One of the most memorable moments in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 (aside from, “Houston, we have a problem…”) is when actor Ed Harris, playing NASA flight director Gene Kranz, storms out of a meeting of engineers shouting, “Failure is not an option!” The situation was desperate, and the lives of three astronauts hung in the balance.
Gene Kranz really did say that, and I understand what he meant. I am told he was an exceptional leader, and indeed NASA did bring all three astronauts home alive, a “successful failure” it was called. That said, failure seems to have gotten a bad rap. In American culture, failure is looked upon with a kind of mild disdain at best and, at worst, extreme contempt. We love winning, and hate losing.
I understand; I do not like losing either. I would much rather win. In our collective national zeal to venerate success, however, we often go out of our way to avoid failure and that is a serious problem.
Failure was not an option for the Apollo 13 engineers, and good for them. But what if president Kennedy had never charged the nation to go to the moon in the first place, for fear that we might fail? How would history have been different?
How many of us have been guilty at one time or another of playing it safe just to avoid failure? How many of us have preferred to remain in our comfort zones, rather than push the envelope and take a risk? I know I have on occasion, and almost invariably it was a poor decision.
Fear of failure not only affects our lives, but those of others. So-called “helicopter parenting” is, at its core, a fear of failure. Well meaning moms and dads go to great lengths to ensure that their children will never experience defeat. But this has had a disastrous effect on young people’s character development, coping skills, and the ability to even listen to others who think and believe differently than they do. Think trigger warnings and safe zones.
Success and failure are two sides of the same coin.
The reality, though, is that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. They go together. The most successful people have known failure just like everyone else. The real difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that successful people are willing to try, fail, try again, fail again, learn from all of it, and persevere until they succeed. Unsuccessful people try, fail, and quit. I am not talking about people living in dire circumstances who have had the proverbial deck stacked against them. That is a different problem. Rather, I am talking people who have the capacity to try again, yet elect not to.
For successful people, failure is an option. It has to be; there is no other way. What matters is how they see their failures. For them failure is not the end, but rather the beginning of success. As Thomas Edison put it, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” For that matter, Edison did not even view his attempts to perfect the incandescent lightbulb as failures per se. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” he once said.
Quite often it is the fear of failure that keeps us from achieving great success. If we are willing to allow failure to be an option, though, then stepping outside the comfort zone becomes more manageable. That does not mean one should throw caution to the wind and be reckless, but rather accept failure as a normal part of a healthy way of life. Our success depends on it.