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The Fear of Success

July 2nd, 2008   |   by Frank Addante


I sent out a Twitter update saying that I was stumped and needed some new, fresh blog ideas. Ian Douglas, one of our engineers here at the Rubicon Project responded with an idea (thanks Ian!)

Here is what he wrote:
“Fear of failure can often paralyze a company, but sometimes so can ‘fear of success’. I don’t imagine that’s ever slowed you down, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it. “

Ian brings up a point that over the last few years I’ve learned is a very real issue. At 31, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a lot of wins at a young age. Certain things are easier with past success (e.g. confidence, attracting investors, recruiting, etc.) However, the expectations are also higher resulting in an intense pressure to perform.

In my twenties, I built a site that ranked #7 in terms of Internet popularity, was an officer of a public company, had raised millions of dollars from top tier VC firms, spoke at top industry conferences, and hired hundreds of employees all over the world (most of whom, by the way, were older than me.)

I never thought twice about any of it. I followed my instincts and my gut. That’s what drove me. There was very little to no second guessing. I just did what I believed had to be done.

A few years ago, I lost that ability; the ability to just trust my instincts. I applied logic and common sense to every decision. Guess what? It didn’t work as well. I made more mistakes by over-thinking things than I did when I was following my gut feeling. Fortunately, I recognized this behavior and worked hard to get back to trusting my instincts. This was hard to do.

The problem is similar to the difference between children and adults. Children run around with little fear. Adults are more cautious. The reason I changed my behavior is because I was a victim of my own success. With success came expectations. Before, when I was the “young kid in the room” I could make mistakes because it was expected, I could say the wrong thing and it was OK and if I did anything great or impressive it was a surprise. All of a sudden, there was this inherent pressure to perform. I was no longer the “young kid” in the room that got lucky a couple of times. I became the “experienced entrepreneur” that people actually expected something from. People expected results. They expected me to say something smart. They expected the right answers. These expectations clouded my ability to simply trust my gut and I felt that I needed to have more logical support for my decisions. It slowed me down.

Before starting the Rubicon Project, I was fully aware of this newfound deficiency (pressure to perform.) So, this time around, I took a different attitude. I shoved all of the success aside and got back to basics. I’ve relearned to trust my instincts. I’ve learned it’s OK to feel strongly about something without necessarily having a rationale explanation for it. I’ve learned that if you truly believe in something, you really can’t go wrong – it may not be “right” but if it’s not you’ll learn why and that learning will bring you to the right place faster. I learned that sometimes I will say the wrong thing because it’s impossible to be “right” all the time. And, I’ve learned that in the end, it’s really just not worth stressing about anyway. We aren’t saving lives, this is just a business. Ultimately, what I have grown to accept and be comfortable with is that it’s all OK.

A note to my investors: Don’t worry! I take the business seriously, but I don’t stress about it. I believe that if you have the right team and they are cohesive and focused on the right goals, they will perform the best that they can. The right team wants to win and will do whatever it takes. The right team does not want to fail. When they make mistakes, you need to encourage them. It is very much like coaching basketball. No one wants to miss a shot. If they miss and you keep harping on their misses, they’ll stress out and lose confidence. If they lose confidence, they’ll wind up in a slump. People do not perform well under stress. Stress causes tension. Tension causes bad habits. Bad habits cause failure. To continue the basketball analogy, if you are tensed up sitting at the free throw line waiting to shoot, you’re likely going to miss because the tension will screw up your shot. Staying loose, feeling confident and focused increases your chance of success. Fear of failure will cause losing behavior. Fear of success raises the bar for the definition of success (and failure as a result.) Especially in environments where the bar for success is high and the chance of failure is also high, you need to keep encouraging your team when there are misses. They’ll regain their confidence, get back in their groove and keep scoring.

So, yes Ian, there is such a thing as “fear of success.” And yes, I have fallen victim to it in the past (contrary to your confidence in me.) My best advice is to simply not take it so seriously. Just do the best you can, feel good about every decision you make by trusting your instincts and the rest will fall into place as it should. Chill out, relax, it’s OK.