There’s nothing wrong with playing small.

So often we are told to dream big, set big goals, and chase after success. We’re told to aim high, shoot for the stars, or risk dying old and regretful with our music still inside us.

Go big or go home.

To be honest, the thought of going big makes me nauseous with anxiety. The pressure of being a ‘success’ and living up to the expectations and standards of society gives me a tight feeling in my chest. My career isn’t where it should be. My income isn’t enough. I should have been so much more successful by now. Thoughts of inadequacy both push me to do better and paralyze me with fear. The result is a constant cycle of procrastination and self-punishment.

Why do we fear success?

It seems counter-intuitive, but success is scary. We long for it and wish we had it, yet the thought of actually achieving it is terrifying. To be successful, one must fail over and over. We have to put ourselves out there, take the risks, and ignore the judgements and criticism of others. We have to put in the long hours, do hard things and make hard choices, and push ourselves constantly to do better.

Sounds terrifying, exhausting, and so, so hard.

Not to mention that our ‘success role models’, those people held up by society as shining examples of what it means to be successful, seem somehow superhuman. One look at Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and you know there’s something different about him!

Is there something special about the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musks of the world? Are Oprah or Jennifer Lopez somehow significantly different to the rest of us?

No, not really.

And that doesn’t help.

Because if, on a fundamental level, there is nothing really different about them (i.e. they don’t have a secret superpower that we can attribute their success to) then there is no real reason why we too shouldn’t aspire to be something more.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be the next Beyonce or Steve Jobs, but it does reinforce the general societal assumption that a) we call all be successful and b) that to be successful means to play BIG. And that, my friends, is nerve-wracking.

Do I have to play big to be successful?

In my own field of coaching and personal development, a field dominated by high achievement, goal setting, and becoming the best you can be, it is easy to become quickly overwhelmed at the high expectations for success and playing big. In fact, if you are a coach of any kind, you are expected to play big – nobody wants to hire a coach that isn’t pursuing becoming their own best self and greatest dreams.

There is huge pressure to go all out, build an empire, and change the world.

I do not want to build an empire.

In fact, overseeing an empire is the LAST thing I want to do.

The thought of being responsible for that brings on waves of anxiety and self-doubt.

But, I do want to be successful and I want to make an impact.

I recently read about a client that was struggling with her anxiety so much she was unable to face the simplest daily tasks. When her therapist asked her what the biggest barrier facing her right now was, she explained that even though it sounded silly, it was doing the dishes.

Doing the dishes felt to her like an insurmountable task. They needed scraping and rinsing and scrubbing, then loading into the dishwasher, then unloading again. It just felt like too much.

The therapist suggested forgoing the rinsing and scrubbing and just putting all of the dishes in the dishwasher and running it twice. ‘On no! You can’t do that. You’re not supposed to do it that way’ was the client’s response.

“Says who?” asked the therapist. Who says you can’t run it twice? Who made up the ‘dishwasher rules’? If you want to run it twice, then go ahead and run it twice! Run it three times if you want. You do what you want to do. It’s your dishwasher.

Who made up the ‘success rules’?

Who says that playing big and going all out are the unbreakable rules of success? And for that matter, who says success has to be becoming a titan of industry or best-selling author? Why can’t success be whatever we define it as? Writing a short story is a success, starting a small business on the side is a success, helping your child with their math homework is a success. Just because you won’t feature on the front of Forbes Magazine or win an Academy Award for it does not make it any less so.

It is OK to play it small

We have to stop comparing ourselves to the elite models of success. Our lives don’t need to be insta-worthy, nor do we need to be a CEO or a Vice President or any other title to deem ourselves successful. Success is what you define it to be, and that can be big or small.

There are some titans within the coaching and personal development field you may be familiar with. Tony Robbins, Vishen Lakhiani, and Marissa Peer to name a few. I do not need to be the next titan to be a success.

Playing small, focusing on having an impact where I can, and building my dreams based on what I love and value (and not what society tells me I should value) is my definition of success. Playing small is better than being paralyzed by fear and not playing at all.

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