The Drive to Stay Small

The American Psychological Association defines “fear of success” as: “a fear of accomplishing one’s goals or succeeding in society, or a tendency to avoid doing so”. For the longest time, the whole concept didn’t resonate with me. Fear of failure always made sense, but fear of success – why?

And yet, the deeper I march through the layers of my personal development journey, the less and less a fear of failure grips me, and the more it seems like a fear of becoming fully expressed has always underpinned my behavior and results.

I really began to understand how this fear lived inside me when I framed it in terms of my size. When I’m “bigger”, I create more impact, get more noticed, wield more power – when I’m “small” it’s the opposite. For me, fear of success is more completely described as “the drive to stay small”.

Stay small

And let’s be honest, there are advantages to staying small:

  • Less noticed means less likely to be attacked or judged
  • Less impact means less likely to cause harm
  • Less power means less responsibility, and probably less stress

Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent book Sapiens even offers a genetic explanation: for millions of years, it was a survival advantage for our ancestors to be small, to hide – because they were prey, not predators. It’s possible that the drive to stay small could be deeply baked into every cell of my body.

Predator/prey

Even overcoming the drive to stay small, fears can crop up around achieving a big dream:

  • What if I succeed and the reality is disappointing?
  • What if it changes my relationship with the people I care about?
  • What if i can’t find another meaningful challenge to reach for?

I’m sure there are people who don’t experience these kinds of fears. By some combination of genetic and environmental luck. I almost never feel jealousy. No such luck with fear of success, though.


I consider it a personal victory to grasp the lessons above, both realizing that such a fear affects me, and accepting that some part of me has sensible reasons to cling to it.

While now would be the perfect place to insert a pithy “here’s my three steps for beating fear of success” checklist, I don’t really feel that far along. I’m still wrapping myself around the challenge.

It may be that I don’t beat a fear like this, but instead learn how to have a relationship with it, to act in the face of it, and thus reduce its sometimes over-sized grip.

By far the biggest step I’ve taken is doing what I’m doing right now. Writing these words. Posting Youtube videos and near-daily Instagram updates of my attempts to homestead. I’ve taken on difficult creative projects before, but I’ve never shared my story and myself with the world while I’m doing it, I’ve never broadcast the things that matter to me so loudly, in hopes that it will inspire others. The exposure feels very vulnerable to me, vulnerable enough that I spent most of my life avoiding it. That avoidance has kept me small in a way I’m no longer willing to tolerate.

I’ve had my moments where I wanted to shrink again, but so far I’ve managed to continue playing on my version of a bigger stage.

Deck piece seven overhead