Sara Blakely founded Spanx in her late 20s. The company made $4 million in sales in its first year and $10 million in its second year. In 2012, Forbes named Blakely the youngest self-made woman billionaire in the world.
She is clearly massively successful. Yet when asked what the best advice she ever received was, she doesn’t talk about success.
Instead, she talks about how, as a child, her father would sit her down at the dining room table and ask her the same question:
“What did you fail at this week?”
He didn’t want to know how many As she’d gotten. He wasn’t interested in how many girl scout cookies she’d sold, how many goals she’d scored on her soccer team, or whether she’d gotten a perfect score on her math test.
No, he wanted to know what she had failed at. And when she told him, do you know what his reaction was?
He high-fived her.
Think about that for a minute: Every week growing up, her father made her reflect on something she’d failed at, then showed her that not only was she still loved after failing, but she was celebrated for it.
In an interview for Fortune, Blakely said, “I didn’t realize at the time how much this advice would define not only my future, but my definition of failure. I have realized as an entrepreneur that so many people don’t pursue their idea because they were scared or afraid of what could happen. My dad taught me that failing simply just leads you to the next great thing.”
Speaking of that, Blakely herself failed the LSATs twice before founding Spanx. On that particular chapter of her life, she says, “It was one of many tests that showed me how some of the biggest failures in our lives just nudge us into another path.”
Those who’ve made it big repeat that one of the main reasons they got to where they are is by taking risks. Over and over, they talk about the importance of taking leaps, which sometimes means falling down:
- “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” —Robert F. Kennedy
- “Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” —Oprah
- “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas Edison
Yet, for as many times as we are told that taking risks is good and failing is OK, we tend to shy away from it in our own lives. Why? Probably because we grew up in schools that tended to only reward “success” (getting the answer right). We were trained to become perfectionists.
If you’re going to rewrite that script, it’s not going to be by convincing yourself of it intellectually. It’s going to be by actually doing things you’re not sure of or good at, then being proud of yourself for failing. It’s not just the failing that’ll help you get there–it’s the encouragement for trying in the first place.
So: What have you failed at this week?
If you can’t think of anything, go find something to suck at. If you can, give yourself a high-five.
Then go fail at something else.