Can You Be Too Successful?

🚀 The lines between success, failure, and destruction - Issue #213

I know that the graphic I created above requires some explanation. The white line in the middle represents professional achievement as your career progresses and you experience greater success over time.

We walk that thin line between success and failure for our entire lives. Performing above the line represents Success. Falling below the line drops you into Failure territory.

The zones of Failure most likely make sense to you. There’s a band for yellow caution, orange warning, and full-on red destruction.

But, you are probably wondering what’s up with the yellow, orange, and red zones above the green success area. That’s where the consequences of increasing levels of success come into play.

Great success comes with a price.

When you start in your career, there doesn’t seem to be any downside to stellar success. Who doesn’t love the recognition and rewards that come with it?

However, the higher you fly, the farther you can fall (ask Icarus). The more successful you are, the more people notice you, and the more they expect of you.

What may not be apparent is that the line of Professional Achievement doesn’t map directly to time. For many people, it does. The process of achieving greater professional success takes place at a regular pace over the course of their lives.

However, for some people, they accelerate more rapidly to the upper-right corner of the image. They achieve massive amounts of success (e.g., fame and fortune) at a young age.

Unfortunately, this also puts them in the zone where the boundaries between success, failure, and destruction become exceedingly narrow. Very few can walk that thin line of success without falling into failure or veering into tragedy.

Early Phases of Achievement

Most of us experience the early phases of achievement in our 20s and 30s. Hope, energy, and ambition are high.

Anything seems possible. The world is your oyster.

As you have probably already discovered, it was easier to succeed during the early days of your career. Expectations were lower, and people knew that you were still learning your job, acquiring skills, and mastering your profession.

Failures are expected and often treated as learning opportunities (i.e., the yellow “caution zone” below the line). Well, at least good bosses treat them as learning opportunities.

No failure is permanent. You have so many opportunities to try again, change careers, and apply what you’ve learned to guide yourself back into the green zone of success.

Almost any level of success is a good thing. It’s almost impossible to have too much success at this point, but it does happen.

We’re all familiar with the stories of child prodigies, actors, entertainers, and world-class athletes. Some make it through and manage to fly high at the edge of success (e.g., Ron Howard), but many burn out and disappear from the public eye (e.g., Corey Feldman).

They fall into the traps that abound for those who achieve fast fame and fortune, long before they are wise enough to avoid them. They become victims of their early success.

Middle Phases of Achievement

Many of us hit the middle phases of achievement in our 40s and 50s. Your salary tends to peak in your 40s, but your knowledge and EQ continue to climb into your 50s.

However, as you progress in your career, it becomes increasingly challenging to be successful. Expectations are higher. The stakes are greater. Competition increases when senior-level roles are fewer and far between.

I work with many clients in their late 40s and 50s, who have discovered something surprising and unpleasant. While it was relatively easy for them to land new jobs in their 20s and 30s, they are dismayed when they find out how much harder it is to get a job appropriate for their level of experience at this point in their careers. Some spend over a year in their job search.

The consequences of failure are also greater. Caution quickly gives way to warnings (i.e., the orange zone below the line). Mistakes beyond those boundaries become a total failure that can bounce you out of a job (i.e., the red zone).

Again, it may seem surprising that you can veer into too much success. Those yellow, orange, and red bands creep closer and squeeze the safe green area.

What does it mean to have “too much success”? Well, it’s actually more like running into many of the side effects of success.

You may already have experienced some of these consequences in your own career:

  • More money leads to more material possessions.

  • Responsibilities increase.

  • Expectations grow.

  • Stress and anxiety balloon.

  • You become a target for competitive peers.

  • Less time with friends and family.

  • Ever-increasing demands can lead to burnout.

  • Surprisingly, some people want to see you fail.

If you have achieved some degree of fame and fortune, now you run into the dark side of those, as well. Many famous people question who their “real friends” are. Wealthy folks wonder if others only love them for their money.

“Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” ― Oprah Winfrey

Late Phases of Achievement

At the top of your game (i.e., upper right corner of the graphic), there is a razor-thin margin between success and failure. There is very little room for error or forgiveness.

A significant failure doesn’t just cost you your job anymore. It can end your career forever. Numerous C-level executives and high-flying entertainers have experienced that outcome.

Another risky side effect of great success is “believing your own press.” There’s nothing wrong with confidence, but it should always be balanced with humility.

“You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.” ― Lou Holtz

People run into trouble and drift into the danger zone of success when their egos grow to match their achievements. They believe that they can do no wrong.

They find themselves surrounded by “Yes people” who tell them how brilliant they are. They lose their checks and balances, spin out of control, and lose touch with reality (e.g., Howard Hughes).

People love to build up their heroes and almost worship them. Sadly, for some reason, people also love to watch their heroes fall. It’s a strange paradox.

Even when someone does not fail or fall, the highest levels of fame and fortune come with a heavy price. I’ve spent time talking with billionaires who described their lifestyles and loss of freedom.

One was picked up by three identical vehicles every morning for work so that there were two decoys to make kidnapping more difficult. Another was followed around by a bodyguard all day.

Sounds like fun, huh? Forget walking down to the local taqueria by yourself to grab a quick lunch.

Successfully walking that line

We all want to stay in that green zone of success as we reach greater heights of professional achievement in our careers. I know that my goal is to be the most successful person that no one knows.

Can you become too successful? Yes, you sure can, if you let it all go to your head and the side effects of great success destroy you.

How can you walk that line and not drift off course?

  • Pursue the right goals, and don’t let yourself be distracted by things that don’t really matter (e.g., a massive house and a fancy car).

  • Create a vision for your life that keeps you focused on your “north star,” even when chaos swirls around you.

  • Dedicate yourself to a mission that is larger than you, which helps you stay focused on making a difference in the world.

  • Balance your confidence with humility to keep yourself grounded.

  • Surround yourself with honest people who have your best interest at heart and will give you straight feedback to keep you on the right path (i.e., don’t let sycophants infiltrate your inner circle).

  • Choose a life partner who believes in you and supports you, but isn’t afraid to set you straight and let you know when you’re becoming an arrogant jerk.

Seeking power, fame, and fortune should never be your mission. They may happen as a side effect of your career success, of course. But, you’re in for a rough ride when you worship wealth and chase adulation.

Instead, pursue something meaningful. Do something that fulfills you and helps others. Have enough to be comfortable, but not so much that you become a target for the slings and arrows.

“My goal has always been longevity. Not fame and fortune, just get a job and keep it.” — James Garner

This week’s professional development challenge

⭐ Where Do You Want to Live?
- Are you where you want to be?