There was once a woman who made a living by selling fax machines door-to-door.
She lived in Florida. It was scorching hot. The pantyhose she was forced to wear was old-fashioned and uncomfortable—particularly because the seamed foot stuck out of her open-toe heels.
Frustrated, she took her $5,000 in savings, moved to Atlanta, and began developing plans to produce footless pantyhose.
She had never taken a business class. She had zero experience in fashion and retail. She was laughed out of the hosiery mills she visited to pitch her product.
Her name is Sara Blakely. She’s the founder of Spanx. She took that $5,000 in savings and turned it into one billion, becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire in history.
People often ask her, “How did you do it, Sara? What was your business plan?”Her reply? “I never had a business plan.”
She had no idea how business was supposed to work, so she kept it simple. “I focused on 3 things: Make it, sell it, build awareness,” she explains. “I made the product, sold it to as many stores as I could and spent the rest of my time building excitement and awareness. Then I would repeat the cycle.”
Blakely knew that spending all her energy developing the “right branding” or a well-crafted business plan could become elaborate excuses for not doing the essentials.
She adds: “I see a lot of entrepreneurs with really great ideas freeze in their tracks because of their ‘lack of experience’ or knowledge. But what you ‘don’t’ know could be the very thing that sets you apart from all the rest.”
Let me repeat that: What you don’t know can set you apart from others.
Outsiders have an advantage when it comes to reimagining the status quo. Too much historical baggage can get in the way of first-principles thinking. Conventional wisdom—which tends to be more convention than wisdom—is easier to ignore when you don’t know what the conventional wisdom is.
If you’ve been manufacturing the same type of pantyhose for decades, it becomes harder to imagine a footless version. If you’ve been renting out videos through a brick-and-mortar store, it becomes harder to imagine shipping or streaming them. If you’ve been building rockets the same way for decades—as non-reusable vehicles to be discarded after each launch—it becomes harder to reimagine them as reusable.
Elon Musk, whose SpaceX has been building reusable rockets, was a latecomer to rocket science, which he picked up by reading textbooks. Reed Hastings was a software developer before he cofounded Netflix and disrupted the video-rental industry. Standing outside the establishment, these gate-crashers were in a better position to see its flaws and reimagine its outdated methods.
Imagination involves abandoning what is and painting a picture of what could be. It requires finding a better path forward, instead of following the one that’s heading toward the cliff. As Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, says, imagination is “the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.”
Philip Glass, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, would agree. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “And if you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new. As long as you know what you’re doing, nothing much of interest is going to happen.”
Racehorses wear blinders to keep them focused on the path—instead of getting distracted by the crowds or the other horses and jockeys.
The same idea applies to you. If you’re not focused on what’s in front of you—if you’re distracted by what your peers are doing, or if you’re too busy looking behind at what you’ve done in the past—you can easily find yourself in a ditch.
This mindset doesn’t require retreating to an isolated monastery. But it does require approaching knowledge with caution. Knowledge should inform, not constrain. It should enlighten, not obscure.
Paradoxically, blinders might be what you need to see your next breakthrough.