The trappings of success

A trap is a “confining or undesirable circumstance from which escape or relief is difficult.” 

Failure is a trap. We’re always trying to avoid it. Success is a trap too. But it’s not a bear trap which bites into and maims the leg of the unfortunate animal who steps on it. No. It’s poison is sweeter, more intoxicating and magnitudes more difficult to avoid. It snares you silently.

But how is a success a trap? 

Success is good, right? It means fulfilment and satisfaction. Success means wealth. It means power and influence and winning and getting your way. These things aren’t bad, are they?

No, they’re not. It’s the things that accompany success that you should be cautious of. The trappings of success. The things that, like refugees hiding in the cargo hold, come along for the ride.


Most people can attribute their success to a select few stratagems. It’s a function of power laws. A handful of actions or decisions resulted in the majority of success you’re now enjoying. And if those strategies worked before, why not try them again?

The problem is, what took you from average to good, won’t get you from good to spectacular. As you ascend the staircase of success, the game changes. The environment shape shifts. The rules are different and the metrics that did matter, don’t matter anymore.

Sometime in the 20th century they did an experiment with rats. They wired a button right into the rats brain that, when hit, lit up the rat’s pleasure centre. They found that the rat would keep pressing the button, again and again and again. Even when he was starving. He’d rather hit that button than eat.

That’s how we treat the strategies and tools that got us success. They made us feel good and gave us success. So we try them again and again, hoping for that hit, whilst failing to notice what we’re neglecting.


Where before you met resistance, you’ll find encouragement. What was an impossibility becomes a viable option. Doors that were shut, or slammed in your face, become gateways that you are welcomed through.

Most of the time this is good. After all, options equal power. But some of the refusals you received before weren’t just because you were a Failure. They were the truth. Because you weren’t a Success, people had no problem telling you the truth. They had no problem being honest. 

Now, your success makes it difficult to say no. The halo above your head weakens other’s resolve when you push for illogical and irrational things. People succumb to your demands more easily when you have fame and influence. Even if those demands are damaging to yourself and others.


The upside of having nothing, of being a failure, is that you don’t have much to lose. So you can take risks for what you believe in. There’s nothing on the line. What’s one more failed experiment when you’ve already blown it one hundred times?

But now, your reputation matters. People look up to you. People depend on you. You have assets to protect. There is something on the line now. Many things. Some, like your wealth, are material. Others are intangible. Like the story you tell yourself about your life. 

Your approach to risk changes. Decisions are weighed differently.


I don’t mean that people will expect you to do things for them. Of course, they will. The smallest favour given when you were a failure will be cashed in when you are a success. Often with an exorbitant interest rate.

What I mean is that people will tell themselves a story about you. They don’t see the full picture, so they fill in the gaps. They see your success and extrapolate to the rest of your life. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to be vulnerable. You can’t show weakness or complain. You can’t do or say anything that upsets the image they have of you. “How dare you do such a thing? You are a Success. You’ve got it all going for you. We make minimum wage and you’re complaining because success turns friends to acquaintances? Pur-lease.”


You think you’re good enough. That you’ve proved yourself. Now you’ve arrived, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the view. 


If you’re not accelerating, you’re braking. Perpetual motion doesn’t exist. To move an object forward, or even maintain it’s position, some force needs to be applied. That means that once you have success, you can only stay a success by trying to become more successful. 

Whatever the metric that defines your success is, it erodes if you aren’t striving for more of it.


Enemies become courtiers. Friends become aliens. Family become relatives and relatives become family.

It becomes hard to distinguish between the people who love you for who you are, and the people who love you for what you represent.


Your actions and words were unexamined. If they were out of alignment, it was fine. No one would call you on it. You could make promises and break them. You could change your mind without cost or consequence. Now? Not so. Everything you do is met with close scrutiny. Every deed, every utterance, every relationship, every affiliation is inspected and analysed. 


If you become entangled in a rape case and you’re not guilty, the world will not forget. People will forever utter “rapist” under their breath. Certain episodes leave an indelible stain which the hands of time can only fade, never remove.  

If, on your way to success, you engage in something of questionable morality and the world finds out, you are forever tainted. 

If your initial success comes off the back of a bestselling book, or a talk that went viral, you will be forever associated with that thing. Even decades later when you’re a new person working on a new thing, you’ll still be the guy who wrote that book. The guy who gave that talk. The guy who did that thing.

An understanding of a trap is the key to avoiding it. Knowing how it works, when it works, on who it works and why is the key to manoeuvring past it.

Keep these things in mind as you rise in the world and they won’t snare you.