“Failure is not an option.”
That line, apocryphally attributed to NASA Mission Director Gene Kranz in the classic 1995 film Apollo 13, accurately sums up our society’s approach when faced with a crisis. We find a way to conquer adversity, and we expect to win. Admirable qualities, no doubt, that previously have served us well in times of trouble.
Unfortunately, that noble attitude has some unintended consequences, two of which I’ll consider here.
The first unintended consequence is that we too often focus on deciding who or what is to blame, rather than seeking to learn what caused the crisis and how to forestall future problems. The examples throughout our history are numerous.
We saw this in the 1940s, with the military’s investigation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; again in 1968, with the investigation into the capture of the USS Pueblo off the coast of North Korea; and even earlier this century, with the investigation of 9/11. In each case, did we work to understand how these events could have been avoided, or did we simply look for a villain?
Nor have we learned from past mistakes. We ratchet up the rhetoric about racism, guns, mental health and gender equality, but quickly descend into partisan name-calling rather than searching for viable solutions. How much more effective might our Congress be if our leaders spent less time pointing fingers and more time seeking common ground on important issues? We tend to forgot what Henry Ford once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Our inclination to find blame fails to acknowledge that disasters such as these are often caused by failures, both individual and systemic. Humans, being what we are, are ultimately responsible for failure. But we do not deal easily with failure – not in warfare, not in business, not in marriage, not even in a tennis set. We fear failure. It breeds contempt. No one is lonelier or avoided more ardently than a person who is perceived to be failing. It gives us comfort to be able to say it’s someone else’s fault.
Which brings me to the second unintended consequence. As an educator, I have always struggled with our traditional A-B-C-D-F grading system. There is no E; we jump right to “F” for emphasis on failure.
How many young students have been labeled as failures in this way, perhaps stigmatizing them for life? How many have seen a big red F at the top of a test paper and given up? Would it not be better to focus on helping them learn from their mistakes, to show them what it takes to do better and to foster the inherent potential they possess? Shouldn’t we accept that we have as much responsibility as they do to see them succeed?
I prefer the approach Winston Churchill espoused: “Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Failure is not an option when we accept the truth that success is difficult. Success does not come easily; certainly, it is much easier to fail. The most successful people are usually also the most persistent. Success takes planning, preparation and perseverance. Most important, it requires a belief in oneself that success is possible.
No one do we love more than those who overcome failure with triumph. Success glows ever brighter when contrasted with the repeated failures that one may have experienced along the way. Although not an option, failure should be an opportunity to learn, to improve and to strive for a better tomorrow.
That is the attitude that put men into space and brought them back safely, against all odds. It is that attitude that we need to have every time we face adversity.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is Assistant Vice Chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former president of Westminster College and served as dean at the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University. He has a Ph.D. in economics