Smarter thinking on top of a hot air balloon

What on Earth has risking your life climbing on top of a hot air balloon got to do with smarter thinking? Well, if you think anything at all like me, then quite a lot.

Richard and Sara Blakely

Back in 2003 I presented a show called The Rebel Billionaire, which challenged entrepreneurs to some exciting adventures (which yours truly couldn’t resist giving a go to!) One of the contestants was an entrepreneur called Sara Blakely. She had taken three months off from running her new start-up ‘shapewear’ company SPANX, because she thought it was the chance of a lifetime. I’m very glad she did. But as she stood at 10,000 feet waiting to walk a plank, she certainly wasn’t!

The task was to cross between two hot air balloons on a plank at 10,000 feet in the air. None of us had ever done it before, and it was extremely nerve-racking. But, somehow, most of the group bravely made it across.

Sara was one of two people who didn’t cross. She simply couldn’t do it. She sized up the risk and the reward, and decided she couldn’t go through with it. I admired her honesty, and her bravery in refusing to go through with it. Sometimes saying no is much harder than saying yes.

But now Sara, along with fellow contestant Tim, was faced with an elimination challenge. The stakes were raised. If she didn’t do it, she would be going home. How much did she want to win, and give her business a huge potential boost? I explained the new challenge: to climb 150 feet up a ladder to the top of the hot air balloon. Why?

Because that’s where we were having a very untraditional, traditional English tea party, of course!

Sarah’s face on the video as I told her what we were doing really paints a picture. She was, understandably, terrified. But this was no longer a challenge to see how much of a thrill-seeker she was – it was a test of character. She balanced the risk and the reward and decided it was a calculated risk worth taking. In business, knowing when to take a risk and when not to is often the difference between success and failure.

Somehow, Sara did it. Her face afterwards, as she sat on top of the balloon with Tim and me, was filled with delight. We were sitting on top of a hot air balloon, but it may as well have been cloud nine.

In the end, Sara was runner-up on the show. She didn’t get the top prize because I knew she didn’t need it. Instead, I gave her my own fee from the show to set up her own foundation, helping women through entrepreneurship and education.

Fast forward to today, and Sara is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, and SPANX is a brand that has created a whole industry sector. She is a smarter thinker of the most original kind, and we can all learn from her clear vision, her sense of fun and her attitude to business and life.

Read Sara’s guest editor letter to learn her smarter thinking tips and head over to our Spotlight series for more.


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