Are You Trapped By Your Success?

“Failure is hard, but success at the wrong thing can lock you in forever.” –Po Bronson

Nothing could be worse.

You’ve got all the markers of success: good salary and benefits, a solid reputation with bosses and colleagues, and as good a chance as anyone at that corner office.

But you’re miserable.

By now, you realize you don’t want the corner office, at least not in the career you’re working in.  You don’t even want to get out of bed most mornings.  You’re working as hard as ever to live up to expectations, but every day you feel like something is dying inside you.  As a fashion designer turned waiter once told me,

“I used to daydream about getting hit by a cab in New York City, so I wouldn’t have to go to work the next morning.”

Getting Caught

It sounds extreme, but as a career writer and coach, I see people getting trapped by their own success a lot. It’s called getting caught in the “golden handcuffs.”  This term refers to people who have been on the upward climb so long that taking a step back to pursue a different direction feels like failure. And they’ve become so accustomed to the feelings of success, they can’t bear the risk of anything less, even if it means being unhappy.

I’ve had CEOs tell me they can’t relocate to a better location because it’s too hard to move laterally when you’re that high up the food chain.  Professionals who make six-figures claim they “can’t afford” a pay cut.  Some bemoan they don’t have time to look for a new career, because they’re too busy working a job they hate.

What they really mean is that their self-worth is wrapped up in their image, not their impact.  And for many, they’ve been cherry-picking among the opportunities that came their way so long, they don’t know how to create opportunities for themselves.

It’s a struggle I understand well, because it’s one I wrestled with myself just a couple of years ago.

Everyone Else’s Idea of Perfect

I was the Assistant Chief Scientist of the Human Performance Wing at the Air Force Research Laboratory.  I was the youngest person ever selected for the job, and one of very few women.  I adored my bosses, who were visionaries and incredible mentors.  The work was challenging and dynamic and gave me access to some of the most prestigious researchers in the nation.

Who wouldn’t be happy with all that?

But whenever I took a coveted day off, I felt a sense of euphoria.  I worked really hard so I wouldn’t have to take work home at night or on the weekends. I’d get depressed whenever Sunday evening rolled around.

So just four years short of a cushy government retirement (including nearly a million dollars in pay and benefits), I walked away.  I had no idea what I wanted to do next, but I knew I couldn’t keep pretending.

I wanted to taste real success, I wanted to feel it, and I was willing to risk failure to get it.

Unfortunately, once we work up the courage to pursue the life we want, we often have no idea how to get there.

Do Something About It

I have the benefit of experience, so I founded the No Regrets Career Academy to help people find the career that made them feel happy, fulfilled, and successful on their own terms.  I distilled all my research, lessons learned, and a-ha moments into a digestible framework.  Career change isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it.  I like to say I’m on a mission to help people make Monday their favorite day of the week.

So far the response has been amazing.  I recently received an email from someone who, just from the free training videos I created, was able to go from secretary to starting her dream career as a running coach–in three days!  She thanked me for changing her life.

When you’re trying to decide if you should make the leap or stay ensconced in predicable misery, you don’t imagine changing people’s lives. You’re too focused on your own problems and fears to realize there’s a gift you’re holding back from the world.  Don’t ask yourself, what will happen if I fail? Ask instead, what great things will result from my success?

Overachievers struggle with that feeling they’re supposed to do something.  My whole life, my parents and teachers told me I was destined for greatness.  It was a heavy expectation to live up to.  I wondered how far I had to climb and how many people I’d have to impress to get there.

I finally realized that if you live your life trying to achieve someone else’s definition of success, you’ll always feel a bit of a sham, no matter how high you go.

If you can’t remember the last time you did something to impress yourself, instead of everyone else, the time is now.  You may not earn a million bucks doing it, but I can guarantee you’ll feel like one.

Written by Jennifer Gresham for Moxy Magazine, September 2011. Photo credit: user tarsandsaction.

Jennifer Gresham is the founder of the No Regrets Career Academy.  She also writes about career change at her blog Everyday Bright.

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2 Responses to “Are You Trapped By Your Success?”

  1. Coach Jennie says:

    Awesome article, Jennifer! I especially love this quote:

    “What they really mean is that their self-worth is wrapped up in their image, not their impact.”

    I’ve totally had that experience! Maintaining that image of success was SOOOOOO important to me that I couldn’t admit to myself that I was actually miserable in my fancy-pants consulting world. UGH! I’m so glad I finally got off that ladder and jumped into a new pool.


  2. Jen Gresham says:

    Great to meet another courageous career swapper! :)

    Congrats on the leap. It’s hard to admit those things to yourself, but darnit if the payoff isn’t worth it–ten-fold!


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