Edition 259 – The Fear of Success

I’ve long argued I have one of the most privileged roles of any professional, bar none. People tell me things, about their business and about their lives, that they don’t tell any other professional – not even their doctor. Sometimes, what they say isn’t all that new to me. What is surprising, however, is their honesty in being willing to admit what their foibles are, or what they can do better.

In a recent meeting with some family business clients, we discussed what their business pipeline was looking like early in the 2021 calendar year. As the conversation evolved, it was clear there was a mindset issue. Whilst a number of projects had been quoted before Christmas, and other jobs had been promised to them from existing contacts, these business owners expressed two significant concerns:

  1. We won’t be able to cope if all the work we’ve quoted has come off; and/or,
  2. We won’t be able to fund a certain project if we end up winning it.

So, even before they’d won the work, they were talking themselves out of it! Perhaps I’m more counsellor than merely advisor these days but it wasn’t that hard to scratch the surface to find out what the true issue was. As I’ve mentioned previously, I just keep asking “why?” until I found the nugget of gold I was looking for.

In a display of brutal honesty, one of the meeting participants admitted that one of the issues they faced was a “fear of success”. Whilst most of us possess, to some degree, a fear of failure, I’d argue a fear of success is more powerful and potentially, more destructive.

Essentially, a fear of success is all about an individual (or a family business owner) suggesting they’re not worthy. If someone pays them a compliment, invariably it’s brushed aside. If they are asked if they can handle a new project, they pontificate to the point of indecision. If they’re on a job and the client asks them to do more, they don’t see the opportunity to maximise the value out of the variation. Or, as was evident in this case, the conversation can go around in circles to the point of talking themselves out of the opportunity.

If we fear failure, we fear losing what we already have. Yet, I would argue that fearing success loses each of us a lot more than we can ever know. Whether it is lost revenue, unrealised goodwill, or merely the ability to establish a relationship with someone else, what we don’t know is what the true value of the loss is because we don’t take the time to assess it.

In this client meeting, it was a real lightbulb moment for the individuals in question. In essence, I called them out on their mindset, then asked them to justify it. They couldn’t, which immediately led our conversation down a different path – which was all about chasing every opportunity that was worthwhile chasing, and worrying about how they get it done, or how they fund it, once the deal is won.

When a business owner reads their financial statements, it only tells them what they’ve generated. It’s easily quantifiable. Perhaps, if we actually took the time to work out the value of everything we’re chasing, and what that would mean for our business, our financial position and our own livelihoods if it all came off, and therefore what those financial statements could look like, we might take a bit more notice of our mindset.


“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford

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