Who the Hell Are You? Fears of Success

Who the Hell Are You? Fears of Success

I’m obsessed with setting and achieving new personal and professional goals right now. After thinking about what I want to do now in life, I’ve figured out some new goals, created a structure to get things done, and enlisted the help of my network. Much to my delight, I found myself taking little steps forward towards my big goals every day. I felt pretty good about my progress. My progress, however, also made me begin to feel suspicious. I wondered when all of the ugly emotional stuff was going to show up again. Fear. Shame. Guilt. Perfectionism. Impostor Syndrome. The usual suspects.

They did appear eventually. Success, it turns out, freaks out a lot of people, including me. I suspect that sometimes we’re not used to feeling like successful people, so when we achieve some success as a result of our own actions, it feels a little weird and unfamiliar. We might be so used to things *not* working out for us (*cough academic job market cough*), that we’re not sure that we can trust the feeling of success. For some of us, failure almost feels more comfortable than success (”Well, I didn’t think I really be able to do X anyways…”) How weird and uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking is it to think about succeeding at something because of your own efforts and then taking all the credit and feeling awesome about it? Yikes.

Fear of success shows up in a lot of different ways. You might feel so enthusiastic and thrilled your new life goals one day and then totally uninterested the next. You might find yourself feeling just bored. Or tired. Or (Hi me!) you find yourself going in a million different directions but you can’t seem to stick with one idea long enough to make it happen. You have 137 projects but can’t finish any of them.

Fear and impostor syndrome sometimes start leading us down the road to self-sabotage. Impostor syndrome makes us fear being exposed as frauds when we try to achieve our goals. If we fail, everyone will know that we’re really just playing at being a competent adult. If you’re making progress on your life goals, impostor syndrome will try to convince you to quit before you’re successful in case someone finds out that you really have no idea what you’re doing. You start making excuses not to stick to your plan. You’re tired. You don’t know how to solve some problems. You’ve had it. You quit. Life feels safer without the risk of being exposed as a failure or a fraud. Misery is unpleasant, but familiar and comfortable.

Maybe, for example, you find yourself trying to start a business after your PhD. You’ve never started a business before. It seems hard. There’s math involved and maybe lawyers. You’re intimidated by other people who casually toss around awful-sounding business jargon (”drill down,”) like they know what they’re talking about. You’ve never started a business before and it seems so mysterious and difficult that you think you should probably just not even bother.

Here is a secret: Most of the time, any actual problem that you face has been solved by someone else in the past. Like, someone’s already figured it out. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the solution to your problem might be as simple as asking someone you know. And if they don’t know the answer, they probably know somebody who does.

Recently, I decided that I wanted to publish a short book based on my blog. (EEEEEEEEEE!) I fretted about it. How would I find a publisher? Surely finding an interested publisher was beyond my capabilities. Finding someone who knew about publishing might even involve talking to strangers. I wondered aloud on the internet if anyone had ever published a short book like what I had in mind. Et voila! A friend of mine responded that she could put me in touch with some publishing people.

Oh. Well, that was simple.

You just have to keep taking the next tiny steps forward and mitigate fear and anxiety where you can. Maybe your next step forward involves calling someone you don’t know on the phone to ask some questions. (Let’s up the stakes: maybe its a well-known person? A famous person?) You’re freaking out at the very idea of talking to them. So maybe you prepare a little bit. Maybe you start by following them on Twitter or find them on LinkedIn. Maybe you make a list of questions to ask that person. Maybe you rehearse what you’re going to say. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows that person and you get an introduction on Facebook. Maybe you send an email first to say hi and let the person know why you want to talk to them. Once you’ve done those things, maybe you feel a lot more ready to make that phone call. And then maybe you dial them up and say hi. And then you find yourself having a conversation with a nice person like the competent, courageous person you are. Problem solved.

Shame shows up when you start taking steps towards what you want. Shame helpfully talks you into asking yourself who the hell you think you are to even dare pursue your dreams. Planning goals is fun (you get to buy office supplies!), but once you get to the actual doing and going for the thing that you really want, shame make you start wondering if you even deserve to have nice things. You’re pretty sure that success is meant for other people. If you do achieve anything great, you feel like the accolades are going to the wrong person. Me? Who am I to have what I really want? You’re this imperfect person and your flaws seem so egregious that you convince yourself that you probably don’t deserve kind words, acclaim, or even a modicum of success. In fact, you probably don’t deserve anything above a miserable desk job in which you make spreadsheets all day about things you don’t care about. Who the hell are you to be trying to do something interesting with your life? Why can’t you just be happy with what you have and keep your head down and stop causing problems with all of this nonsense about dreams and goals which are clearly meant for other people.

And on and on.

Shame is emotional problem, not an actual roadblock that needs solving. Shame doesn’t have a solid solution, but instead requires empathy and connection. When you’ve got an emotional problem, you mostly just need people to listen to you talk about it for a little bit. You need some self-compassion, and your community. You need all of those great people in your life who will listen, sigh, and say, “Me too.” Connect with people you love who love you because you’re a person worthy of love and even success.

So here’s the point. Yes, achieving goals is really hard sometimes. Success does often feel uncomfortable and make us wonder if we deserve it. Most people never try to chase their dreams because they’re scared. You’re scared too and its totally okay and normal to be scared. But being scared doesn’t mean that you have to be paralyzed or have to jettison your dreams for the safe and miserable comfort of your day job. The emotional crap in our lives remains and shows up periodically. It’s presence doesn’t have to stop you from being the person you want to be or doing what you want. Solve the problems that can be solved, acknowledge the emotions that show up, and keep moving forward. That’s success.

Photo: Daniels and Fisher Tower, Denver.


Reaching Goals in Community

Reaching Goals in Community

I’ve been redefining and planning goals all month. I’ve created some targets and put them on my calendar. I’ve designed a structure to help move me towards my goals. I’ve got little steps scheduled in my daily and weekly calendars just waiting for me to do them. I’ve broken up big tasks into small, manageable, actionable steps like sending an email to a new contact or doing some initial research about a business idea. The bar for action is so low that even I should be able to accomplish all of the small steps.

 However, even after doing all this planning, sometimes I just don’t want to do anything. Nope, nothing. Zilch. Zero. I can feel myself resisting when I look at my daily to-do lists. After all, who would know if I didn’t send an email or do some research? I’m accountable only to myself. My goals are only my own. Nobody but me knows or cares if I get through my to-do list or not.

When trying to reach some serious goals and get some sh*t done, accountability is key. Accountability, in turn, relies on community support.

One thing I’ve learned in my life about reaching any kind of goal is this: no one ever reaches their goals alone. The idea that reaching goals requires help and community disrupts one of our most cherished and insane cultural myths: the “self-made” person. Just like the protagonists in Horatio Alger’s novels, we often picture ourselves reaching the summit of our dreams on a solo expedition. We read stories all the time about people who have achieved fame or wealth through their own initiative. These are the ultimate “self made” people. We are often secretly envious of their success.

Although these are great stories meant to inspire us to achieve our own greatness, they often have the opposite effect. When even after our best solo efforts, we find that we cannot reach our goals, we feel like we’ve failed and wonder what’s wrong with us. There’s nothing wrong with any of us that’s preventing us from achieving our goals. What’s really happening is that we’re trying to do it all by ourselves. Even the most “self made” people aren’t. They’re benefiting from some things that maybe a lot of us don’t have (powerful family connections, piles of money), but they take great care to make sure that we can’t see that.

The truth about great independent achievements is that they are the work of many hands and minds. It is true that a few people have made the ascent of Everest solo, but most succeed in teams in which people help each other get to the top. In community and with the help and support of our networks, many things become possible that would previously have been unthinkable on our own.

When I went to write the acknowledgments section of my dissertation, for example, I was shocked to realize how many people had contributed to its success. As I wrote much of it in solitude and isolation, I’d somehow talked myself into thinking that I was solely responsible for its creation. Wrong.

A lot of people (self included) feel vulnerable and powerless when they have to ask for help from others. Despite knowing better, we still somehow think that if we can’t do something alone, its probably not worth doing. A lot of us are very enthusiastic givers, yet struggle to ask for help and receive it. It’s hard say to a whole network of people, “Um, hey, so I don’t know how to do X, but maybe you could show me or put me in contact with someone who does?”

 But here’s the thing: people very much want to help and to be a part of our successes. When people ask me for help to pursue their goals, in the form of introductions, ideas, or resources, I’m always thrilled to help. I share knowledge and connections with people out of a desire to have a small part in helping others achieve their dreams. As an example, when anyone emails me and asks me for advice about doing archival research in Guatemala, I provide names and phone numbers of friends, places to stay, introductions, and general advice. I’m thrilled, happy, and honored to do so because I want people to succeed.

I’m working on keeping myself accountable to my goals by getting my network involved and (here’s the important part) letting other people help me. This starts with sharing my goals and dreams with friends and family, which can sometimes be hard. Some of the things I want to accomplish sound so unreasonable or impossible that I’m afraid to share those dreams with others because I don’t want to get shot down or told all the reasons that I can’t do it. However, this has never actually happened to me. When I share deep and personal goals with people, friends are thrilled and want to know how to help.

Asking for and receiving help to achieve your goals helps keep you accountable to other people. If the next step of your plan involves talking to person X who friend Y connected you to in order to help you achieve goal Z, you’d better damn well do it. You can keep yourself accountable when you make a note to check in with friend Y after you’ve talked to person X to say thanks and let them know what you’ve learned and how valuable you’ve found their help and how much you appreciate them. So imagine repeating the above about twenty times to take tiny steps through the part of your plan that you don’t know how to accomplish. That’s a lot of people to check in with.

What about announcing to a group what your goals are and how you’re getting there? Or you can also use a buddy who is also working on carrying out some big goals to check in and compare notes. What if you don’t have a buddy? In the age of the internet, get on Twitter and make some friends. People use hashtags to declare their intentions to carry out all kinds of goals. #writingpact, for example, helps people get things written when people publicly declare their writing goals for the day to the entire internet. Or try having a writing group. Use it to talk about your goals, not your writing. Check in regularly and support each other. It’s magic.

Without community, nothing is possible.


Scheduling Goals, Happiness, and Getting Sh*t Done

Scheduling Goals, Happiness, and Getting Sh*t Done

I’ve been re-reading Wishcraft by Barbara Scher, which should be required reading for anyone trying to construct a new life after academia. A friend of mine gifted it to me years ago and I’ve gifted it to friends since. First published in 1979, I still think it’s the best of the “set some goals and achieve them” genre. Parts of it seem dated now (writing things on index cards! Calling people on the phone! Going to the library!), but its timeless advice and wisdom helps people rediscover their deepest dreams and make a plan to achieve any goal. Most dangerously, Wishcraft has resurrected some of the goals I’d discarded years ago as impractical and unrealistic.

My biggest dream is to be a published, professional writer. Like, the kind of writer who gets paid for writing. I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was five, which should have been my first clue that it was a serious and important goal. I nevertheless spent many years assuming that being a writer in life was as impossible as it was impractical. Wishcraft reminded me that what I want still matters in life. I started taking my goal of being a writer seriously again a few weeks ago. So seriously, in fact, that I’ve decided to just start acting like a professional writer, despite not actually being paid for writing (yet). This week, I got my writing practice started again and wrote daily, just like I imagined Serious Writers doing.

But “being a writer” is still a vague goal without any endpoint.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of creating exciting and interesting goals and doing absolutely no work to reach them. I just expect to someday reach my goal with little or no effort on my part, as if the act of setting goals sets some kind of process in motion. (Plot spoiler: it doesn’t.) One of my big goals (from my last post) is writing a novel. I have quite literally wanted to write a novel my entire life, so its a serious goal, not just a passing fancy. Writing a novel is a nice goal because it gets to the dream of being a writer and has a clearly defined, tangible marker of success (finishing writing the novel). However, it is also a giant goal and I have no idea how I will possibly accomplish this. But here’s what I know: it will not happen without some serious planning and action on my part.

Planning steps to reach my goals and scheduling them on the calendar is the only way I’m going to get anything done in life. I’ve now got time scheduled into my monthly and weekly planner for what I’ve come to call “goal and happiness work.” Right now, I’m scheduling two evenings a week and a weekend afternoon for specific goal and happiness work. (Writing practice is still daily, but I’ve got some other goals that I’m working on too. I want to host writing retreats and give walking tours, which are also now on the calendar.) Every week, I make a weekly list of things that I need to do then (here’s the magic part) put them on the calendar and do them.

Here’s how I’m going about planning to reach goals, using the goal of writing novel as an example.

If my goal is to write a 250 page novel in a year, say, I need to break it down into smaller milestones that I can reach. I’d want to figure out how much I’d need to write monthly. Doing some math, I’d have to write a little more than 20 pages a month I might decided that 20 pages makes for a nice chapter length, so maybe my monthly goal is one 20 page chapter a month.

Wall Calendar:

On my master calendar, I’ve got specific monthly goals plotted for the next 18 months. In my last post, I talked about making deadlines (in pen!) for goals and then planning backwards from the big goals and scheduling this all on a multi-month or year calendar. With the novel, I’d schedule a chapter per month. I love having the wall calendar, because I see it every day. Big goals sometimes get hidden in planners or worse, never written down at all and then we wonder why we can’t figure out how to get there. Whenever I get anxious and freaked out and start wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life, I look at my wall calendar.

If I’m going to get the novel written in a year, June of 2018 would be my target date. I’d want to schedule one chapter per month, which would also tell me when to start. Since I’m estimating a year from start to finish, I’d need to start now. On my monthly goal list for each month, I’d write chapter a month as a goal.

Weekly Planner:

I was using a Bullet Journal until a few weeks ago. I like the Bullet Journal model of keeping a daily log of activities and I don’t mind having to number the pages. I also like the sense of mindfulness that I got out of using the bullet journal. Lamentably what wasn’t working for me about it was the lack of a weekly calendar and some difficulty planning for future events. [I think the creator of the Bullet Journal himself notes the problems with future planning, as do users.] So I switched to this planner instead and love it. I still do a lot of the things that I used to do with the Bullet Journal (check boxes for to dos, log of daily activities, jotting down ideas), but the weekly calendar structure works better for me.

So assuming that I’m going to write a 250 page novel in a year, I’d need to write four or five pages a week. Let’s say five. I’d schedule this in to my weekly calendar as a goal (write five pages this week). Turns out, five pages a day is like, one page a day of writing. So there’s my daily goal (write one page today). Weekly and daily goals are scheduled in my planner.

Daily Actions journal:

I’m keeping track of the little steps that I take every day on an Excel spreadsheet. I note what I’ve done each day and figure out any next steps. I find it helpful to keep track of what I’ve done weekly. It helps me see that even when I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything, I’ve actually done more than I think. The daily actions list tracks my list of next steps, so I know what I need to do next.

Planning meeting:

On Sunday evenings, I hold planning meetings with myself. I assess what I’ve accomplished over the week and what I still need to do. I look at my monthly goals, which are broken down into smaller steps. I review my progress for the week and see if I’m on target to meet my weekly and monthly goals. If I’m not, I figure out what I need to do to catch up or I adjust the dates I’ve set for smaller milestones. I figure out exactly what I need to do when. And then (the magic again) I put the things I need to do on a calendar and do them.

Planning goals and putting them on a calendar, by the way, doesn’t set anything in stone. Dates are flexible because I can’t predict the future. In the next year, I might move, get offered a job, or start a public speaking circuit. Ain’t no thing. Just adjust the calendar.

 The result of doing all of this planning is that there’s a specific STRUCTURE that keeps me moving forward and on track. Since I’ve been doing this, I literally never leave my house without a very clear idea about what I need to accomplish that day. Even more amazing might be the fact that I’m actually accomplishing those things.

Off to plan some more goals and reach them. :)


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