For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.

The Seven Scariest Excuses People Make to Avoid Writing

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably made a myriad of excuses for not getting any writing done – lack of time, fear of failure, too busy, no privacy, nothing to write about, etc.

Below are the seven most common excuses I’ve heard people use to explain why they aren’t writing. I call them the Seven Deadly Excuses because they can kill a person’s writing practice before it has a chance to flourish. Many of these excuses are influenced by negative messages and assumptions you’ve heard since childhood. By reframing these messages and taking positive action, those fears will diminish over time.

Excuse 1: “I don’t have time to write.”
A lack of time is the most common excuse people make about not writing. If this is your biggest fear, chances are your writing practice has never gotten off the ground, or you write in fits and starts. You always talk about wanting to write, but you never do anything about it.

The problem isn’t that you don’t have time to write, but the expectation of how much time is needed for writing. If you expect a writing practice to take up two, three or four hours every day, that is unrealistic. No one has that kind of time. With full-time jobs, clients to take care of, families to raise and other important responsibilities, there’s little time left over for writing.

The truth is, you don’t need hours at a time to write. When you’re just starting a writing practice, only ten or fifteen minutes a day will suffice. For example, while working as an attorney, A Time to Kill author John Grisham set a goal of writing one page per day, roughly 200 words. Grisham shows it is possible to fit writing into your schedule.

Excuse #2: “I’m too busy.” 
When you say that you’re too busy to write, what you may actually be saying is that writing is a low priority compared to other responsibilities, such as a work, school, taking care of kids or aging parents, etc. Who has time to begin a writing practice when all these other priorities compete for your attention?

Perhaps you learned in childhood that school work and household chores came first before you could watch TV, play with your friends, or write in your diary. If this was your experience, writing became a low priority.

But maybe it’s time to rethink those priorities. Maybe it’s time to make writing a higher priority than before. When you make writing a priority, you’ll find it’s easier to begin a regular writing practice. If all you need is fifteen minutes a day, that’s time well spent, no matter how busy you are.

Excuse 3: “My writing isn’t good enough.”
From the first moment you put pen to paper, your writing probably won’t be very good.
That’s normal for most beginning writers. But it’s true for experienced ones too. Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale, writes as many as 10 drafts of each novel because she knows the first draft isn’t her best or final work. It’s simply the starting point that she can build on.

If you continually tell yourself that your writing is not good enough, ask yourself why you feel that way. What is your writing not good enough for? Publication? For other people to see?

Instead of berating yourself for not writing well, make a plan to keep improving. Read authors whose work you admire, so you can learn from them. When you write something, ask for feedback. Constructive criticism can help you spot recurring errors. Most important, write, write, write.

Excuse 4: “I don’t know what to write about!”
Do you suffer from blank page syndrome – the act of staring at a blank page or computer screen with no idea what to write about?  Or when you do come up with a story ideas, do you dismiss it as uninteresting?

When faced with a blank page, you may be overlooking the best source of story ideas: personal experience. You have plenty of life experience to draw from, so explore those events from your past to adapt to your stories. One way to access this reservoir of life experience is with writing prompts. You can find hundreds of prompts on sites such as  Writer’s Digest and DIYMFA.com.

Excuse 5: “I don’t have a private space to write.”
If you share a home with a spouse, three children, a dog and two cats, it may be difficult to find a quiet, private space to write. Others believe that without ideal circumstances, such as a desk and comfortable chair, their favorite coffee mug and favorite pen, they’re just not able to write.

You need to ask yourself if the problem is an actual lack of space, or the expectation that you need a lot of space to write. I’ve drafted blog posts on breaks at work, on buses and trains or while waiting for appointments. If you wish you had ideal surroundings and your current environment is far from ideal, you may be waiting forever to start writing. The truth is, your environment does not need to be perfect to begin writing.

Excuse 6:  “I’m afraid to fail.”
Another common excuse writers make is “What if I fail?“  The answer depends on how you define failure. What does failure look like to you? Not getting published? Not finishing your current work-in-progress? Not having anyone read your work? Not having anyone take your writing as seriously as you do? Everybody has their own definition of failure, but in reality, there is only one true failure: not writing at all.

To remove that fear of failure, it might be helpful to start small and work your way toward bigger projects. Start with stories of 100 words, then increase it to 200 words, and so on. Every week or so, add to your daily word count. When you reach these smaller goals, you gain confidence in yourself and you achieve small successes that you can build on.

Excuse 7: “What if I’m successful?”
While fear of failure is common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  fear of success. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest as an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved success. Then you worry about what happens when you finish that project. Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your work.

If you fear success, then you may need to rethink what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. Are you defining success on your terms or someone else’s?

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it based on real, concrete and meaningful terms. It’s when you follow the path of success that others have defined for you that can strike fear in you. Write  according to your definition of success, not anyone else’s.

When you manage your expectations to conquer your fears, the writing life won’t seem so scary.