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Uncomfortable Essay #7: "Overcoming the Fear of Success"

Years ago I came across a magazine article with the intriguing title “Overcoming the Fear of Success”. I have always remembered the article, though I couldn’t tell you in what magazine I saw it, nor the year it was published.

The essential message was to women: unless you are very lucky, you were taught from birth to fill a certain role. Until fairly recent history, the standard roles would be marriage, secretarial, nursing, teaching and such. Women who aspired to break out of these roles often had to break the family rules which were so engrained that if the person wanted to become, say, a banker or similar role traditionally reserved to a man, she might unconsciously do things to sabotage her own success. The family rule could be brutal: “who does she think she is?” It was easier to conform. By giving up her goal, she fit into the family system more comfortably.

At about the same time period in history I was representing employees in a union setting where there were two competing unions, only one of which could possessed the rights to represent all of the employees in a particular bargaining unit. The Law had a provision where bargaining rights of one union could be challenged by a competitor every two years. All that the competitor needed was a 30% showing of interest from members. Sometimes I worked with a majority union, sometimes with a minority union. Always, relations between the leaders of the two unions were at best tense, often non-existent, even in tiny units. This biennial warfare went on for over 15 years until the two competing unions finally merged at the state level.

I noticed at the time, that the closer the ‘out’ organization leaders came to the possibility of success, the more likely it was that they would do something to sabotage their probability of succeeding: slacking effort; internal squabbles, and the like. It was as if they feared the very thing they had fought so hard to achieve: the right to represent everybody.

At one point towards the end of the competition phase I was working with a fairly large minority union with several hundred members whose leaders really despised the leadership of the other organization, and badly wanted to take away bargaining rights from them. But I started noticing something that I could recall noticing in other similar settings before, but hadn’t really paid much attention to: the out of power organization really seemed to not want to be in power. The closer the union came to the possibility of success, the more its leaders and other more active members held back and even sabotaged their own campaign in assorted small ways.

I came to conclude that it made no difference on which ‘side’ the minority happened to be: in a real sense they liked being in the minority, since they knew the rules and roles of being out of power. Being in power was an unfamiliar role. It was easier to be against the incumbent, than to be responsible for outcomes.

Sometimes in our own movement I sense the same kind of self-sabotage. It takes place in many ways and on many levels, but the essential is always the same: being the outsider seems preferable to being the one in charge. After all, the one in charge is accountable; the outsider possesses the right to complain without consequence.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that we, collectively, fear success.

There are endless ways that we do this, beginning with isolating ourselves within our own particular passion, associating only with ‘birds of a feather’, and in many ways denying there are other legitimate points of view with which we might negotiate; minds to be changed by direct interaction.

Perhaps I’m wrong on this, though I doubt it. Talking this issue through, however, would be a solution in and of itself.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 22, 2008 8:46 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #6: Money: Time to shift a paradigm.

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