I was clicking through the morning news shows and came upon an interview with Sara Blakely. She has become a billionaire with the invention of shape wear that my mother would have recognized as a kinder, gentler more encompassing girdle. Ms. Blakely is the youngest woman to become part of this year’s World’s Billionaires list without help from a husband or an inheritance, according to Forbes Magazine. When asked how she had managed to be so successful, she credited her parents for their support. She said that her dad would ask her on a weekly basis what she had done that week that she had failed at. He was disappointed if she couldn’t come up with something. She says, “It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
From that comment, I figured her to be fearless. I read more about her and found her to be as refreshingly riddled by fear and doubt as the rest of us. The difference is that she did not let her fear stop her from moving forward. She took each setback as evidence that she should try harder. She constantly pushes herself out of her comfort zone to keep getting better.
Feeling fearful can be good information — but we need to be able to tell the difference between fear that is truly protecting us from danger and fear that is holding us back from a challenge. Part of the fear of taking a risk has to do with the fear of failure. We are afraid of looking stupid or appearing incompetent. We are wired to change but often we resist moving forward. Sometimes when we resist jumping off that dock, we get pushed before we think we are ready. However we got in the water, we have to sink or swim to the next jumping off place. Worrying about how we got wet or how lousy our stroke is will only impede us.
Think of watching a baby learning to be a toddler. As they try again and again to walk, they meet with what looks like failure, but is actually the process of getting better. We applaud their effort, they grin and try again. That drive propelled us to get mobile, to learn speech and to navigate a spoon. As adults we often refuse to try anything new or quit soon after trying because we aren’t immediately good at it. We encourage our children to get out there and try, but how often have they seen us try something totally different and stick with it through the learning process where we might appear foolish or inept?
Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” has looked at the difference in those who try and those who quit. She calls one a “growth mindset,” as opposed to a “fixed mindset.” Those who believe their intelligence and abilities are fixed are stuck when they meet with failure. They figure they aren’t smart enough or talented enough to succeed so they back off rather than be humiliated again. Those with a growth mindset see failure as the signal to learn more and try harder with multiple strategies. Think of the freshman in college who fails their first test ever. Some will shut down, or continue to work the same strategies that didn’t work before. Others will get help, change their strategies and buckle down harder. One believes that smarts will get them there, the other that effort is the ticket.
I would bet some shape wear that a key to Sara Blakely’s success is that she believes that her continued effort is what has paid off in billions, not her smarts.
Joni Emmerling, MA, is a life coach with Mid Atlantic Counseling, Coaching and Educational Services. She coaches clients on academic, career, relationship, parenting and wellness issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.