The Upside of Failing

Sara Blakely is the queen of the undergarment industry. Without any experience in retail or business and very little cash, she founded Spanx when she was only 29 years old.

How did she do it? Was it her parents’ kind words and gentle encouragement? Not exactly. As highlighted in an article at 99U, Blakely’s parents had an unconventional approach to child rearing:

Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.

An “if you’re not failing, you’re not growing” approach may seem harsh by today’s standards. It’s the opposite of how most parents and schools view education:

From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers, and that struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors. After 12 years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. In reality, it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.

Frustration is part of the learning process. Failure, (dare I say the unsayable “f-word?”) is something to be learned from rather than avoided. Without struggle and failure, we end up with “perfect” children who are terrified of making mistakes. They are fragile teacups—ideal for display but easily broken.

I recently heard about a new and rather unusual form of therapy designed to help conquer fear of rejection and failure. It is called Rejection Therapy. The idea is to make a game out of rejection by creating situations where you get rejected each day.

Here are a few examples: Request a lower interest rate from a credit card provider, Ask for a discount before purchasing something. You get the picture. By forcing yourself to do the thing you fear, you de-fang it. The focus is on process not outcome. It’s about learning from mistakes rather than being paralyzed by them.

Rejection Therapy may have a place at the dinner table. In addition to asking your kids what went well in their day, consider channeling the Blakelys. If the question, “What did you fail at?” seems a little harsh, consider asking “What was hard or challenging for you today?”

It may save years of (Rejection) Therapy in the future.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman