Existential Psychology

Handling Success

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Success, especially when it comes too soon, derails a lot of lives. We hear about strategies for coping with failure but we rarely get any advice about handling success, probably because the combination of skill, hard work, and luck necessary for a successful outcome in any worthwhile endeavor insures that people in a position to give experiential advice are few and far between. Most of us have a lot more practical experience with failure than we do with success. Yet the secret expectation is that once we finally trade that known, unwanted quantity called failure for the unknown, wanted quantity called success there won’t be anything to handle, it will be more like a state of release where we can finally sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

But the real problem from the existential point of view is that the vast majority of people equate success almost entirely with external variables, not with their own inner growth. This makes them, once success comes around, completely dependent upon the external variables that signify it. Instead of being able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride they often feel more pressure and anxiety than they did before, they’re less happy not more happy. They suddenly have something to lose and this something is either partially or totally outside of their control. As Erich Fromm once succinctly put it, “If I am what I have, and I lose what I have, what then am I?”

The key in handling success then is, paradoxically, to stop placing so much importance on the external signs that you’ve achieved it and instead refocus on developing your inner potentialities, on continually increasing your knowledge and skill in the area you’ve chosen to pursue. Mastery and the sense of efficacy that comes with it are their own rewards, rewards that usually make the external signifiers of success follow but aren’t dependent upon these signifiers for an integrated sense of Self.