Three Cheers for Failure!

What did you fail at today? No, really, I want an answer. Don’t cringe, don’t cower, don’t accuse me of being harsh. What did you fail at today?

Sara Blakely's dad asked her just this every single night. You know Blakely. She's "The One" - that mythical being sent to save us  from the specter of rumpled waistlines, saggy behinds, and had-many-too-many beer guts. While we could debate the value of her invention, there's no debating whether it worked out for her:  she was the youngest woman ever to make the Forbes billionaire list.


And all because her dad continually asked her if she failed.

“If there were no failures, Dad would be disappointed,” reports Kathy Caprino in her excellent Forbes article, 10 Lessons I Learned From Sara Blakely That You Won’t Hear in Business School.

“When I did fail at something, he'd high-five me," Blakely said.

I heard Blakely mention this in an interview long ago, back before she was a billionaire and was instead a lowly reality TV star. (Yes, I am coming clean and admitting that I watched Richard Branson's reality show Rebel Billionaire. On Fox. Which pretty much sums up my 27th year of life, in case you're wondering.)

As soon as I heard about her dad's strategy, I loved it. What better way to de-stigmatize the “f” word than to use it every single day, in a positive way? Instead of searching for “success” – which, let’s face it, is a slippery notion that should be self-defined but that we typically allow society to define for us – we could search for failure.

In fact, I love it so much that I’m planning to do this very thing with my daughter. When she’s old enough to hold a conversation that involves more than Dora, why we can't always be naked, and her vacillating desire to pee-pee on the potty, that is.

When I told my plan to the students in my upper-level developmental seminar, they looked horrified. Two of them audibly gasped. One shouted out, "That's awful!" And I'm not kidding here. You’d have thought I’d suggested feeding my kid a nightly dinner of raw sewage and Ice Cream Brrrgers (seriously, have you seen that thing? D.i.s.g.u.s.t.i.n.g.)

Failure is that powerful. It makes us react in visceral, unhinged ways.

Especially you guys, the victims of the vaunted Self-Esteem Movement (a crusade just begging to be lionized in an upcoming post).

But what if failure wasn’t so powerful? What if it was just a word, like ramen or coffee or sexit? (Wait, what?) Even better, what if it was a word worth reaching for, not avoiding? How would you live your life differently if that were the case?

“What I didn't realize at the time was that he was completely reframing my definition of failure at a young age," Blakely said about her dad, according to Inc.  "To me, failure means not trying; failure isn't the outcome. If I have to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I didn't try that because I was scared,' that is failure.”

Of course you can’t turn back time and have your parents reframe “failure” for you (you also can't go back and get them to buy that drum kit you really wanted. Sorry.) But you can choose to reframe failure for yourself. If you want to.

That said, it's not an easy thing to do. Although I heard Blakely discuss her dad's approach eight years ago, fear of failure remains as chained to me as Rihanna to Chris Brown. But I like the idea of asking ourselves everyday if we failed, and celebrating said failures. Maybe we should hold each other accountable:  Yay, we’re a bunch of big, fat screw ups! We're messing up royally everyday! One could wonder how we gather the scraps of dignity to go on! Go us!

Unconvinced? I don’t blame you. Our negative connotations with “failure” are hard to shake. But we've got to do it, one way or the other, because, as we'll see in upcoming posts, failure is critical to development. So however you manage to ditch the fear, it's time to toss it to the curb. Like that Ice Cream Brrrger.

What’s your reaction to the question, “What did you fail at today?” Would you have liked it if your parents had asked you this?

I'll spare you my feminist diatribe about Spanx and stick to the point: Their founder gets "failure" right. (Photo credit: apalapala)