Greetings, gentle reader. In Ron Howard’s 1995 semi-biographical movie Apollo 13 the situation is desperate. There has been a devastating explosion on board Odyssey, the command module of America’s third manned mission to the moon. The spacecraft is dying and astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise have been forced to retreat to the lunar module – their lifeboat to survive the cold, unforgiving and heartless sea of space. Flight director Gene Kranz has gathered his fellow engineers together to explore their options and things look bleak. After outlining a hasty plan of action he boldly declares that now famous catchphrase of self-help gurus everywhere, “failure is not an option.”
This supposed quote is widely regarded as an archetypal expression of the American spirit; a statement of our gutsy, indomitable, can-do character. We like to think of defiance as one of those qualities which define us and we will proudly proclaim “screw you” directly in the face of cruel Karma.
Although such an utterance may seem inspiring at first glance, a more reasoned examination reveals it to be nothing more than a tiresome shibboleth. “Dr. Cranky,” you might inquire, “why do you feel this way? Don’t you believe in the gutsy, indomitable, can-do American spirit?”
Of course he does! Let your seasoned host assure you he has nothing but the highest regard for his native homeland, along with all those personal characteristics which have made us the greatest country on Earth. Nevertheless, Dr. Cranky cannot abide poppycock; especially when it is deceptively wrapped with those qualities we deeply cherish. What he finds objectionable is the mendacious nature of this vapid slogan, evinced by the following:
- No one in mission control ever said “failure is not an option.”
- If you find yourself in a situation where the stakes are so high you can’t afford to fail, then you have ignored the fundamental precept of “proper planning prevents piss-poor performance” and have screwed-up royally. This is hardly a characteristic anyone would want to embrace.
- It implies that failure is a bad thing.
It is this last point, the mistaken idea that failure is something you should avoid, that is most important.
When he was just a cranky lad your earnest scribe was culturally inculcated with numerous panegyrics extolling the virtues of success. He remembers hearing of Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and his commandment that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Later on he read General George S. Patton’s speech to the Third Army on June 5, 1944 where he said “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” These and other examples made a deep impression on your beloved mentor, and it seemed to Dr. Cranky that his countrymen had a pathological aversion to failure. In fact, the only conclusion he was left with was that anyone who dared fail would be immediately tarred, feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and then thrown headfirst into the Pit of Despair so he might contemplate his sin on the Tree of Woe.
“This is very interesting,” you might say, “but what does all of this have to do with your secrets of success in life?” Your earnest host is glad you asked. Consider the following:
Dr. Cranky finds it interesting that our culture worships success but despises failure, its essential prerequisite. Yes, failure hurts. It is uncomfortable. It is embarrassing. It makes you doubt yourself, lower your ambitions and retreat to what you know to be safe. Keep in mind, however, that it is impossible for you to reach your full potential without it. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but failure is the father who shepherds it. Push your limits and realize you cannot truly succeed unless you are first willing to fail. And as you do so, never forget that you must embrace your mistakes and look upon them as the learning opportunities they really are.
What sets Dr. Cranky apart from most people can be found in his second maxim of success:
Failure can be the best option.
Think of it this way – failure is the friend who is not afraid to tell you the truth. He understands you think your new haircut is awesome but knows everyone else thinks it makes you look silly. And, whereas your other friends may not say anything to keep from hurting your feelings, he also knows what you really need is a healthy dose of the truth.