The 3 success traps that hold back ambitious people

Ramit Sethi

Funny how our definition of success can change.

What was your definition when you were 20? What about today?

When I was 18, my dream was being able to afford an appetizer at a restaurant.

When I was 25, I LOVED being able to take my friends out for drinks and buy an entire round without thinking twice.

Now, it’s about my team and developing them.

Today, I think my greatest accomplishment might actually be learning how to cook eggs. Look at this. Damn I’m good.

Screen Shot 2017 04 03 at 9.55.32 AM
Correction: I win “best improved eggs”

When’s the last time you set and met a goal for YOU? It can be silly (like cooking eggs) or serious (like taking a year-long sabbatical).

I’m not talking about the goals that are set FOR you. I’m talking about something you want for yourself.

Think about all the goals that society sets for us:

  • In our 20s, we’re expected to chase money and/or fame via our careers
  • In our 30s, we’re expected to “settle down,” buy a house, and have kids (right after we’ve totally 100% decided on our career choice, of course)
  • In our 40s, we’re expected to focus on stability and family
  • By the time we get to our 50s and 60s, we’re expected to focus less on ourselves and more on our community and family. What about meditation?

In reality, you can easily follow this template and be totally fine. It’s actually a pretty good life!

But what if you want to be different?

I’m talking about your goals. The bold moves, the things you want — but society doesn’t talk about. The goals you don’t tell your friends about because they sound crazy. When is the last time you did something like that?

If the answer doesn’t make you happy, this gets into some pretty uncomfortable territory.

Why do we ignore our goals?

It’s easy to follow others’ expectations. Sometimes, it’s MUCH easier to go with the expectations (and rationalize it later) than it is to define success for yourself (and figure out how to actually get it).

We all know these people:

  • The people who go to grad school because they don’t know what else to do. “It makes me more marketable”
  • Or the people who study a certain subject because their parents force them. “My parents wanted me to be an engineer, and it sounded as good as anything else”
  • Or the couple who buys a house because it’s a “good investment,” and not because they actually want to

Then they wake up years, maybe decades later wondering what happened.

It’s scary to decide what you want for yourself. Fear of failure is a very real problem, especially for ambitious people. We’re talented, we’ve been told how smart we are our whole lives, and now we’re supposed to “prove” it by achieving our goals. Gulp.

Suddenly, putting off your big project — and potential failure — one more day doesn’t sound so bad.

You can’t have success without failure. I’ve had to learn how to get over my own fear of failure as I’ve built my business:

(Btw, I love asking people about taboo subjects like failure. I’ve talked to James Altucher and A.J. Jacobs about it. You can watch our discussions here and here.)

What if you don’t actually know what you want? After you accomplish one of your goals, it can feel good for a while. But eventually a little voice will nag you and ask “what’s next?” That can be scary. But even scarier: What happens if you have NO IDEA what’s next?

I know people who — if you got them in a real conversation and asked them what they actually wanted to do with their lives — would look at you blankly. “I have no idea.” It’s hard to make those kinds of decisions after decades of living someone else’s goals.

So how do you find out what’s next? How do you know if you’re settling instead of going for what you’re truly capable of?

*   *   *   *   *

Three traps: Easy. Scary. Unknown.

The worst part is sometimes we don’t even know when we get stuck in one of these traps.

But a true Rich Life is one where you set the goals and directions on your own terms. It’s one where you know your motivation and don’t apologize for it.

Is that hard? YES!

Is that scary? YES!

Is it worth it? Are you willing to find out?

So my question for you: What’s the version of success you want but are too afraid to pursue?

Let me know below.

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  1. Sean Meyer

    Phew! Well, do you have a character limit on your comments? Because I could go on for days.

    But for the sake of my fingers, I’ll stick to the main one – freedom.

    Freedom to make my own decisions and help people in the way that I want.

    I was a banker for 5 years and it was always gut-wrenching to be put in a position where I had to persuade people to take shitty products that cost them a lot of money, just so I could keep my job!

    And I’ve actually started out on this journey, so I guess the scary part is to keep going.

    Uncertainty is about the scariest damn thing there is, but as Warren Buffet says best, “We pay a high price for certainty”….

    • Xyz from OurFinancialPath

      Totally agree, sometimes we just need to take the plunge

  2. Eric

    My real goal is not one I can share publicly. My secondary goal is to get my health together (to support the real goal ).

    For me it’s not the fear of failure so much as not putting in the work. It’s the lack of a strategic POV and the lack of systems to get there. It’s that I’m out of touch with my future self. Maybe I never was in touch.

    It’s also the discomfort of doing something different, of changing my habits.

    Maybe these all roll up into a fear of failure.

  3. Pamlela

    For years I had been saying that I did not have the time to play the violin (I stopped for 15 years because I “didn’t have the time to play”). One day, I realized that if I could find the time to exercise, cook amazing meals on a regular basis, read, and (gasp!) meditate, then I had the time to play my instrument again. So, no excuses, I did it. I take lessons (every other week), practice every day, and am ridiculously happy. The goal? To be able to play three particular pieces within the next 12 months – is a very doable goal, and if I get there sooner than a year from now, then I’ll simply set a new goal.

    I’ve also set the goal that, after I complete a current two-year course, I’ll join zero to 1K to transform what I’ve spent the last seven years deeply learning into a revenue stream since what I do on my own is pitiful at best.

    My vision of success is transforming what I’ve spent years deeply learning into a source of income that’s independent of my day job, where I don’t feel like I’m begging for scraps with getting the work I want to do, and being as busy as I want to be and having the ability to say “no” to new work because I’m so in-demand I have the choice of who I work with and when – I can be selective, and thus deliver great results for folks.

  4. Brian

    I’ve been wrestling with this fear for a while.

    Do I stay with my pretty good, six-figure job? Or do I quit and pursue my side business while enjoying the time to read and relax?

    I decided that the job is actually an important leg of the tripod of stability. It pays the bills and gives me the feeling of security. I took the “yes and yes” approach.

    However, the longer I stay at my job, the more valuable I become to my firm, and the harder it is to leave.

    On the other hand, the nagging question remains… what if I could be independent and finally clear the queue of books, podcasts, webinars, and entertainment I’ve been putting off so long because juggling both takes up most of my days?

    • Marion

      Forgive my boldness in saying this, however, my experience is that most likely at first if you quit your job and try to be independent you will actually at first have less time and less money because you are suddening having to fulfill or manage functions (most likely marketing, sales, development, accounting) that were not part of your job before. If you are just looking for more time and generally enjoy your work and feel appreciated, I would just focus on becoming more effective at carving out more free time for yourself.

  5. Terrin

    I didn’t put mine off. I just recently got clarity about it. I used to think that the things I wanted to persue all had to remain seperate: business, culture, spiritual, health, community. I didn’t even know I wanted them together…

    Now, I know I can (which I’m doing currently) create a brand that has all 3 infused in an organic way that makes sense. It isn’t doing too much, being too weird and it’s isn’t overwhelming myself or others.

    I used to think I needed money to get it all started but I now know that’s an excuse to not start.

    It’s not easy, but pushing past the fear of the unknown is possible. I have to do it almost everyday, but when you get clear on your purpose it makes it a littler easier.

  6. Michael

    True success for me would be doing work that’s meaningful and brings in enough dough so that I gain financial freedom. Sometimes I have a vision of that house where Zuckerberg went to live in ‘The Social Network’, I think it was in California. He was there with his friends and together they’re working on this insanely valuable and interruptive company while having fun doing it, going out and getting girls. This always seemed to me as the ultimate Rich Life.

  7. Will

    My high level goal is freedom, both financially and freedom of schedule. I want to be able to provide for my family financially while being there. My wife and I are expecting our first child in June and the thought of spending 2.5 hours per day in the car instead of with them is gut wrenching.

    How do I accomplish this? I am currently an analyst and spend all day in Excel and on the computer. I’m good at it, but the company I work for only offers piddly 2% merit increases and is a clusterf*** at the moment. I want to be rewarded for my achievements and I want to do something more creative. Woodworking and eventually furniture building is what I aspire to do and I could spend hours in the shop tinkering and toiling until everything is perfect. I am in the process of building my son’s crib, changing table, our kitchen table and entertainment center.

    Both the fear of failure as well as the fear of success are holding me back from putting my ideas out there. Questions that pop into my head are:
    – Who am I to be selling things like this?
    – How do I get over that mindset and be able to charge what my pieces should be worth?
    – Will my wife resent me if I start to make a living by doing this, while she goes into the office each and every day? (I know that she would be thrilled and so supportive, but the fear of this still pops in my head every once in a while).
    – How do I ensure that I am not just trading hours for dollars?
    – Can I scale this business idea to ensure I’m not working 60 hours a week?
    – What happens if I start selling a boatload of stuff?
    – What will I do when I “quit” my day job to focus on this full time?
    – What do I do about insurance?

    I realize that many of the questions that I am posing to myself in order to procrastinate and delay potential success are at least a year if not longer in the future. It is hard to NOT think of those things, but I know that the first step is to get those first 3 paying clients and then tune the dial to get more business and better business.

    Steps I am taking will be:
    – Create templates of the things that I make for personal reasons and take nice photographs of them to put on Etsy.
    – Film what I can of the process. (potential for series of videos?)
    – Design some smaller items that can be more “volume” sales, which will increase my visibility in the woodworking marketplace (kitchen utensils, wall decor, etc.)
    – Reach out to local successful woodworkers/furniture makers to see how they have evolved their businesses over the years to reach a point of success.

  8. Jeanette Andromeda

    This is a question I have been wrestling with a lot lately. In High School success was good grades, getting parts in the school plays, and making as much art as possible. All I really wanted was to make art and perform it. Lately I’ve been stretching myself in so many directions I don’t know which way is up- and I bring up high school because that was the last time I seemed to define success in my own mind. So I’ve been trying to narrow my thoughts back down to the core again.

    I blog, podcast, create art, have a part time job based around crafting and sewing and the list goes on. But my question of, “What will it take to feel like I’m a success?” keeps popping back into my head on a daily basis. Because I don’t think I’m moving in the right direction.

    I am happy that my artwork is what’s paying the bills right now. Maybe not all of them, but most of them. Success to me would be making enough money through my artwork and my online business to allow myself a week off every month to go do something fun. Go on a road trip, go camping, visit some far away friends or family. If I can get to that balance that’s what success would be fore me.

    So what does success look like to me? Balance.

  9. Kevin

    My real goal is to get control of my time, the #1 asset in life. I have million ideas floating around in my head, which all are related to being an entrepreneur, but the one thing that I always circle back to is fitness and health. If I could choose a career path it would be owning my own nutrition/fitness business. I would be able to share my passion and at the same time improve peoples lives for the better. Why haven’t I done that already????? I don’t know.

    • Fasoranti (Fash) Damilola


      Why haven’t you done that already? You know!

      Perhaps, you are simply avoiding something, not sure about something, or this passion isn’t burning strong enough for you to get out there and make it happen?

      Now, calm down and be sincere with yourself.

      What is the very first step (no matter how small) you think you should take to start your awesome dream?


  10. J

    I am pursuing my version of success.

  11. Rohan Bhardwaj

    I want to do the work behind my laptop. That’s it. Most of the times. Freelancing and choosing my time and vacationing as I feel like.

  12. Samir

    I am a software engineer by education and profession, earning a six figure income.
    But, I want to be an actor. I have no idea, how should I go about it. At the same time, I think it is harder and scary at this age.

    • Fasoranti (Fash) Damilola

      Hello Samir,

      Do you know anyone that is an actor (and you can access) around you? Wouldn’t it be a great idea to ask them how they started out?

      They (being in the what you want to be) will be able to point you in the right direction.

      Hug that your impression of being scary and harder to achieve your awesome dream at your age.

      When (not if) you do achieve this awesome dream of yours, I will celebrate you more than someone else that did it not afraid or scared.

      Your story of success will make far more sense and take you to high places that you have never imagined. All the best.


  13. Yogesh agarwal

    Just help me know WHAT I REALLY WANT ? Being a 23 years old I still don’t have any idea what I want to pursue or achieve AND I am at great difficulty in bcoz of lack of clarity

    • Fasoranti (Fash) Damilola


      In my work, I have met amazing people like you, who are even much older and are at great difficulty because they don’t know what they want.

      I drilled them with different shapes of questions and exercises, but it proved harder for them to figure out specifically what they really want out of life.

      Then, I asked them a far simpler question, and boom! everything changed.

      So, I let me ask you the same question:

      Can you give me a list of all the things that you don’t want?

      Form that list, start living your life away from all you don’t want, what will eventually remain, will be all that you want but couldn’t initially figure out.

      All the best. #YouAreLimitless

  14. Micky

    Good subject. I think all of my life my goal was to fit in. Now my goal is to break from being stuck in that mold and pursue who I really am. Funny how I came full circle. Wish I would have stopped trying to fit in and love who I am earlier.

  15. megha

    i’m starting to feel like this is my personal diary…. ack!

    I want to become GC at a small private co., eventually take them public, while being pregnant, having and raising 2 kids. in other words, I want it all. I’m pretty sure I can do it but I’m scared because people look at me like I’m nuts when I say this.

  16. Ericka

    I would love to get rid of my 8 year old daughters regressive autism. My daughter would speak clear conversational English to express her wants and needs and do the things other 8 year olds do. Like write, ride bikes and hang out with friends. Then I would like a school or a therapy place where other kids would lose their autism also. I’m already pursing this with my daughter, but I have no idea where to start with a school or a therapy place. Both around here are fill with status, prestige, wealth and race. As of yet I have none of thee above. I want to do something, but I don’t know what that is right now.

  17. R

    The version that involves a healthy side business in an area that people in my primary career path may not approve of…..

  18. Isabella

    My goal is to not repeat the mistakes that I made that I was not consciously aware of before. I took a gap year after school because I was uncertain of what to do. Soon, I became bored because I wasn’t doing that much and so I thought, along with comparing others’ success to my perceived failure, I entered college which was a mistake. I’ve never liked school and I have always enjoyed pursuing interests on my own. So I dropped out after two years, took another year off because I didn’t have a plan, and now I am in college again (just because I felt like I had nothing else to do). So I wrote down those mistakes yesterday and saw that pattern clearly, laughing to myself that I didn’t see it before. Three influences: comparison, boredom, and uncertainty. How do I counteract that? By having an alternative plan, a back-up plan for that plan, pursuing those interests that light me up, and accepting who I am.

    • Jan

      It seems like your out of touch with your purpose in life. Think of those times in high school when you loved what you were doing and were being productive (maybe extra curricular activities?) and ask why why why? And then some more.

      Why did you enjoy it? Why did it make you feel connected to yourself? What about it matched to what you love in yourself?

  19. Leander

    I think at this point, my goal is simply to follow through on that song by Old Blue Eyes himself and be able to claim that I did it my way. Having just handed my former employer their notice to sever my Employee Agreement and starting my own business as their competition some might think I’m a little off my rocker. However, I’m really enjoying the freedom I have to pursue the things I want (as well as being able to serve customers in a manner I believe is best) as well as the level of control I have over a much greater portion of my time (not punching someone else’s clock makes one far more acutely aware of the time that they are “wasting”). So far it’s been interesting and I doubt that will change soon.

  20. Jinghuan

    My goal is financial freedom. In that time I can do something I like. and don’t need to worry about the financial support of family.

  21. Ati

    I’ve had a great career experience and made a lot of good things for myself (part of it thanks to reading your blog and being part of your community since 2013) – like getting to travel to far-flung countries doing something I love 5 times a year, moving to another country while still keeping that job, making new connections with people I never dreamed of meeting (again, using your techniques!).

    But I think one of the real goal for success that I’m too scared to admit that I want for myself is

    – having something meaningful and making a real impact on the society around me.

    I always think of myself as someone who’s doing work behind the scenes, keeping to myself while doing the hard work.


    Living a quiet life.

    Lately, I’ve got this nagging voice that I want more.

    I want to speak out loud about having the freedom to choose how we want to live, whether that means leaving the religion we were born into, and helping those who have chosen to do that.

    I want to help young people in my country to think that they have a choice to live the life they want, doing the work they believe in, instead of being just another cog in the society.

    I want to lead. I want to transform people.

    And I am afraid I don’t have what it takes.

  22. Thalie

    The version of success for me is do a job I really love, be passionate about and make it under my own terms. Be 100% creative in it and mostly emancipate. And at the same time enjoy and evolve in my personal life. My first little success is to finally leave the country I live in and move out to a land of so many possibilities. And I can’t wait for the second success to show up. 😀

  23. Donna

    My real goal is to create several companies. First, because I want to create something that my family (4 sons and daughters-in-law and 6 grandchildren)can participate in if they choose. To me, that’s leaving a legacy. But everyone says that I need to just focus on myself, do my own thing, so just get my coaching service going for myself. But if that’s the way I focus, then the target audience, the copy, the real big picture is different. So that’s confusing. Second, by being a serial entrepreneur I can really show others that they can do anything they love (their own business). But everyone says I have to focus on one thing. So therefore I can’t have my big goals which are …..1)working with my family and ….2)showing others they can really have their own businesses by having several examples of my own.

  24. David

    My goal now is to be fitness machine- get my muscle mass to it’s full potential, be strong, flexible and be able to do gymnastics tricks. I wasn’t so careful and I had a few injuries, they are still not 100% healt and it’s frustrating.
    Other is to run my own business, or even more of them to have high-end classic wardrobe and newest technologies honestly.

  25. FinancePatriot

    I think lifestyle inflation holds people back. My goal has always been to retire early, so I have combined frugal living, along with my career, as a one two punch that no one can stop.

    What good is earning a ton, and making a ton, if you don’t invest the surplus in order to leave a good life after work? Many of us have kids, and don’t have endless energy to pursue other pursuits. My blog is for those already stuck in a career, aren’t into material goods and the next best thing for purchase, but pref a richer and rewarding life as an early retiree. I write about this at

  26. Harsh Tiwari

    Of all the personal finance blog I have read, I find Ramit SEthi’s blog the finest ever.

    You are adding a lot of value.

    Just wanted to say Thank You

    Harsh Tiwari

  27. Domenic M.

    My version would be financial freedom. Not owing anyone anything, and having that burden of debt hanging over me and restricting possibilities. Working at a job because I want to, not because I have to, with the ability to take some extended leave (4 weeks or so) to travel and have adventures, or dive deeply into an interest and really "scratch that itch". Like most people, it's fear of the unknown that holds me back.

  28. Jan

    My version would be getting into a specific consultancy. They are my dream company and the people who work there are amazing (and intimidating).

  29. Oracle

    Good subject. I think all of my life my goal was to fit in. Now my goal is to break from being stuck in that mold and pursue who I really am. Thanks for posting the blog. I am new to this site but I felt comfortable while reading the post. Keep posting on topics like this.