This is a re-print of a blog post I wrote back in 2017. I decided to start going back into the archives and find some posts that were popular (or that I just liked a lot) and bring those to you, since most of you were not with me on this journey back then. I hope you enjoy them.
The 1995 movie Apollo 13 is a true story about the ill-fated NASA mission that saw an explosion aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft cause the mission’s goal of landing on the moon to be aborted. As the NASA crew back home realizes the severity of the dilemma that the astronauts aboard the ship are in, they start scrambling to figure out how to get the crew back home alive.
During one of the extremely tense scenes when the crew is trying to figure out how to get the crew home without the normal amount of power that the ship usually has, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), the leader of the crew at Mission Control, is struggling to figure out how they can pull this off. He says, “We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is NOT an option!”
That line — “Failure is NOT an option!” — became one of the most enduring, iconic lines of the movie, and in many ways in all of cinema. However, it became more than a great line in a great movie. It became a battle cry all across the country for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.
Sport teams, coaches, and athletes latched onto that line in droves. No matter the sport, no matter the level, no matter the moment in which they found themselves, people were uttering this line as a rallying cry to work hard, do your best, and make sure that you have left no stone unturned and no ounce of sweat and blood in your quest for success.
Not the Best Line for Many Situations
It is certainly a great line, one that sparks so much power, emotion, and even chills. While I love the line and what it meant to the movie and to the mission (although Kranz admits he doesn’t recall saying it at the time), in many of the multitude of situations in which it has been uttered by thousands of people since then, I don’t believe it is the right mindset to have.
When you are part of a crew tasked with keeping other people alive, your mindset MUST be that “failure is not an option.”
But when you are trying to teach kids to be their best in the athletic arena (or the classroom or just about any other setting), telling them that failure is not an option is not only exaggerated hyperbole, it is also just not true.
I get that you are trying to motivate your people to be the best they can be in a very important moment with regards to the outcome of this game or this championship. But when we consider the bigger picture, it just doesn’t compute.
Of course we want to succeed. Anyone who is involved in a competitive arena needs to have a spirit that says, “I will not fail in this endeavor.” However, at the same time, s/he has to recognize that failure IS an option, and a very real potential outcome of the endeavor. Any individual or team can fail in any given competition. There is always a chance that one will not win.
While saying that “failure is not an option” can be motivating to people to perform their best, it can also be crippling. It can put undue pressure upon people that had not felt such pressure before. This can lead to playing tight, nervous, fearfully, and not to lose. When players compete this way, it can lead to tentativeness and doubt, which can hamper performance.
A Great Teacher
More importantly, the statement, “Failure is not an option,” shortchanges one of the greatest things about sports. Sports teach kids about failure, risk, and making mistakes. Sports teach kids that failure is a part of life.
They learn that preparing to succeed and then performing in the way you have prepared are the keys to success. They also learn that even when you take care of those things, there is no guarantee of success.
They learn that failure is not permanent.
They learn to get back up after a failure, work hard to fix what led to the failure, and then try again.
They learn that not only is failure an option, but it is a good option.
How are we ever going to grow, develop, and improve if we don’t fail?
How will we ever push ourselves to become our best if we never get out of our success comfort zone?
How will we ever know the elation of the success, if we have not had the despair of failure?
So when considering the statement, “Failure is not an option,” consider under what circumstances it is being uttered. If it is something as life-and-death as the Apollo 13 mission, go for it. Failure absolutely must not be an option in those instances.
But if we are talking about youth and school sporting events, not only is it an option, it should be a goal!
No, I am not saying you should seek to lose your competitions.
I am saying you should seek to push yourself to the point where you may fail. You should seek to push the envelope in such a way that you know what failure is and where it exists, so that you do all that you can to create success and to NOT fail.
If you don’t push yourself to the limit of failure (and even over the edge into failure), you will never know how far you can go.
The only way to find out is to seek failure as an option.
Neither failure nor success is ever final. There is always a new place to find each of them. They are part of an ever-changing landscape.
Today I may fail in some attempt for a myriad of reasons. But tomorrow as I work on that failure and seek to overcome it and create success, I change the boundary for failure.
By pushing on and working to overcome, I make the point where failure occurs be somewhere different than it was before.
By going after failure and then attacking it with everything I have, I overcome that failure and push on to find the next one.
But by doing so, I have also created a new level of success.
It is up to each of us to make the commitment to seek to find failure and success every time we decide to step into our competitive arenas. The more we seek them, the more we grow and develop.
We then start to become all that we are capable of becoming.
It is in those moments when we start to overcome our failures and create our successes.
Yes, Failure IS an Option — and it is a very good one for all of us to seek!