Sara Blakely, Creator of Spanx.

Rags to riches: Spanx founder Sara Blakely says failure is a key part of her business plan. Photo: The Guardian

Most of us have heard the stories of Michael Jordan not making the cut for his high school basketball team, of 30-year-old Steve Jobs being fired from his own company, or Oprah being told she ''wasn't fit for television".

Stories such as these are etched in the social psyche, perhaps because it is comforting to know that some of the most brilliant among us have had some super-sized blunders. And that they not only survived but thrived.

Also, it is because fear of failure isn't unusual. In fact, it can be considered part of the human condition. So tales of success despite, or more likely because of, magnificent fails continue to catch on.

One tale has continued to get strong attention on social media recently.

It is the story of Spanx founder Sara Blakely, who last year became the youngest self-made female billionaire in history. Blakely's entire life has been about failure, so the story goes.

''My dad encouraged us to fail,'' she told Entrepreneur magazine. ''Growing up, he would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn't have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don't be afraid to fail.''

And ''fail'' she did.

A demoralising seven years spent flogging fax machines almost broke her and resulted in frequent tears. But it also taught her resilience. It was something she needed when she began approaching manufacturers and lawyers about her idea for a footless undergarment aimed at creating a ''blemish-free look'' around bottoms, hips and bellies.

''I must have heard the word 'no' a thousand times,'' she told Forbes last year. Yet, ''it didn't faze me. I didn't have a special ability, it was sheer drive and telling myself to keep going.''

Researchers and social psychologists agree that persisting through failure is often the key to success, in part because it is only through action that we can achieve.

Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project, says: ''I've been seeing people – very capable, smart people – not even attempting to act on their great ideas for one reason: They're afraid of failing.''

But there is more to it, according to Angela Lee Duckworth, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In her 2009 TED talk, titled True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught?, she said that ''what unlocks people's potential [is] grit ... tenacious perseverance''.

Grit is not just dogged self-discipline, Duckworth explained. In fact, she spoke of a study she did on spelling bee contestants across the United States. She found that the ''gritty'' children did not necessarily study for longer, nor were they smarter, but the way they studied was harder.

''They are not studying the words they already know, they're not sitting around being quizzed on what's pretty much coming easily; they isolate what they don't know, they identify their own weaknesses and then they work just on that.''

In other words they were outside their comfort zones and risking failure. Studies show that when we feel we are allowed to make mistakes, we are significantly less likely to actually make them, says Heidi Grant Halvorson, the author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

Halvorson says that people can approach a new task with one of two mindsets; the ''be good'' mindset, in which the focus is on proving that we have ability and know what we're doing; and the ''get better'' mindset, in which the focus is on developing ability.

The ''get better'' mindset, seemingly the one adopted by the ''gritty'' children, relieves some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect. That, in turn, helps to explain why permission to fail can actually help us to succeed.

''Anxiety and frustration disrupt the many cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking,'' Halvorson says.

Plus, failure is a fertile breeding ground for growth. Focusing on failure, instead of success, as Blakely showed, is a positive, Halvorson says. So long as ''the message is always 'what can you do to improve?' - that builds confidence and wisdom, and positive feedback [recognition for a job well done] is also present''.

As for knowing when to walk away, Halvorson suggests asking ourselves two questions. ''The first is, 'What will it take for me to succeed?' More time, effort, a different strategy, help from an expert, financial resources, etc.''

The answer to this question is never 'I don't have what it takes' or 'I don't have the ability', she says.

''The second question is, can I get my hands on what I need to succeed, and will it cost me too much or make me sacrifice other important goals? If success is possible but it will make you miserable getting there, or screw up too many other things that are important to you, then it's really best to walk away.''

Provided this is not the case, it's worth remembering failure may just be the key to unlocking our true potential.

If at first you don't succeed ...

Begin a new project by explicitly acknowledging what is difficult and unfamiliar, and accepting that you will need some time to get a handle on it. You may make mistakes, and that's OK. That's how ability works — it develops. (Repeat this to yourself as often as needed.)

Reach out to others when you run into trouble. Too often, we hide our mistakes, rather than sharing them with those who could give us guidance. Mistakes don't make you look foolish, but acting like you are a born expert on everything certainly will.

Try not to compare your own performance with other people's. (I know this is hard, but try.)  Instead, compare your performance today with your performance last week, last month, or last year.  You may have made mistakes and may not be perfect, but are you improving?  That's the only question that matters.

From the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.