Is it crazy to feel guilty about success?

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Desert Andrey Butov recently shared this post that he put on the discussion group at the Business of Software, a part of Joel on Software.  I thought it had so many implications for anyone just starting their own business full-time that I asked if I could blog about it here in order to get your perspectives.  His post:

"So I did it, I finally took the plunge. After two years of running Antair on the side, I quit my full-time job and took on Antair full-time.

My wife was really supportive even while I was still whining about wanting to quit, as is the rest of my family. We aren’t a single income household, so the family income, while lower, is not really the thing the bothers me.

What does bother me lately is this unfounded sense of guilt that started to creep up in the last few days. I am finally doing what I want with my life. The sales are rising, and I am able to spend more time with the family than I did before, while putting in more hours into Antair than I ever did before.

But I have this feeling of guilt. It feels like what I’m doing is almost selfish. It feels almost like I should just shut up, go back to the corporate world and work there until retirement like all other ‘normal’ people. I understand that starting a business is just as normal as working for a corporation, but for someone who spent years working at a real job, working on your own business, from your home office, feels like slacking off. My family is telling me that I’m an idiot, or that this phase will pass – just continue working on Antair.

Those of you who have quit your jobs in favor of your uISVs, have you faced this? Does this go away at some point? Is it natural to have this reaction when first starting to work for yourself?"

This is a classic example of what Professor Srikumar Rao discussed in his teleclass on Friday about mental models (here is the link to the recording or download here) Mental models are "our fixed ideas of how the world works and how things should or shouldn’t be done.  We accept these models so completely that we live our lives according to them.  Everyone has mental models, but we call them by other names, like "truth" or "reality" or "the facts."  We believe them absolutely."*

What are the mental models at work here?

  • Work is hard.  If it feels fun and light, you should feel uncomfortable.
  • Being someone else’s employee is the only way to have a "real job"
  • Free time and pleasure = laziness
  • Following your dream is selfish

We learn these mental models from personal experience, family, friends, co-workers, mentors and the media.  After awhile, they become so ingrained that we think that they are THE TRUTH.

So when someone like Andrey steps out of his familiar world and into the venture of his own choosing, it is absolutely understandable that he is going to feel regret, anxiety and suspicion.  Since he is just starting out, he is entering what transition expert William Bridges calls the Neutral Zone … that sparse, uncomfortable expanse of mental desert where the self journeys from its old mental model (work is hard, following your dream is selfish, etc.) to the new mental model (work is invigorating and creative, following your dream is the only path to health, security and happiness, etc.).  Wading your way through the Neutral Zone is an uncomfortable process, especially in modern corporate society where we are encouraged to speed from one activity to the next as quickly as possible.  Bridges says:

"In other times and places, the person in transition left the village and went out into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert.  There the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality.  This was a time "between dreams" in which the old chaos from the beginnings welled up and obliterated all forms.  It was a place without a name – an empty space in the world and the lifetime within which a new sense of self could gestate."**

While you don’t have to muddle in the Neutral Zone forever, it is necessary to pass through it in order to get to your new reality.  When Andrey says "It feels almost like I should just shut up, go back to the corporate world and work there until retirement like all other ‘normal’ people," this is simply his way of wanting to fall back on the old, comfortable, known reality instead of walking through the cloudy, soupy mess of transition.

So if you or Andrey don’t have a desert to wander through nearby or 10 days to sit atop a mountain and ponder your belly button, here are some tips for surviving the transition process and moving on with a new chapter of life:

  • Acknowledge the loss of the old reality.  As much as you might have been stressed by your old corporate employment, there are parts of it that will be hard to let go.  These can be things like a predictable paycheck, smart colleagues, free office supplies, a "respectable" job title, a benefits program or your parent’s idea of what a "good job" should look like.
  • Clarify your own mental models.  I took a shot at defining some of the mental models Andrey was operating from.  He may not agree, so he should define them in language that makes sense to him.  Then he should take the time to create new ones.  If you struggle to let go of old mental models, Byron Katie has done some very good work in her book Loving What Is.  She poses four questions to ask of your belief:
    1. Is it true?
    2. Can you absolutely know it’s true?
    3. How do you react when you think that thought?
    4. Who would you be without that thought?***

      Then, turn it around.  So if your original thought was "living my dream is selfish," you would turn it around to "living my dream is unselfish."  See if this is not as true or truer than your original statement.  Much more detail in the book.

  • Surround yourself with people that are firmly living in your desired reality.  Are all your friends and colleagues still working as employees?  If so, you may find that they are just projecting their own fear of leaving something stable on you.  You don’t have to ditch your old buddies, just make sure you balance them with some new contacts and colleagues that are successfully self-employed and living the kind of life you want to live.  A friend used to say "If you hang around in a barber shop long enough, chances are you will get a haircut."  Which barber shop are you hanging around in?
  • Carve out alone time.  If you can afford it, take some time off to just wander around and allow your brain to decompress.  I find walks in nature are excellent for clearing my head and focusing on my future.  Maybe you can take an afternoon off and go for a drive.  The important thing is to spend time alone.  This is the only way you can listen to your inner voice.
  • Develop new work patterns.  It takes awhile to get adjusted to working full-time from home.  You will need to develop new work patterns that allow you to spend the time and energy your new venture requires.  The great thing about working for yourself is that you can schedule your time based on your natural biorhythms.  I used to get antsy at mid-morning, so I would take a Yoga class from 10-11am and come back refreshed.  At about 4pm, my energy would drop, so I would plop on my couch and either listen to music, read a magazine, take a snooze or watch Oprah. 
  • Pay attention to your feelings.  As you progress down the path of self-employment, your emotions will be an important source of information for you.  You may work with a client or on a project and feel intense joy.  This is a sign you are moving in the right direction.  You may wake up feeling anxiety or dread.  This can be a sign that you need to diversify your clients, hire an accountant, speed up your production process or cut expenses. 

Andrey, congratulations on making the leap!  Keep the faith. I am so glad you agreed to share this personal part of your journey to benefit us all. 

Please share your thoughts or suggestions for Andrey here, or visit the original thread.

*From Are You Ready to Succeed?  Unconventional strategies for achieving personal mastery in business and life, Srikumar S. Rao, Hyperion Books, 2006

** From Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges, Perseus Books Publishing LLC, 1980

***From Loving What Is:  Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie, Three Rivers Press, 2002

11 Responses to “Is it crazy to feel guilty about success?”

  1. Zaman says:

    Hi, this is a great post!
    i feel guilt from going back to education. geting compliments about success in any matter. i think this is because my past had little success.

  2. Hi Pam

    Nice post, and a great reminder to me about why I am now a solopreneur. I am beginning to realize that it was my former life that was “out of sync” and unfamiliar to my soul. Not my new life.

    I want to jump for joy every day when I pull on jeans or sweats and a t-shirt and settle in at my desk or on the phone. Never had any guilt at all – no siree!!! Just plain pleasure.

    It does make me wonder how I took the first fork in the road so many years ago that led me away from my calling. Or perhaps it is the contrast that I was destined to experience that has made this all the more fun.

    You and Andrey certainly got me wondering!!

  3. Becky says:

    I’m so glad you posted this – it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one feeling that sense of guilt, and of being a “slacker” even though I’m working much harder than I ever did when I worked for someone else. Thank you!

  4. I’m the reverse. I feel guilty and twitchy when I’m NOT working on Plan B, which involves doing the freelance work full time.

  5. PunditMom says:

    Thanks for this great post! This is just the kick I needed today. I am especially trying to work on “Surround yourself with people that are firmly living in your desired reality.” I am very bad at that, especially after working “the desk job” for so many years.

    Being a freelance writer is isolating and many times I feel like I’m just mooching off the hubby’s salary. But, later this week, I am going to a meeting of other freelancers in my area. It’s really breaking out of my comfort zone for me, because I won’t know anyone there. But I know I need to do this to get this business on track and really turn it into a business. Thanks Pam!

  6. ann michael says:

    I went through something very similar. I didn’t feel guilty, but I realized that I needed to develop some new habits to be successful working on my own – and from my home.

    Also as you allude to with your morning yoga or afternoon break – I found my life (work, family, recreation, etc.) completely blending together and it was wonderful!

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. jen says:

    I missed Professor Srikumar Rao’s friday teleclass, but I was intrigued, so I got his book out of the library. I just finished reading about the “mental models”. It is hard to change when everyone around you is doing something completely different than you want to do, or how you want to live.

  8. 7thseer says:

    hi, great post. It can be very hard to change some patterns learned years ago because they are set deep in the structure of brain. The first step is always acknowledging that something has to be changed.

  9. Pam,

    Great Post. I think a lot us can relate to what he’s going through. Really enjoyed the read. Keep up the good work.

    – Bryan

  10. Don Wallace says:

    Pamela, excellent analysis. I have followed that discussion and I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head. It’s quite difficult unlearning how to be an employee.

  11. Gabriel says:

    This one is right one. I feel exactly like Andrey, and its the first time I read an article describing this. Thank you.