How to Turn Failure into Victory ... and a Billion-dollar Empire

October 22, 2018
James Whittaker
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“Failure is not trying.”

Sara Blakely

Simply continuing is one of the surest paths to success, just as quitting is one of the surest paths to permanent defeat. Winners look for any reason to advance and in doing so bring themselves ever closer to glory.

An excerpt from the ethos of one of the world’s preeminent special forces teams, the US Navy SEALs, embodies the principle of persistence:

“If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.”

On the battlefield—where stakes are highest—well-constructed plans are carried out by people obsessed with mission success and who refuse to give in, no matter what circumstances arise. There are no valid excuses for permanent defeat, and the best performing individuals on the planet embody this to perfection. Enter Sara Blakely.

Before she became the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world, the fashion icon was accustomed to failure. One of her early jobs was playing a Chipmunk character at Disney World, but she threw in the towel after three months. “Perhaps I should be a lawyer like my father,” she thought, but failed the LSAT—twice. Blakely then started selling fax machines during the day, while performing standup comedy shows at night.

Two years in, she abandoned the comedy routine, but persisted with the sales job. Selling fax machines for seven years—and dealing with rejection on a daily basis—proved an uncanny battleground for what would happen later in her career, not that she could ever have imagined what was possible. As Steve Jobs says, “You can only connect the dots looking back.”

One day, on a whim, Blakely cut the feet off a regular pair of pantyhose to provide some respite from the unbearable heat and humidity of a Florida summer. Looking to buy a professional version, she explored the market and found that nothing like she wanted existed. Instead, she decided to do it herself. Blakely began researching fabrics and designing products herself, coming up with the cheeky business name Spanks (now Spanx). Her slogan: Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered.

Without any background in fashion, manufacturing or business, aside from selling telecommunications equipment, Blakely burned the ships and went all-in to bring her dream to life. Starting an entire business from scratch meant there was a lot that needed to be done, with the most pressing task being tracking down a manufacturer who could turn the prototype of her unique shapewear garment into something for the mass market.

Through her research, the 29-year-old realized that the bulk of hosiery mills in the US are in North Carolina. She called and called and called, but was rejected time and time again, often not even being able to get the right person at the company on the phone. Dejected but not beaten, she persisted. Blakely decided to take a week off from her full-time job and drive to North Carolina, reasoning that it would be easier to convince them in person. Yet, throughout the entire week, she was again rejected from every mill she approached.

“They always asked the same three questions,” Blakely reflects. “Who are you? Who are you representing? And who are you backed by?”

Her answer to all three questions, ‘Sara Blakely,’ did little to convince the mills she was about to take the fashion world by storm. Despite the short-term failure, she remained obsessed with mission success, and returned home to come up with a different plan to make her dream a reality.

Two weeks later, one of the mill owners phoned to say he had shown the concept to his three daughters who had raved about it. Blakely, without any financial backing, had not only secured a manufacturer but found someone who believed in her idea.

The aspiring entrepreneur continued to work on her business, ignoring all the doubts and excuses, instead choosing to focus on a single reason why she could succeed. A single idea, backed with persistence, made Sara Blakely the youngest self-made female billionaire in history.

Today, the incredible story is taught in business schools around the world. When temporary failure or rejection enters your life, most people quit. But winners—whether special forces, entrepreneurs, athletes or business titans—know how to calibrate their plans and continue toward their goal.

Through the power of persistence, they are able to turn temporary failure into enduring victory.

Onwards and upwards always,
James Whittaker

In case you missed it:
“The Greatest Lessons and 65 Best Quotes from Napoleon Hill.”

Famous quotes by Sara Blakely

  • “My dad encouraged us to fail growing up. He would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn’t have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome—failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
  • “Get your team to think outside of the box and become obsessed with the word ‘why’.”
  • “You’ve got to visualize where you’re headed and be very clear about it.”
  • “When a person has an idea at that conception moment, it is the most vulnerable—one negative comment could knock you off course.”
  • “Money is fun to make, fun to spend and fun to give away.”
  • “My first account was Neiman Marcus. I cold-called them just like I had cold-called businesses when I was selling fax machines for seven years.”
  • “Trying new things and not being afraid to fail along the way are more important than what you learn in school.”
  • “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”
  • “There is a hidden blessing in the most traumatic things we go through in our lives. My brain always goes to, ‘Where is the hidden blessing? What is my gift?’”
  • “Don’t solicit feedback on your product, idea or your business just for validation purposes. You want to tell the people who can help move your idea forward, but if you’re just looking to your friend, co-worker, husband or wife for validation, be careful. It can stop a lot of multimillion-dollar ideas in their tracks in the beginning.”
  • “Perseverance is the key to starting a successful business.”
  • “I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.”
  • “Being vulnerable as a leader opens up the team.”
  • “I’ve always had that gratitude that I had the opportunity to pursue my potential. So I think my story says that, when women are given the chance and the opportunity, that we can achieve a lot. We deliver. We can make the world a better place…one butt at a time.”
  • “One of my greatest weaknesses is also one of my greatest strengths: being underestimated.”
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