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.
The Role of Failure in Sport
Sport teams, coaches, and athletes latched onto the 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.
It is certainly a great line, one that sparks so much power, emotion, and even chills. However, while I love the line and what it meant to the movie and to the mission (although Kranz admits he actually never said it), 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.
Certainly, 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, telling them that failure is not an option, is not only exaggerated hyperbole, but also just plain not true.
Yes, 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 win. 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.
Making Mistakes is Good
More importantly, the statement, “Failure is not an option,” shortchanges one of the greatest things about sports. Sports is a great arena to teach kids about failure, risk, and making mistakes. Sports show kids that failure is a part of life. It shows them that preparation to succeed and then performing in the way you have prepared are the keys to success. It shows them that even when you take care of those things, there is no guarantee of success.
However, it also shows them that failure is not permanent. It shows them that they must get back up after a failure. They must work hard to fix what led to the failure, and then they must try again. It shows 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,” I want you to 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, of course I am not saying you should seek to lose your competitions. However, I am saying that 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 that limit of failure (and sometimes over the edge into failure), you will never truly know how far you can go. How do you look yourself in the mirror and say, “I tried my best,” if you don’t know what your best is? The only way to find out is to seek failure as an option.
One final note about this concept – neither failure nor success are 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 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 can be. It is in those moments when we start to overcome our failures and create our successes.
Yes, failure IS an option – a very good one for all of us to seek!