Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Failure IS an Option

Do you fail? 

Can you accept failing?

Are you okay working towards something and have it fail?

Or must everything that you do succeed?

In the words of Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director for Apollo 13:

 "Failure is not an option." 

Sure, he was using this statement as motivation for the astronauts experiencing severe trials on which their lives depended on focusing and executing specific tasks, and so for that particular moment it was a good, and motivational statement.

But our society has starting to universalize this statement.

There are businesses too big to fail, and the economy cannot fail either, right?

Students can no longer fail at a class or subject. I'm not discussing what constitutes failure, but is there not a level of competency which is necessary in a given field of study that can be failed if a lack of effort or aptitude is present? (I'm not saying that grades need some revisiting, particularly at younger ages, as learning is a multi-faceted process.)

The recent Harvard University cheating scandal hinged on just such an expectation that failure was not an option, and so despite having an open source (book, note, and Internet) final examination. Many of the students claimed that collaboration was acceptable and that they all needed the A in the class. (Ironically, the class was introduction to Congress so it seems like perhaps the subject matter rubbed off on the students? JUST KIDDING!) At least one paper released the opinion that the scandal had less to do with moralizing cheating as it did with the idea of not being able to fail. So students felt pressured by parents, family, friends, the school, and society to never fail. If they are going to scale upwards and be successes in our modern America, then they cannot fail.

What is interesting is that there are many statistics out there that show just the opposite. I'm not sure the source, but I've heard it said that the average successful small business owner has had seven small businesses fail prior to succeeding. Of course we can look at the individual stories of people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Thomas Edison, or Walt Disney to see people who succeeded after failing. 

These are business examples, but they also illustrate just how elusive ideas such as failure and success are. Is it purely financial gain? Is it simply the creation of enduring organizations? Is it being ambitious and stubborn enough to pursue through to a goal and never slipping up, even once, in the determined pursuit of that goal?

What do we make of our national leaders then, when there is moral failure? Did General Petraeus succeed or fail? Is it so easily lumped together when he obviously demonstrated success in the operations of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. Yet, he did have a moral failure in having an affair with his biographer. Our national pulse, found in the media, seems to look at that failure and remove him from the list of successes into a type of more disgraced-former leader or success. Religious leaders have similar expectations placed upon them, only to have all faith and understanding placed on them when they fail morally or financially.

Failure is possible in one area of life while not being present in another. This much is true, and we all know it. 

We know that for the common masses, people mess up. 

People get fired. 

People break the law.

People say stupid things.

People get divorced.

People do what they know they shouldn't do.

People mismanage their business.

People go bankrupt.

People lose loved ones.

People get addicted.

People fail.

I fail. You fail. We all fail.

I believe we need to realistically embrace failure in our lives. 

We need to not be in denial of failure. 

Sometimes, we need to not try to put a silver lining on failure, but just acknowledge it for what it is.

Do we not all need to know that it is OK to fail? That while failure is not the goal, we can be freed to try something without having to ensure step by step that it is guaranteed to succeed?

It seems like this would not bring most people to the points where their true potential, their true identity and the ability to be virtuous shines forth.

None of us are infallible. We all face adversity. 

Failure IS an option. It just isn't the only option.

After we fail, do we pick ourselves back up, or allow ourselves to be corrected or embraced by others?

After others fail, do we come around them and help them get back up? Or do we just shake our heads or point our fingers, or simply be glad that it was not us that failed (like that Pharisee that prayed that he was not like the rest of these sinners).

We can learn from failure, with men like John Wooden knowing that losses by some of his basketball teams instilled more character and appreciation in his teams to reach lofty goals than those that seemingly did not face as many trials.

I think I need to remember that I can fail. Not that I want to fail, but I recognize that in the adversity, failure is not to be feared, but simply recognized. 

There is a name for such an action: Grace.

Neither success nor failure earns us anything lasting of value, does it? Our acceptance lies in the grace extended to us by God, because we all do fail at times (and succeed at others!). 

The great mystery is that our value comes not from succeeding or failing, but in simply being. 

Accepting failure in our lives and the lives of others, bearing with one another through these moments, that is grace.

Grace does not keep us from trying, but instead gives us the hope to try our hardest, but knowing that regardless of what happens, we are still valuable. 

Failure may be exactly what we need to recognize how loved we are, or how accepted we are.

Failure IS an option. 

Failure is perfectly OK as long as we allow ourselves to get back up and try again.

Grace exists.


  1. You have covered a LOT of ground with your thoughts. My first reaction was that the successful people you mention who had failures along the way were people who were passionate about something. Failure was no going to deter them from doing something that they felt compelled to do. It was step in their learning, in their progress. They were doubting themselves as failures just because they had a wrong hypothesis or a personality conflict with a boss. They had that inner vision. Perhaps that was grace. Grace empowers. Grace motivates and creates a fire inside. So, I do not think that anyone with grace could think failure was an option.

    Everyone has a destiny, a purpose in God's kingdom. However, we all have trials, or tribulations, that cause us to learn and grow and get better and gain skills and be ready for God to use us. We have a lot of tests to pass in life in order to be ready. We may fail at any one of these tests along the way, but we will have to be tested again and again before we are ready to enter into our destiny with God. Failure at any one of those steps would just put us in a stagnant position. So, I still say failure is not an option, especially for a Spirit-led Christian. When we fail, we still know that we are loved and treasured, but we are motivated to do better next time.

  2. I have some typos there!!! I was hurrying to go see Survivor!!! That was supposed to read, "Failure was not going to deter them...." "They were NOT doubting themselves as failures because...."

  3. Good thoughts and you bring up an important clarification to make on this post.

    I think it important to delineate between failing AT something and identifying oneself AS a failure are different and would clear up the point you are making.

    I would definitely agree that no one is a failure, in that the love of God continues to extend to them. Yet, in the various aspects of life that go along the way, it is inherently necessary that we all fail. Grace, as you mention, is what covers those failures, or however you'd rather word them, and enables and actually picks us back up to move forward. Yet sometimes, the very things that we think must succeed are in fact that which we must "die to" in order to let the Spirit lead. There are no people alive that I would say have not experienced failure, and its best to realize our own brokenness in that regard. I think what we see when we look at the characters of the Bible are that those used by God all failed God redeemed, called, and used them. In reality, if God is in the process of redeeming the entire world through Jesus, does that not imply that there is failure and incompatibility that needs redeeming? Becoming aware when to let something go - to say "Not my will, but yours be done" is recognizing that failure is a part of the process of becoming like Jesus.

  4. I think you are daincing all around the word "failure." You seem to use it in one context and then switch to another. At one point, it sounds as if you are equating failure with sin. If you are talking about the people of the Bible and failure, I would say that Joseph did not fail. Did he sin? Yes, we all do. He apparently was full of pride at being his dad's favorite and receiving a dream of how his bros would bow down to him. But, did he fail? It took 13 years in prison, but he was worthy of God using him at that high level.

    What we have to die to is self. Sometimes -- or often --a successful self is what we really have to die to. When we think that we can take care of things for ourselves, think things through ourselves, be independent of others, etc., we are elevating ourselves above God. Then when our plan doesn't work, our reasoning doesn't fix things, or we find we really do need others--and then we decide "Not my will, but yours"--are we really putting God first or just giving up, defeated?????? We must be ready to say "Not my will" even when we think we might have it all together. We must trust the Lord in all things and KNOW that He will lead us at all times. It can be easier to turn to God for help when we fail than when we are succeeding. Regaardless, God does not want us to fail. He wants to aid us, lead us, prosper us.

  5. OK, I'm confused at what you are disagreeing about. The second paragraph you just wrote in this response I would say is exactly in line with what I wrote. I don't see any disagreement there. I don't disagree with you in the ultimate sense of "being a failure" which you seem to be advocating. I feel that you brought up in your original comment the idea of being a "failure" rather than understanding failure may happen in a specific task or pursuit. This post is about failing at a specific task, attitude, action, or event. No, not all failure is a sin. Failing a math test is not sin (which is the type of failing I find it important to understand might happen in our lives, and to act anyway - definitely don't just give up, defeated!)

    But I would ask how is sinning not failing?

  6. Sinning IS failing, if that is the context in which you are speaking. So when you say in your title, "Failure IS an option," you were saying SINNING is an option???? Just asking. I am just pointing out that the context in which we are laying out our viewpoints is not clearly defined. Yes, failure is an option when a disabled student is expected to pass AlgebraII. Failure is not an option if it is a life-long attitude about living life to the fullest.