aiming to build and sustain momentum in your projects.

For the most part, there are two opposing reasons why you might self-sabotage your work. One is fear of failure — and the other is fear of success.

Fear of failure is pretty self-explanatory. No one wants the supposed shame or setbacks that come with failing. Fear of success, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Why do we fear success? Because most of us tell ourselves that to be successful, we have to give something up — something that may be equally or more important to us.

Such self-sabotaging stories stop us from going all in and succeeding at the highest levels. In fearing that success will come at too steep a price, we effectively let drag overpower our best work.

You may have your own deep-rooted personal story that accounts for your fear of success. When all is said and done, however, one of three general story types is usually at play:

  1. Success will ruin my relationships.
  2. Success and virtue can’t coexist.
  3. Success can’t be repeated.

Are such stories true? No — but here’s the rub: A story doesn’t have to be true for you to act as if it were.

Danger Ahead

Like most people, you probably think fear keeps you safe. When success feels unsafe, you stick with the status quo. You tell yourself that the status quo doesn’t draw criticism like success does. It doesn’t come with the shame or setbacks that failure does. It doesn’t force you into the often treacherous spotlight.

It’s a comfortable place to be — until you muster the will and the courage to see that, in reality, the status quo isn’t safe. In fact, it’s dangerous in that it stops you from doing your best, most creative work. Such mediocrity results in everything from apathy to anger.

To diminish the drag in your work — and to achieve the success and satisfaction you deserve — you need to tell yourself new stories. Before you can do that, you have to reject the old, self-sabotaging ones.

For more expert career advice, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

Remember those three story types we highlighted earlier? Let’s take a closer look at each one:

1. Success Will Ruin My Relationships

You’ve surely experienced situations where a coworker shines, only to have others become resentful or envious of them. So you tell yourself, “I don’t want my success to hurt anyone” or “I better hold back to protect the team” or “What if so-and-so gets mad at me?”

The problem is, you can’t let others dictate your success, not at work or in life. While rejecting this story may require some hard conversations with yourself and your coworkers, it’s necessary if you’re truly serious about growing in your career and achieving next-level success.

2. Success and Virtue Can’t Coexist

“Real artists starve.”

“Nice guys finish last.”

“The wealthy and powerful are bad.”

There may be many iterations of this story in your head, but they all say the same thing: Successful people lose something important along the way — decency, honor, creativity, authenticity, or any number of other virtues.

But it becomes easy to reject this story when you consider the countless exceptions. Think of the myriad role models who are (or were) at once successful and virtuous: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey — the list goes on and on.

3. Success Can’t Be Repeated

One-hit wonders — in business, sports, politics, entertainment, the arts, and popular culture — are aplenty. They rightly remind us that success can be fleeting. But the downside to taking one-hit wonders to heart is that you lower the bar in your own work — or, worse, refrain from pursuing more and bigger endeavors in the first place.

To reject this story, you need to have faith in yourself. Remind yourself that you are a work in progress, that you are constantly learning and growing, and that you will only accrue more skills and resources as a result of each and every success.

Yes, you’ll have to work hard to clear higher and higher bars, but if you did it once, you can — and will — do it again.

Now you might ask, “What if I actually fail the second time around?” No worries. Failure, like success, is just feedback to consider as you move forward. Don’t let a setback stop you from going all in to ultimately succeed.

Are you ready to diminish the drag in your projects? Stop telling yourself the no-win stories that make you fear success. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Charlie Gilkey is the founder of Productive Flourishing. His new book isStart Finishing: How to Go From Idea to Done .

By Charlie Gilkey