A former business partner of mine once wrote a press release that stated our company “came from nowhere.” When I read that “came from nowhere” years ago, my stomach began to turn and, honestly I was a little angry and my feelings were a bit hurt. That sentence seemed to imply that our work was effortless and my business was created magically, without the pains of labor. It certainly didn’t feel to me like I came from nowhere.

Who was talking about me working my way through design school with a four-year-old child, on a wish and a prayer? Who talked about years of working day-in-day-out? Who knew that, in the beginning, I often worked alone, in a basement full of cave crickets and the occasional 6-foot snake? Those were important moments in the life of our company. Ignoring those moments makes our accomplishments seem less important. Nothing comes from nowhere.


The sentiment of “came from nowhere,” of instant gratification, seems rampant in our modern society. My seven-year old daughter wants to know how to play the piano – today. As Alabama Chanin has grown and adapted over the last ten years, we have seen young designers and writers come and go, wanting to learn it all and have it all immediately, as experts like Diane Hall, our master seamstress, sit quietly alongside, watching. While a healthy dose of enthusiasm is desirable, a healthy respect for where a company comes from, what trials it has weathered, and what has gone before seems to be lacking.

Artist Chuck Close famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” And, while that might be slightly cynical, there is certainly a grain of truth there. There are thousands, even millions, of great ideas out there. But, what transforms a great idea into something tangible is really just a lot of determination and hard work. That sounds simple, maybe even trite, but most successful business owners will agree. Show up. Do the work. Care about what you are doing. Learn when others are willing to teach. And excel where others fail. The “how” is up to you.

Successful and lasting businesses that are born and, more importantly, grow, are built piece-by-piece; each component must fit together like a well-made jigsaw puzzle, with a finished product that makes sense as a larger whole. It is inevitable that you will attempt to put the wrong piece in the wrong place. Sometimes, you may try to force an ill-fitting piece into the wrong shaped space. With time and experience, you learn – if you are paying attention.

Math-teacher-turned-psychologist Angela Duckworth has extensively researched how hard work and “grit” impact success toward long-term goals. She found that, for many subjects, grit is an “x-factor” that helps people achieve long-term goals. Grit, Duckworth found, is only slightly related to IQ. In other words, there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people. Regardless, students who were studied that scored high on the “grit scale*” were more likely to earn high grades, regardless of whether those students were considered smart or dumb (according to her measurements). So, those that want to succeed should ask themselves: How motivated am I? How much do I want this? How hard am I willing to work to earn it? How gritty am I?

Our industry, and our society as a whole, is often focused on immediate wants. That’s how fast fashion came to be: consumers wanted more, faster, and cheaper. The costs of this way of doing business are beginning to haunt us, as the old idiom warned – the chickens are coming home to roost. Our Slow Design approach embodies more than just design and fashion. It is a representation of how we approach business and life. If you slow down a bit, you see that more, faster, and cheaper is not as important as it seems. And if you slow down a bit more, you can see that you have teachers all around you – succeeding, failing, and modifying their approaches. Success doesn’t “come from nowhere.” Success comes from your experiences, your willingness to learn, and your true grit.

*You can measure yourself on Duckworth’s Grit Scale here (registration required). To read more on Duckworth and her research, read this article.

21 comments on “CAME FROM NOWHERE

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  1. Marybeth Tawfik

    It’s always looked easy to those who haven’t actually done the work … same thing with “overnight success”! (No such thing, y’know.)

    Perhaps instead of being hurt, however, you could see this as a compliment. Perhaps you have sailed through the hardship like a swan, making the impossible seem so graceful and easy. Perhaps you hide the hard work well! Sometimes that’s how it seems to those of us looking in, and looking on. I’ve been watching you for years now, and sometimes it surprises me just how fast those years go by. SEEMS like last week …

    Anyway, congrats on your award. Hope that helps make all those nights seem worthwhile!

  2. kathryn

    Great post. It reminds me of an oft-repeated KP Jois reminder to his yoga students that there really are no shortcuts: “Do your practice and all is coming.”

    Thank you again for sharing your work, your team’s work and for another wonderful workshop weekend!

  3. Katie Startzman

    What a great post! While I have accomplished some of my professional and creative goals, I’m a beginner in so many ways. It’s good to be reminded of the importance of grit. Along with swatches, photos and yarn samples, I have these quotes hanging on the bulletin board in my studio-

    “There’s no such thing as a creative type. As if creative people can just show up and make stuff. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.” Milton Glaser

    “Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” Nietzsche

  4. lin

    So apropos. Inspiration is fun, exciting, and certainly a needed component, but it’s still a small part of building a business, creating art, or any achievement.

  5. Rae

    Amen, Natalie,
    I sometimes heat my granddaughter’s soup in a pan even though she is used to having everything so fast from the microwave, just because. She also wants to sew, but wants to sew “a dress” to start. hmmm
    There is a famous saying, perhaps Thomas Edison, I am not positive. “Many people don’t recognize opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.”
    I admire your work and wish you all the best at the factory. Love from Michigan.

  6. Lisa

    This is so encouraging. The painter Bruce Herman once told me to “be faithful” and that that was true success. This just confirms that, because being faithful means work. I DO forget sometimes and I want things instantly. Thank you for reminding me to keep working. Your work is constant inspiration to me and makes me see that all the time and work can be truly worth it.

  7. Jill Dumain

    Thanks for this Natalie. It came at just the right time and has given me a bit of a boost that I really needed today! Congratulations on the cafe opening!

  8. sonrie

    Thank you for your thoughts. It is always good to have a reminder that good things take time and practice and patience and drive. I’ve been a fan of your work since my first textiles class in 2002 – I love the direction you are heading and hope to make a road trip to Florence someday.

  9. Helene

    Brilliant article, one that young people and parents of young people should read. You’ve said it so well! In Yiddish, we say “zitsfleisch”, meaning you gotta be someone who can put in the effort and stick with it over time. Without it, anything worthwhile will crumble and die, eg relationships, businesses, careers, etc.

  10. Marilyn Carnell

    What you have accomplished in Alabama is similar to my goals for my little home town in the Ozarks. Even though i possess a lot of grit, I was unable to complete my goal when a ” 500 year” flood forced me to move away. I can only hope that I planted enough seeds in economic development, cultural activities and watershed protection that will bear fruit some day.