Last week on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose (March 8, 2012), I happened to see an interview with Sara Blakely – mastermind of Spanx, the hip hosiery company that manufactures seamless, stretchy tights and hose designed to pull you in and shape you up – who, at 41, has made Forbes famous list of billionaires. She is suddenly all over the airwaves and in cyberspace. Google her, and you will find out whatever you need or want to know about her success, but you might not see what I happened to see on the CBS Morning Show.
This was better than the usual network interview just because it was Charlie Rose asking the questions from his deep well of curiosity. He said something like, “Sooo, what do you think it was in your background or upbringing that had you come up with an idea like this and then be able to take it to the limit by the time you were 27 years old?”
I expected some blah, blah, blah answer about business success (which you can find in some of her other interviews this week, e.g., “go with your gut, be kind to people, never give up,” etc.), but what she said next had me stop everything I was doing to get ready for work and stand directly in front of the TV. She said that at dinner every night when she and her brother were growing up, her father would ask each of them this question:
“What did you fail at today?”
Say what??? I had to hear the rest of what she had to say.
But before I tell you, let me say that Sara Blakely is blond, beautiful, spirited, has a great sense of humor, and is as down-to-earth as a co-worker. She seems genuinely surprised and delighted by the extreme nature of her monetary success, but I don’t think she – or anyone who knows her – would be that surprised by her personal or professional success. And didn’t we all – men and women alike – immediately love the name of that company? “Spanx” is just immediately a clever joke. It makes a name like Hanes – another wildly successful hosiery company – seem boring by comparison. It came to her out of the blue one day while she was stopped at a red light. By the time the light turned green and she crossed to the other side of the intersection, she had the company name. Let me go out on a limb here and speculate that she probably thought of and rejected 500 other names that failed to make the grade before that one stuck.
What has stuck with me is the “What did you fail at today?” question. Not only would her dad ask the question at dinner, but every morning when he said goodbye to her and her brother for the day, he would say, “Fail at something today!”
The effect of this counter-intuitive approach to child-rearing was to produce kids who weren’t afraid to fail. They were always trying new things, learning new things, had a sense of adventure, and enthusiasm for life. They realized at a young age that it was not possible to succeed at everything in life, but that they would discover things at which they would succeed. The point was not to seek success and fear failure, but to embrace life, embrace the new, discover joy, let go, find a path that works. So you aren’t perfect? Big surprise.
“To succeed or not succeed” is not the question. “To be or not to be” is the question.