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Personal Growth

If You’re Not Failing, You’re Not Growing

Billionaire Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx, credits some of her success to one simple question she asks herself every night: What did I fail at today?

In 1998, 27-year-old Sara Blakely revolutionized women’s underwear using a pair of scissors. She was standing in front of her closet, trying to choose an outfit for a party later that night, when she came across a pair of crème-colored pants that she desperately wanted to wear. But there was a problem. The pants were tight and didn’t fit her body perfectly. She needed something she could wear underneath to firm up her physique.

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.

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.

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.

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.

When the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.

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]

How about you?

How have you managed failure in your career?

More Posts by Ron Friedman

  • Pooja

    i Think nobody Accept ‘Failure’ May be Success is consists of going from failure to failure without loss of ‘enthusiasm’. In Your Hardwork Fall Seven times but standup Eight. Nice Article thanks …loved it.

    • VileGuyPete

      Pleas Do Not Write like This Because it makes it very difficult to read 🙂

  • Amar Patel

    Couldn’t agree more. The podcast team @Ideastap produced a package about this recently. We’d love it if you could spare a few minutes to listen:

  • xaigo

    Thank you for the link!

    “The mistake that people make is setting goals which are not achievable… The point of setting goals is to feel good about your successes, rather than feeling miserable because you don’t measure up.” – that thought is gold.:)

  • Mary

    I’ve been considering the benefits of failure recently myself, and this article does a fantastic job covering the topic! 🙂

  • Joe Borza

    We’re an Irish startup

    We’ve experienced plenty of failure but I wouldn’t think it is key to success! More, what you learn from the failure is what is important. Also failing in areas that are new or have never been done before are not really the same as failures of things that have been done before.

    My advice, choose your failures wisely ;0)

  • notimeforit

    Excellent piece! We so often become consumed with what’s been prescribed for us as “achievement”, comparing our benchmarks to others. Failure is essential to any business owner and especially anyone in a creative field. It’s very easy to get stagnant and stuck doing only certain types of projects within our comfort zone. If we don’t fail we are not really pushing ourselves as hard as we could or taking the risks we should be taking so we can grow.

  • TLM

    Yet another excellent article!


  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    This is very helpful. In life, we don’t need to pressure ourselves to achieve our goals “perfectly”. Sometimes, we are so much conscious in our actions and words just to avoid failures because we’re afraid to have it. Thus, we forget to remain focus to the things that really matter and we don’t even realize that we’re not really growing. I believe that mistakes or failures can help us to learn more, explore more and grow higher, more than we expect.

    • kepvason

      Are you into web marketing? It would be great to share some thoughts and insights.

  • Marta

    After this article I dare say that every parent and person should become failure driven. I am so afraid to fail that I haven’t sumited my writing for publication! I had dixlexia at a time when there was no testing. I grew up thinking I was stupid until my son was tested and it was discovered that it came from me. I still reverse, transpose and mess up. To me failure is full of paralyzing shame so I have tempered my high achieving nature with fear. Burger’s method rewarding “intelligent failure” is taking the fear of failure into “the big picture” of success.

  • Mark Wayland

    In a corporate or social/ group setting the issue is not so much failing as an individual as it is being blamed by the group/ team/ family for the lack of success.

    Back in my Pfizer L&D corporate days we started talking about/ referring to the necessary association of learning and failing by referring to “learns”…. we would ask “what did you learn today?” or start a conversation with, “I had a big (or little) learn today.”

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