Finding a solution wasn’t going to be easy. “The options [for women] were not that great,” she said, recounting the event to an audience at Inc. Magazine’s 2011 Women’s Summit. “We had the traditional shapers that were so thick, and left lines or bulges on the thigh. And then we had the underwear which leaves a panty line… And then came along the thong, which still confuses me because all that did was put underwear exactly where we had been trying to get it out of.”
Form-fitting pantyhose were one possibility, but Blakely didn’t want the nylon ruining the look of her sandals. And that’s when inspiration struck. With her pantyhose in one hand, Blakely reached for the scissors and took two quick snips, creating the first pair of what are now known to shapewear aficionados everywhere as Spanx.
Blakely came home that night with the self-satisfied air of an inventor. “I remember thinking, this should exist for women.”
Today Blakely is a billionaire. Her company sells more than 200 body-shaping products that range from Skinny Britches thigh shapers, to Undie-tectable panties, to full-body Shape-Suits. If you’re interested in buying some Spanx for yourself, you won’t need to travel far. They are sold in over 10,000 locations, from high-end retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, to big box stores like Target and Walmart. And that’s not counting the other 30 countries in which they sell. There’s even Spanx for men, which, for obvious marketing reasons, have been shrewdly rebranded Zoned Performance.
Between that inspired evening in the closet and her current status as the owner of a multimillion-dollar powerhouse, Blakely overcame a series of remarkable obstacles, including zero experience in the hosiery industry, not having taken a single business course, and a bankroll that was limited to $5,000.
Sara Blakely on failure in a ABC News interview.
Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view that’s supported in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers, and that struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After 12 years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. In reality, it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester—because five percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect; when we reduce performance to A’s or B’s, pass or fail, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to analyze the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just five percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. When the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things. Our attention narrows and our thinking becomes more rigid. We have a hard time seeing the big picture and resist the mental exploration necessary for finding a solution. All of a sudden, insights can become a lot more elusive.
Studies show that when avoiding failure is a primary focus, our work becomes more stressful, and consequently a lot harder to do. And over the long run, that mental strain takes a toll, resulting in reduced creativity and the experience of burnout.
We want to believe that progress is simple, that success and failure provide clear indicators of the value of our work. But the path to excellence is rarely a straight line. Counterintuitive though it may seem, sometimes the best way to minimize failure is to embrace it with open arms.
[This is a book excerpt from The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace available now on Amazon]