The Success Trap: What It Is And How To Break Out

Monday, 14 October 2019

How do you know when to leave your job or change career?

“If you’re successful, you can be a victim of your success. But if you’re happy, you cannot be a victim of your happiness.” - Thich Nhat Hahn, Zen Master.

I had an exploratory coaching conversation with an engineering executive recently, who’d planned an elegant and detailed exit from corporate life.


He was going to set up his consultancy, go sailing and spend more time with his family. However, he had a difficult time activating the plan.

Most people believe external circumstances constrain their choices in life. The truth is that the constraints are usually internal in the form of limiting beliefs and thoughts.

I asked him: what’s stopping you?

He reeled off the material reasons: mortgage, school fees, and so on. I listened. After he finished, we sat in a pause. I pointed out that he’d already mitigated all his risks with his plan. I asked him again: what’s really stopping you?

He blinked as if a realisation had hit him and said: nothing

However, he started hesitating again. He wanted to think about the timing of his exit a little more. I could sense the wall of fear rearing itself between him and his dream.

A few days later, his company was restructured and he was offered an unexpected exit. He told me it was a shock.

What should he do next?

The Success Trap


Large country surveys including in the UK[i] show that career crises are the norm between the early thirties and mid-fifties, across the socioeconomic spectrum.

When they strike, individuals experience dissatisfaction and burnout while companies see losses in productivity and talent. Career dissatisfaction levels follow a U-shape with the nadir at the mid-40s and mid-50s. [ii]

Different levels of explanation exist as to why this occurs and, more specifically, why people stay in jobs they don’t like.[iii] Material costs are often cited – the "golden handcuffs", for example. However, the psychological experience of losing status and identity are equally as daunting to contemplate. Our mammalian-reptilian brain is programmed to avoid loss of any kind.[iv]

For successful professionals, who’ve been showered by society with material and status rewards, the situation is compounded as the perceived potential losses are greater. In other words, success breeds a level of comfort and risk aversion that puts a dent in the entrepreneurial risk appetite required to take a big leap in a career.

Past success becomes a barrier to possible future success – this is the Success Trap.

An Heroic Journey?

“Most people lead lives of quiet desperation.” - Thoreau

With the death of careers for life and the sense of chronic uncertainty that characterises modern life, changing career track can feel more like a heroic journey than a simple job search.


Our most cherished myths and stories inspire us because they tell of the ups and downs of the hero or heroine’s journey and mirror our own trials and tribulations.[vi]

The journey starts with the call to adventure and breaking out of the status quo, followed by great challenges that transform the hero, and eventually a return home.

The journey has parallels with the emotional cycle of change involved in career transitions.[vii] Initial optimism at the idea of change is followed by anxiety and fear in the face of the uncertainty and challenges. These are eventually overcome, before things start to fall into place and light can be glimpsed at the end of the tunnel.

While inevitable, acknowledging the emotional journey of change is likely to cause squeamishness among knowledge economy professionals. Their reputations are built on detached rationalism, not sentiment.

This leads them to bottle up the stress or rely on rational or transactional approaches to change, like research and networking. However, no amount of research or networking can substitute for the inner-work necessary, nor should it. After all, a new career direction holds the possibility of unlocking deeper dimensions of their true potential and and lead to a richer experience of work and life.

I think it would be fair to say that fear of failure and of looking vulnerable are probably the major locks on the success trap for high achieving professionals.

The Key To Freedom

Most people will remain in the Success Trap for longer than necessary. Why?


Because the emotional labour of risk-taking and facing the unknown seems too great.

When they try to take a leap, fear of failure shows up. As in the case of my engineering executive friend, it becomes all too easy to stay comfortable in an adequate status quo or get distracted in side-projects and low-value ventures.

Completing the journey of change requires a significant level of commitment to self-reflection and inner-transformation – skills that are not so common in the modern professional’s toolkit.

Sadly, the companies that employ them can have a conflict of interest in teaching these powerful personal change skills.

As a result, the more entrepreneurial and reflective professionals create their own career transformation teams – experienced mentors, skilled coaches, like-minded peers and new communities of interest. Some have called them “Career Reinvention Boards

If You Procrastinate Long Enough Life Intervenes

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” - John Augustus Shedd.

Coming back to my friend the engineering executive, life pushed him out of his Success Trap and forced him to learn to fly in mid-air.

In hindsight, he was on his way out all along. He just thought he wasn't ready. In fact, he wrote a month later to say how happy he was sailing and spending time with family.

The truth is that you don't have to feel completely ready for a career change. You probably never will.

And you don’t have to wait for life to push you through the wall of fear and out of the trap. You see, the wall of fear is an illusion in the first place.


Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi M.D. Ph.D. is a Transformational Coach & Consultant specialised in careers and leadership. She went from stressed hospital doctor to specialist advisor to the United Nations, then business owner. Her clients are professionals including doctors, lawyers, scientists and corporate leaders ready to fulfil their true potential. For a complimentary coaching conversation for Pamphleteer readers book here citing The Pamphleteers.


[i] Clark A., Warr P. Is job satisfaction U‐shaped in age? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 1996; 69 (1):57-81.

[ii] Blanchflower D.G., Oswald A.J. Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? 2008;66(8): 1733-1749

[iii] Harris, I. Bullshit Jobs & The Eternal Coin: A Long Finance Pamphleteers Look At The Future Of Work. The Pamphleteers blog. Thursday, 10 May 2018

[iv] Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[vi] Campbell, J. (2004). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

[vii] Kelley D., Conner D.R. The emotional cycle of change. The 1979 annual handbook for group facilitators. La Jolla, Calif. : University Associates, ©1979.