Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx, became the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world at only 41. Impassioned, personable and straight-talking she went from door-to-door fax machine sales to running the world’s largest underwear empire. It wasn’t overnight success of course, but years of graft and wily determination.
How did she do it? As witty as she is hard-working (stints as a stand-up comedienne in her 20s) she attributes 3 childhood themes to her success.
- Stay motivated in the face of loss
Whilst out biking one summer’s afternoon with her best friend, she tragically witnessed her get fatally run over by a car directly in front of her. This harrowing trauma taught Sara not to waste one moment of life and, in her words, triggered an ‘urgency’ to get on with it, whatever it was. “I think that when you witness death at age 16, there’s a sense of urgency about life . . . The thought of my mortality—I think about it a lot. I find it motivating. It can be any time that your number’s up.”
- Embrace failure
At the end of every week, Sara’s father would ask at Friday dinner what she and her brother had failed at that week. Over time this taught her that failure was not trying as opposed to not succeeding.
- Stay positive, optimistic and focused on the vision
Again, some paternal guidance, Sara’s father gave her a set of tape recordings by the ‘Father of Motivation’, Wayne Dyer, at aged 16. She obsessively listened to these lessons on repeat until she could recite them word for word and a philosophy of no limits was ingrained on her heart.
George Barnard Shaw stated ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.’ So, if we take Sara’s guiding principles as our own, how can we create ourselves best?
The Mortality Lesson
Many religions teach a respect for death to reciprocally build and hone a greater respect for life. The Buddhists recommend living ‘mindful, clear-eyed lives’, accepting that death can arrive at any time and thus time is not to be wasted. The focus is not on death as an enemy to be feared but simply a reminder of the impermanence of all things (situations, relationships, emotions and life itself). Being realistic about mortality is thus a motivator to live a fuller, more meaningful life bereft of time wasting and rich in presence. Similarly, Hindus believe in karma and that how we live in this life impacts our quality of life in the next, thus again encouraging ‘do good’ now for the sake of the heavenly tomorrow.
I like the impetus stimulated when we herald life as temporary. This is our only ride, this life is not a rehearsal and it is ours to direct. The ‘Seize Life’ mentality works for me and I love hard, work hard, learn hard and laugh hard. I make damn sure too not to focus disproportionately on the destination and ground myself in the magic of the journey itself constantly, as the present, the ‘right here right now’, is actually where most peace resides. So, my modus operandi are to be present, be meaningful, be directional and ensure every night you fall asleep knowing you made the most of the gift of today. And as my 73 year old mother says every morning upon waking, “Hooray, I’m still here!”. Amen.
Throughout his career, Edison obtained 1,093 patents. And while many of these inventions — such as the light bulb, stock printer, phonograph and alkaline battery — were ground-breaking, even more of them were unsuccessful. On and on he persevered, trying and trying. Edison is renowned in fact for saying that genius is “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
Indeed, there are endless inspiring tales of entrepreneurs persevering fervently to reach their eventual heady heights – think Walt Disney’s repeated rejections and poverty so extreme he ate dog food for a period, and JK Rowling’s rock bottom before her $15bn empire burgeoned. A Wharton study examining ‘Age and High Growth Entrepreneurship’ resoundingly proved that the most successful founders are in their mid-forties. Experience pays off ultimately.
In Angela Duckworth’s best seller Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance, she introduces a ‘grit scale’ which proves out that talent and luck won’t suffice alone but need determined action to breed success. As she states “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
When I set up my first business, The Bespoke Gift Company, I had 2 big moments where perseverance catapulted my business forwards after numerous doors slammed in my face. Firstly, I needed to quickly increase production capability to meet demand so I had to source a print production unit to partner with me. I trawled endlessly around grungy print works in industrial estates spanning the South-East of England, ladened with my canvas and acrylic samples, double buggy and 2 young children in tow. After repeated rejection on the grounds I was too ‘cottage industry’, I secured a yes and production and global expansion scaled rapidly. The second was negotiating a national supplier contract with WHSmith. I hounded and hounded the head of buying, a gracious and kind man no less, until eventually I was in the HQ in Reading signing the legalities for my full suite of personalised products to join the WHSmith gift range. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” So, heed this – persistence pays off.
Plan for Success
Sara Blakely’s founding teacher, Wayne Dyer has always been one of my favourite sages too. He’s spiritual and pragmatic. A core Dyer notion of living a meaningful life is “With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.”
His is a principle of autonomy, accountability and positivity. When you hold a vision with absolute clarity, your bespoke, unique and most vibrant vision, that in itself is a propelling power. You’ve identified where you want to go, who you want to be and how you want to feel when you get there. Having certainty and an expansive outlook is step one to creating what you believe in. Knowing thyself is step 2 – your strengths, weaknesses, how to manage your bio-individual energy levels and direct your own learning for instance. This is how you move from who you are today to who you want to be tomorrow. Then Step 3 is trying out a myriad of different routes to get there. (NB never forget Einstein’s idiom that insanity is doing the same thing over and over whilst expecting different results, the smartest entrepreneurs pivot.)
With these 3 steps honoured you live wholeheartedly without limits. You reach for the stars, experiment with how to grab them, and then once there push further out into the galaxy for new stars. Life becomes an experimental adventure where a no, a knock back, a tragedy, simply become platforms for a fresh approach/effort/direction, the motivation to try anew. If your mindset is optimised so shall your results be.
Sara Blakely never set out to be one of Forbes most influential women in the world, in her words “She just wanted to make impact at a party.”. But she epitomises how when you create yourself with integrity and substance at your core, success flows. So, when chasing your dreams, start with creating yourself first. Now, go get your journal and start designing you…
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