After founding a multi-billion dollar apparel brand with hoards of devoted fans, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson has taken a step back, first leaving his post as CEO in 2005 and then stepping down as chief innovation and branding officer in 2012.
Though he remains the company’s chairman, he’s also moved on to new things, like whil, the meditation startup he launched with his wife Shannon, Lululemon’s former chief designer.
In a recent interview with Business Insider, Wilson shared the best advice he ever got.
“It took me a long time to understand it, but [the advice was] to ask for help and that I don’t know it all,” said Wilson. “People love to help. I don’t have to be insecure and know it all.”
The tendency to never admit fault and trying to do everything has deep roots.
“When I was around 12, my parents were in the middle of a divorce and money was tight. I mean, really tight. At one point there was literally no food in the house,” Wilson writes in his ongoing autobiography, “40,000 Days and Then You’re Dead,” which he is releasing in chapters online. “I decided to forge my mum’s signature on one of her checks, take myself to the store, and buy some food to make lunch. In that moment I said to myself: ‘If I’m going to survive, I have to do it myself and can’t rely on anyone else, especially my parents.’ “
Wilson was insulated from others even earlier, he writes, when he skipped a grade early in his education, was the youngest kid around, and was constantly ostracized.
That independent mindset became his “winning formula” and later manifested in his first business, Westbeach.
“I was reticent to rely on anyone else around me and balked at the thought of asking for help, counsel, or assistance,” Wilson writes. “When you’re in a business partnership with two other guys, this modus operandi is going to create serious problems. In fact, my inability to cede control over certain aspects of the business was one of the factors putting Westbeach’s very existence in jeopardy.”
He finally identified the issue at Landmark Forum, a weekend workshop that Wilson learned about through one of his partners in 1991. The concepts weren’t new, but they were driven home in a way that made him finally change.
It had a “monumental” impact on the way he ran his business and life. The core lesson was that our lives are defined by our past, by behaviours that we learned early, which makes it difficult to change and be in the present.
“Human beings constantly construct stories in an effort to make sense of our world. We interpret other people’s actions and behaviours through stories but are incapable of recognising that these stories are inherently fictional,” Wilson writes. “What are only our best guesses about our surroundings become, in our minds, facts. We base the course of our lives on these guesses, all the while believing that they are the truth. Over the years, as these stories accumulate, they constrain us more and more.”
Confronting that issue through the forum helped Wilson realise that he could be different, and he could pick another, more productive worldview.
Without the forum, Lululemon might not have existed. Wilson had already sold Westbeach to others and left, but the struggling company wanted to hire him back at a generous salary. That money was essential in keeping Lululemon afloat in its early days.
“One testament to how far I’d come was leaving Shannon, Jackie, and Dave in charge of the company I created when I went off to work for Westbeach,” Wilson writes. “Though it was still a challenge, I’d never have been able to do that if I hadn’t taken the Landmark course. Consequently the fledgling Lululemon would have barely made it into the 21st century before going belly-up.”
It’s incredibly difficult for business owners, used to having to do everything themselves, to cede control and learn to ask for help from friends and mentors. But that very lesson underscored Wilson’s extreme success.