On My Mind – The Fear of Success

Welcome to a new series of monthly wellness posts on Rocket Women called ‘On My Mind’ by Rikhi Roy. I will be covering my thoughts on wellness tools for personal and professional success as gender-minorities in STEM. 

This month I’ll be unpacking the ‘Fear of Success’ episodes on Haley Hoffman-Smith’s ‘Big Conversations’ podcast, Dr. Gay Hendrick’s ‘The Big Leap’, and Jen Sincero’s ‘You Are a Badass.’ Taken together, I hope to shine a light on the nuances that come with being ‘rocket women’.

Who do we show up as? Who do we think we want to become? And what is stopping us from shining our full, bright lights?

Before explaining the ‘fear of success’ – let me first begin by explaining the concept of the ‘upper limit’ problem as described in Dr. Hendrick’s book ‘The Big Leap’. In his book he describes a time when everything was going really well for him – financially, with his family, his career etc… and while he was basking in that rush of joy and energy that comes with one’s self-recognition of their ‘success’ – he suddenly had a thought that something was horrifyingly wrong with his daughter who at that time was away at a camp. He proceeded to call the camp, only to find out that nothing was in fact wrong with his daughter and she was in no imminent danger.

In reflecting on that experience in the book, he identifies that there seems to be a ‘baseline of gratitude, bliss, and happiness that all of us feel like we can show up with in this world’. When we get there, we become convinced that there is something wrong with it and wanting more. Hence, Dr. Hendrick clearly demarks the upper limit as that threshold between your comfort zone and beyond – where the situation you find yourself in feels bigger than you and it feels scary. We may never perceive the ‘fear of success’ as ever really being the problem, but Jen Sincero’s concept of ‘The Big Snooze’ gives us another perspective to see this more clearly.

“The big snooze will do everything it can to stop you from changing and growing especially since you’re attempting to obliterate the very identity that you and everyone else has come to know as ‘you’” – Jen Sincero

You Are A Badass - by Jen Sincero (Running Press)
The Big Leap - by Gay Hendricks (HarperOne)

Now, the idea of the ‘fear of success’ as described by Haley Hoffman-Smith, is pushing for something, knowing it is coming and then coming up against your upper limit. It is ‘making it’, standing in the success, and then finding it incredibly daunting and ‘scary’. You must be thinking “this sounds like imposter syndrome…I have heard this before” or maybe you are thinking, “if this success is all I want, this is the best-case scenario… why would I be scared?” Well, as Dr. Hendrick shares – this fear, in combination with the knowledge that one has moved past their ‘upper limit’ brings you to self-sabotaging.

This might look like procrastination, or anxiety when things start to go well, or nearly reaching your dream and then pumping the brakes to say “um, actually …. I’m good”. You look to your left; you look to the right and maybe you have just as much and a little more than the people around you.

You think to yourself – if everyone around me is content…

…‘Why should I dream and work for more?’

…‘Why should I wake up extra early to work on my book when everyone around me is content being an engineering executive?’

…‘Why should I take the leap to star on a new science communication show even though everyone around me is scared of being seen?’

…‘Why should I transfer universities even though I already go to one of the best universities in the nation?’

We look around us to shape our understanding and opinions of what we feel like we can have and what we can reach for in the world. And we think: I am okay being ‘good enough’, it is safe and cozy right here in my comfort zone. As ‘rocket women’ we set our own barriers upon ourselves, not giving ourselves permission to think past our upper limit – particularly if no one we know is an example of the ‘reach goal’ we are aspiring for. In fact, our very goals may be informed by what we see and surround ourselves with and merely existing in these spaces is challenging enough.

When we give ourselves permission to want something bigger than us – we risk losing ourselves as the person that we know. It makes us uncomfortable. What new conversations will this lead to with our peers? Our friends? Our parents? Our children? Will this make them perceive us differently? If we have felt defined by the same levels of ‘success’ our peers have accomplished – what happens when we start wanting and receiving more? The very ground beneath us begins to swell when we really, truly think of the impact of that ‘big dream’ in our lives. In some ways it is simply easier to rush to smallness and safety as the ‘fear of success’ manifests as a threat to life as we know it.

When you ask yourself: Is this permitted to be a part of my experience? Am I worthy of this? Is it safe? Can I handle it? Try this instead…ask yourself: in what ways could I be scared of success? What bad thing happens if I hit that goal?

And my personal favorite, the affirmation: “I am safe.”

“I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.”

As rocket women we often work incredibly hard to break ceilings, bring our own seats to the table or build new tables when getting our first job or leveling-up to what we think to be the ‘ultimate’ goal. But we have to examine our desires and note what we’ve been conditioned to ‘want’. Ask yourself – what has the world taught me to want out of STEM ….and then write a new memo. Write it your own way. Because as Dr. Mae Jemison says – “Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination.”

Rikhi Roy, Rocket Women Contributor

Rikhi is a graduate student at Georgia Tech studying Aerospace Engineering. She is passionate about systems safety, and advocating for the wellness of gender-minorities and international students in STEM. You can find her blogging at her neighbourhood black-owned coffee shop and drinking copious amounts of London Fog Tea Latte’s. She is the founder of Singapore’s first ‘Women Leaders in Aerospace’ conference and Udaan, a platform for international students in the aerospace industry in the United States. She is also the Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics DEI chair, a 2019 Brooke Owens Fellow, a competitive Indian classical dancer and wellness blogger. You can follow her at @RikhiRoy on Twitter and Instagram and read her work at www.a-balancing-act.com.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *