We all absorb things from our childhood that literally wire our cerebral cortex and remain with us as we mature. There are images, sayings, emblems of fear and instigators of smiles. We soak up stories and develop a narrative that frames our lives.
As I thought about writing this piece the line I remembered most vividly from my father while growing up, of a thousand things I heard from him, was, “You’ve always got to make the nut.” To him that meant you had to cover your costs every month. Losing money in business was FAILURE. It was just about the worst thing you could endure short of death.
I was reminded of this after hearing a captivating interview with Sara Blakely, inventor and owner of Spanx, a fabulously successful young company that germinated when Sara cut off the feet of a pair of pantyhose and envisioned a new undergarment that nobody else had imagined. She was interviewed by James Altucher whose podcast I highly recommend.
One of the first things she talked about was her nightly dinner table conversations with her dad. He used to ask her, “How did you fail today?” This was not to tear her down, but to get her comfortable with the idea of failure. She got comfortable with failure when most kids were trying to ace every test or hit a home run every time up at bat.
She also became comfortable with embarrassing herself. Later, she even tried to be a stand up comedian, even though she wasn’t great at it.
Her father was trying to help her understand that failure wasn’t like death. It was a setback, something to learn from. Something even to laugh about – not the end of the world.
This was very different from the narrative I grew up with. I felt like I was the “designated winner,” and I was always expected to be the best. Failure was for other people.
Not that I was always successful, but success was always expected. Just like my father always had to “make the nut,” I felt like I always had to be successful to be valued, though that may not have really been the case.
Sara Blakely’s experience of having a parent normalize failure, though not extol it, was much healthier. Being able to experience disappointment without withering or blowing up seems like an ideal way to grow up healthy and be comfortable taking risks.
Through the years, I’ve had plenty of failure. I’ve lived through excruciating periods when I didn’t “make the nut,” and my life did not end in disaster.
In retrospect, I wish I had not gone through childhood and high school always being “successful” even when I knew in my heart of hearts that I failed often, like almost everybody else.
I also feel sad for my father who was so terrified of losing money in business, of not “making the nut” even for one month. He was always desperate about economic security, though by most standards, he had nothing to worry about financially.
“Failure” is such a subjective word. Sara Blakely’s father attempted to frame it for her in a positive way. If he truly succeeded at it, I think he was one of the very few.
Question: What was one failure you had this week?