Failure is an Option

On August 13 The Bravery Board is hosting a gathering on the topic of resiliency. One of the biggest indicators of how resilient you are is how you respond to failure. 

We've all heard the phrase: failure is not an option.

From what I can gather from the collective wisdom of the internet, this phrase originated in the movie fictionalization of the Apollo 13 space mission. If you haven't seen it, let me set the scene: There were several astronauts (including national treasure Tom Hanks) stranded in space. It was a life and death situation. Either the team worked together to come up with an innovative plan to bring them home, or they weren't coming home. The idea being communicated in movie-speak was, let's brainstorm all the possible solutions to the problem that result in survival. Any solutions with the expected outcome of failure are not solutions we will consider. It's Tom Hanks, people!

Fast forward to 2016, and it's you--not Tom--trying to survive. You've been handed a project at work, or you're doing a presentation in front of a group, or you're launching a new idea or business and apply that mantra: failure is not an option.

Does that really fit in a situation where the worst possible outcome is that you don't get what you want?

Are you stranded in space?

For most of us, failure is an option. In fact, in some situations it is inevitable. Imagine that the success of any endeavor is the result of work + chance. You can control exactly how much work you put into the endeavor, but the varying nature of chance is not something you can control. This will lead to your efforts sometimes resulting in success, and sometimes resulting in failure. There is nothing you can do about that.

You aren't stranded in space. You're doing something creative. You're doing something new. You're attempting to fix a problem. You're innovating and brainstorming. You do not have to have the same level of risk aversion as an astronaut.

Some people really must look at the options before them and set aside failure as not being one of them. However, most people get to leave failure on the table. It is unhealthy to throw ourselves into the same category as those dealing with life or death situations by exaggerating the negative impact that failure will have on our lives and careers. We misapply the fear of failure that organically and beneficially exists for a few select vocations to ourselves.

So what is a healthy view of failure?



Fear of failure is a mindset that leads to inflexibility and narrow thinking.

Failure is always an option, and often an inevitability.

When we are realistic about failure, our minds are free to brainstorm imaginative solutions and novel approaches. When we allow failure to dictate our self-worth, the mere idea of it haunts are decisions, influences our analysis of ideas, and impedes our ability to take risks. When we separate our self-worth from our successes and failures, we allow ourselves to learn, grow, and even thrive in failure.



Life will knock us down.

Failure is a tool that helps us learn to get back up. Failure in relationships, school and work assignments, in front of other people, and all those other little failures that threaten to crush our ego--they all prepare us for those bigger blows that inevitably find us. If we live our lives in a mindset of total risk aversion, we limit our ability to learn how to be resilient. We limit the power that hard knocks have to make us better thinkers, more stable emotionally, and individuals with a healthy perspective on work, self-worth, and the value of other people.



Imagine this scenario: failure IS the desired outcome.

What do you normally do while watching something fall to pieces in front of you? If you're not a welcomer of failure, your mind goes blank. Maybe you have an emotional response that prevents you from keeping your thoughts together. In the aftermath, you say to yourself: 

"That was horrible. I'm never trying that again!"

You block out the memory of the failure and pretend like it isn't now contributing to your view of yourself and the world.

But think about this: failing on a regular basis, in many different ways, will teach you to:

  • Keep your composure. Learn to appreciate the lesson learned from the failure so the results are meaningful instead of painful.
  • Bounce back quickly. Learn to disconnect your results from the equation of your self-worth. You are not a failure.
  • Learn from what didn't work because you aren't distracted with feeling sorry for yourself. Just the facts, ma'am.
  • Model graceful failure to others. Let your colleagues and others see you fail well. This may be the most important thing they see you do.

Failure as a strategy means you understand and embrace that it is almost always an option, and when it happens you are familiar enough with it to use it as a tool.


You will fail. It is a given. What isn't a given is how you will respond to that failure. Fail well.


This post originally appeared on Kate's blog. If you like it, there's more where that came from!