Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fear of Success

5. Fear of Success

Many ceramics students, particularly older ones, have what we refer to as “adult syndrome.” This is a general unease with anything they’re not naturally and immediately good at. It’s based on the misconception that while children are expected to be learning and to have a lot to learn, adults are “adult” in part because they’re done learning and already know everything they need to know. Being a student requires humility and the courage to be seen failing. Being a child is exhausting and scary and a lot of adults would just as soon not re-live any of those feelings.
I must admit that I’ve had a few outbreaks of adult syndrome myself, but at least I can recognize it for what it is and resist its inherent cowardice. What’s harder for me, and perhaps others, is my fear of success. This stems largely from the various experiences with success we all have as children. If you grow up shy, being thrown into the limelight for any success, however briefly, may feel more like a punishment than a reward. And if you are at all lazy, the added responsibilities that come with success are also a punishment. Every task you succeed at seems to lead inexorably to further, more difficult tasks you may yet fail at. Failure becomes the inevitable consequence of any series of successes. Spectacular success can only be followed by spectacular failure.
I wonder about these things when I consider my own life and career and those of my students. How do we adapt our thinking to allow us to endure both the risks of failure and the undesirable consequences of success? Can success be dissected to reveal its benefits and defects?
In general, I cope by redefining success at each progressive stage. For instance, earning my bachelor’s degree was a big deal for me, particularly doing it in the normal four years and with a double major. But even while I was celebrating and being congratulated I knew that fellow graduates had already been accepted into graduate schools and law schools. Graduation may have been a success, but that success did nothing to obscure the existence of greater successes elsewhere.
Having the essay, “Service,” published in Ceramics Monthly was a thrill and the sort of success that is completely optional, completely independent of other people’s desires or expectations. But I certainly understood that other writers had accomplished a great deal more, and that I might, too.
In some ways, the trick is to be able to look past your current challenge to the one beyond it and to see your immediate successes (or setbacks) as simply a stairstep on a greater journey. It takes a degree of self-awareness and calculation to know just how high each step is and how long our legs are, too. And when one path fades away or ends in a stone wall, it will require a certain amount of spirit to shift one’s focus, to explore to the right and to the left, and to try new approaches, no matter how much they make you feel like a child again.
Success does have its negative aspects, but with practice I think one can learn to predict and manage them. Remain calm. Refuse to quit, or to sabotage your own efforts. And try not to let other people define success for you. For them, it’s only talk and opinion, air moving past their lips. For you, it is your life, your sun in the morning and your moon at night, your face in the mirror, your unspoken regrets, your personal sense of authority.
This is life. Individual results will vary. Try to live courageously.

“Failure can be managed, but success can be a most difficult thing to control.” -- Robert L. Fish

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