Are There Downsides to Success? The Third Metric

“Sharon” called me in a panic. She was being recruited for a great position at a significantly higher level. This new job would put her in charge of more people and a much larger operation. It also came with a huge salary bump. Sharon was excited — and anxious.

I’ve been in enough of these conversations to know that my job as a confidence expert was to talk her down off the impostor syndrome ledge. I was supposed to remind her of how normal it is to feel nervous when faced with a new challenge. That she was more than capable of handling any challenge that came her way. How she’d be crazy not to take what was clearly an incredible opportunity.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I said simply, “Maybe you just don’t really want it.” In seconds, Sharon went from shock to relief.

Make no mistake about it, Sharon was afraid to take the job, although not totally because she didn’t think she could do it. What happened to Sharon happens to a lot of people, especially women. We become so used to those the niggling voices of self-doubt that we totally forget to heed other voices. Voices that may have far more to do with who you are and what you want than they do with how much you know or what you can do.

I never talk about women being afraid of success. That’s not to say success can’t be intimidating or even downright terrifying, because it can — and all the more so if you think you are an impostor. However, I believe everyone has a powerful inner desire to succeed. At the same time, I’ve met hundreds of women who, like Sharon, find themselves standing hesitantly at the crossroads of success. The question of course, is why?

What is it about the pursuit of success that gives so many women pause? Are there aspects of success itself that may be causing women to pull back?

After all, there are so many obvious benefits to success it hardly requires mentioning. And I certainly do not want to go on record as advocating any woman not take her rightful place at the table or in any way contribute to the already diminished economic status of women. Still, there are downsides to success, some of which can be traced to how it is commonly defined.

Once women entered the traditionally male work world in large numbers, it was naturally assumed we would aspire to achieve the traditional measurements of success — status, money and power. Plenty of women have. But not everyone got on board – or at least not to the exclusion of other priorities.

More importantly it is no coincidence that situations where these elements are in play — salary negotiations or being singled out for recognition in your field or being tapped for a promotion — are also the very times when Sharon and a lot of other women may wonder, Do I really deserve it? or Can I really handle it?

We assume it’s the self-doubt talking. And maybe it is. However, it’s also true that women have always had a more layered definition of success. Overall, women place — and it should be said, have been allowed to place — a higher value on the quality of their personal and work lives than on status, money and power for their own sake.

It’s one of the reasons, for example, that women-owned businesses tend to be smaller. Instead of being motivated by the opportunity to be the “boss” and to grow the enterprise as big as possible as men are, more women report starting a business to be personally challenged and to integrate work and family.

To be clear, having different priorities is not the same as shooting low. Studies find even high-achieving women share a more expansive view of success.

Of course, plenty of men would love to forgo obligatory golf outings or to log fewer hours on the job in order to spend time with their family too. Unfortunately males are more confined by a view of success measured exclusively in work and material terms. It’s a reality that, according to a study exploring male-female attitudes about success, found many men who had pursued success to the detriment of their family later looked back at their lives with a sense of regret.

But there are other less-talked about downsides of success as well. For instance, a lot of people go into their career because they loved solving complex programming issues or working directly with kids or doing in depth research.

The problem is that organizations are famous for taking people who are happy as individual contributors and turning them into a manager or bureaucrat. All of which only takes them further away from what drew them to the work in begin with.

Being considered a specialist can bring challenges as well. This one can catch people off-guard, because early on we’re told to “just pick something,” and specialize in that.

But, after reaping the rewards of that hard-won expertise, some people are surprised to discover that the more narrowly focused their work becomes, the more their success can funnel them into increasingly specialized and repetitive roles. Over time, the work can lose the excitement it once held, so naturally the idea of becoming even more specialized can be disconcerting.

More success also generally means more complexity. For the person who thrives on running a large operation, managing lots of people and juggling multiple projects simultaneously, this is a non-issue. But, if for “keep-it-simple” types, or for people who started out loving the fast track only to find themselves wistfully watching the gardener who cares for the company plants, then the more complicated things get, the more averse they’ll be to advancing.

Everyone wants to be successful. Still, there are drawbacks to consider. When the Sharon’s of the world understand some of the legitimate reasons for their success anxiety, the better able they’ll be to answer the question, “Am I afraid because I think CAN’T do it — or is it because I don’t want IT?”

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women’s conference, “The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power” which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post

You are welcome to reprint this post with the bio below.

VALERIE YOUNG is co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute. An internationally recognized thought leader for four decades, she has delivered her Rethinking Impostor Syndrome™ program to over half a million people at such diverse organizations as Pfizer, Google, NASA, Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford. Valerie earned her doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was helped found the Social Justice Education program, a forerunner to today’s DE&I training. Although her early research focused on professional women—over half of whom were women of color—much of the original findings have proven applicable to anyone with impostor feelings. Her book has been reprinted in five languages.

Click here now to learn how you can bring Valerie in to speak at your organization.


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