Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What are some things that hold people back from being successful? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
When I quit full-time work to spend more time writing, the number one thing people told me was “That’s awesome!” The number two thing — and it was a very close second: “I could never do something like that,” and its common variant, “I want to do something like that, but…”
Not very long ago — less than two years ago — I never could have done something like this, either. What changed? What made the difference?
My Powerball winnings! Just kidding. I have no such thing. And some people would hit the Powerball and STILL not do whatever it is their heart is crying out for them to do. You wanna know why?
The problem isn’t money, or know-how, or knowledge, and for most people, it also isn’t time.
The problem is fear.
Fear that you’ll fail. Fear that everyone will think you’re stupid or crazy. Fear that you’ll end up broke and homeless. Fear of the difficulty and suffering that may or will come along the way. Fear that what you do won’t mean anything or have any value to anyone. Fear that you’re not good enough, that what you’ll do is in fact not even worth your own time. Fear that you’ll end up on a one-way trip away from the life you have now and you’ll never be able to go back to anything like it. Fear that it’s too late and you’re too far behind to even start. Fear that no matter how hard you try, it will all have been for nothing.
That’s what’s keeping you still. That’s what’s holding you back. Whatever it is that you want to be doing, the reason you aren’t doing it isn’t that you’re broke, busy, or anything else. It’s because you’re afraid.
THIS IS NORMAL. Everyone has these fears. Everyone. Think of all the most fearless go-getters you know. Maybe one or two of them are sociopaths and actually lack fear. The rest? They’re scared. They might be really good at making sure you never see ’em sweat, but something is scaring the crap out of them. I guarantee it.
The difference is that at some point, they decided they were going to do something about the fear, and then they did it — whatever they needed to do to live with the fear, to move through it, and to take action anyway.
Sometimes, something happens to give you a hard push toward making that decision. Very often, nothing happens at all, and you have the additional challenge of drawing out the motivation and the reason from within yourself. (And the fear that those, too, aren’t legitimate or good enough.)
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that you have a million things to do before you can even start. This is wrong. Flat out wrong. Dead wrong. You don’t have a million things to do. You have one: Face your fear, and figure out how you’re dealing with it.
“Yeah, okay, great,” you’re thinking. “HOW do I face the fear?”
Challenge accepted. Let’s work through the list from above. It is by no means complete or comprehensive for all possible fears of all people, but I think at least one of them applies to everyone (self included).
Fear that you’ll fail. You might fail. It’s true. You could do 100% of everything perfectly right and there’s still no guarantee that you will succeed. There are usually two assumptions that feed into the fear of failure. One is the idea that failure is automatically a fault. The fault isn’t in the failure itself — it’s in not trying to succeed or improve.
If you legitimately gave it your best shot and you failed, then perhaps you failed at your goal, but you will have succeeded in dozens of other ways: new skills learned, new connections made, new experiences lived, new things discovered about yourself and what you’re capable of, and if nothing else, the peace of mind that comes from erasing a “what if?” from your life. If you didn’t work at it and you didn’t try and you sat around waiting for success to happen, and you failed? Then, and only then, is when the failure is all you have.
The other assumption is that people tend to think about success and failure in all-or-nothing, hyper-idealized-or-catastrophic terms. Either you’ll be a new Richard Branson overnight, or you’ll lose everything and everyone you ever had and you’ll die in a box under a bridge while everyone points and laughs and talks about what a moron you were to think it’d happen any other way. Neither of these things are going to happen. It may be the case that you’re middling and muddling for a while, not really succeeding or failing. But if you’re happier doing that than doing what you’re doing now, and if good new things (any good new things, not just money) come into your life along the way, how on earth could it be “failing?”
Fear that everyone will think you’re stupid or crazy. Some people WILL think you’re stupid or crazy — even if you’re a wild success — and it will hurt. There’s no avoiding it. However, you WILL ALSO be stunned at how many people already think that you’re smart and awesome and that what you want to do is totally great and that you should do it right now. Even total strangers! Find those people and keep them close. They will outweigh the naysayers. If you really don’t know anyone in person, hit the Internet and look for groups of people trying to do what you’re doing. (There are also plenty of groups for people thinking “I don’t know what I want, but it’s not this.” The ‘net is magic like that.)
Get rid of the people keeping you down, if you can, or else minimize your exposure to them. If the people you live with are the ones keeping you down — parents, guardians, significant others, or roommates — this is unfortunately going to be a long-game situation for you until you (hopefully) can move on to a more supportive setting. In the meantime, do not hesitate to lean on the people who are cheering for you. They will help you keep your eye on the prize.
Fear that you’ll end up broke and homeless. A word that comes up a lot in these discussions is “safe,” and when people use that word, it’s usually code for this fear. A lot of people are under crushing debt. A lot of people don’t have any savings to fall back on. A lot of people are taking care of kids, elderly parents, or both. Deviating from the path they’re already on is the last thing from “safe.” The good news is that there are a whole range of things you can do to increase the margin of safety. Increased safety does usually mean decreased speed of accomplishment, but slower still beats nothing.
Figure out the compromise that works best for your situation, and then plan accordingly: keep doing what you’re doing now, but also carve out some time every day for working on your new goal; reduce expenses so you can spend less time in the old thing and more time in the new thing; or start saving money so that later on you can quit the old thing and jump in whole hog on the new thing. I went with the second option — I moved someplace cheaper to live, and I stay in the day job part-time.
Fear of the difficulty and suffering that may or will come along the way. Let me tell you, now that I live Out Yonder, I really miss my friends back in the big city where I used to live. I used to be able to call or text or IM somebody and say “Hey, wanna hang out this weekend/tomorrow/right now?”, or they could contact me about the same thing with the same amount of notice, and it would almost certainly happen. Now, that’s got to be planned way in advance, and somebody’s gonna be in a car for hours to make it happen, so it doesn’t happen a whole lot. It sucks. I’m also enough of a hedonist to admit that I miss having all the big city entertainment and dining options at my fingertips; now, if I want something interesting to eat or to do, I generally have to come up with it myself.
That sucks too. But you know what really sucks? Getting up and grinding through another day in a robot’s life, with the occasional guilty fantasy about what it might be like to do it differently. And you know what’s really awesome? Not living like that anymore. So if you’re worried about any hardship that might come with the changes you need to make in your life, ask yourself this: Are you not already experiencing hardship by ignoring what you really want to be doing, waking up each day knowing that you won’t be doing that thing today, talking yourself out of it whenever you feel your mind or heart calling?
Fear that what you do won’t mean anything or have any value to anyone. The funny thing about meaning and value to others is that it really isn’t your call — it’s up to other people. You cannot force what you do to be meaningful to others (not even charity work); all you can do is try your best to connect your work to the people who are most likely to find it meaningful, and let them feel what they will about it. The flip side? If it’s meaningful and fulfilling to YOU, it is almost impossible that it will not be valuable to anyone else, if for no other reason than that happiness is infectious — when people see it, they want it, and they’re attracted to it.
Also, think of the most banal garbage you can imagine. Think of your least favorite bit of irredeemable pop culture schlock. Someone out there will tell you they owe their sanity, happiness, or direction in life to it. There is plenty of room for you to add to the world. Even if it’s your own irredeemable pop culture schlock.
Fear that you’re not good enough, that what you’ll do is in fact not even worth your own time. All of us doubt that we’re good enough and that what we’re doing is good enough. Okay, again, maybe one or two people you know are nuts and genuinely believe that they’re awesome all the time. The rest, again, are feeling the fear and doing it anyway — trying even though they know it might not be (or probably won’t be!) good enough. Again, find the people who have your back, cheer you on, teach you, inspire you, or make you think — even if you don’t believe them. The little doubting voice never goes away.
But your people will help you remember that the voice is only telling the worst version of the story. Everything you do is a step toward the next thing you’re going to do. Even if the first twenty thousand steps land in mud, keep your head about you and keep walking toward the good places and you will get there. That other people got there faster, or are already there, doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t.
Fear that you’ll end up on a one-way trip away from the life you have now and you’ll never be able to go back to anything like it. It is almost certainly true that you won’t be able to just hit the rewind button and go right back to where you started. Depending on what your particular situation is, it may also be true that you really will never be able to get back into the a similar situation; e.g., certain careers that demand their practitioners follow a specific and exact path, and don’t tolerate any deviance from that path.
I’d be lying if I told you that no door closes permanently; it’s very, very hard to watch that happen. But the new doors to open are the things to consider. You wouldn’t have read this far if you were happy with the life you have now.
Fear that it’s too late and you’re too far behind to even start. It’s never too late to have a happy ending. And there isn’t a cap on the number of happy endings to go around. You’re older than most of the people doing what you’re doing? Good, you’re ahead on dealing with life things and learning about yourself like the younger folks are still busy doing. The field is saturated? You’re going to have to be more persistent and more creative about how you’re going to get in — maybe a LOT more persistent and creative — but it’s impossible that there isn’t room for one more.
The thing you’re good at or passionate about is yesterday’s big thing, not today’s? Okay, you missed the hype boat and maybe missed the big money boat, but there’s a community of people who are still REALLY into yesterday’s thing out there somewhere — and thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find them. Or, you can find a new thing that builds on what you already know and love.
Fear that no matter how hard you try, it will all have been for nothing. If you actually do try, this is genuinely impossible. Your new endeavor may crash, burn, and explode, but you’ll be in a new place in your life, with new things to build forward from, and new people to help you do it.
Once again, this article isn’t about having the solution to all possible problems. But there is one problem that’s really holding you back: Fear.
Move through the fear, and you will be shocked — in a good way — at all the good things that happen next.