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Failure means what?

Updated on June 17, 2013
Dr. Rebecca Sanders
Dr. Rebecca Sanders | Source

Failure is an option

One phrase that always that always makes me shake my head in amazement is “Failure is not an option.” The phrase made popular by the Apollo 13 movie was a dramatic moment built on the partial quote from one of the mission’s flight controllers.

Apollo 13

Definition of failure

To discover what failure is, let’s look at the definition. According to the free online dictionary by Merriam-Webster, there are 4 different meanings of failure.

  1. Omission of occurrence or performance, or a state of inability to perform a normal function.
  2. Lack of success.
  3. A falling short (deterioration)
  4. One that has failed

In summary, failure is the act of not meeting a goal whether it was a result of something you lack or an inability to perform. The thesaurus provides some other interesting information. A few synonyms of failure include defeat, breakdown, error, default, loser, and even breach. These are words that most people do not want to have attached as a label in their own life. However, these are the words (unfortunately) that most people use to explain their failures.

So, who fails?

Failure is usually a possible option with any action we take. In fact, we probably fail at something every day. For example, this morning when I woke up, I made my normal “to do” list. Yet as I sit here almost one hour away from bedtime, I realize I have failed at my list today. I ran out of time and energy, so I am sure I will not accomplish everything I set out to do for today when I made the list. Some may call that failure a lack of motivation, or procrastination. I guess it could also be a lack of concentration to the details of my list, too.

Although this is a menial type of failure, I’ve seen other failures in my life as well. My marriage failed, I haven’t successfully met all my life goals (such as being out of debt by now), and could even note some areas where I feel failure as a parent. If you’re honest, you’ll note failures in your life, too.

Recently, I noticed that some of these past failures were coming back to haunt me deeply. I thought I had chosen a marriage partner wisely. I thought I had found a career and was taking the right steps to secure a nice financial future. I thought I had done the best possible job in raising my son to be creative, happy, and independent. However, a reminder of these failures seemed to be swirling around in my brain to taunt me into a submissive corner closely resembling depression. I knew I had to snap out of it somehow.

So, why do things fail?

As I stated earlier, if you answer this question honestly, everyone fails at some point. I do not know anyone who has experienced success with everything they do. This is one reason I shake my head at the “Failure is not an option” quote. Failure is always an option; it’s just not one we like to have happen, nor is it one for which we typically plan. Failure typically catches us off guard as it is something unplanned; we do not enter a project wholeheartedly with the anticipation of failing. The exception to this is when you do anticipate failure, obviously; however, in that case – are you really going into the project wholeheartedly? Therefore, the first reason people fail is because they have the preconceived notion that they will fail and do not put forth their best effort. They either lack in developing a well-thought-out plan, or lack in the execution as they have already believed the result will be failure.

Once you recognize failure is an option, and you enter into a task with plans to avoid any possible failures, it is still no guarantee that the final result will not be failure. Why does that scenario happen? Two possible reasons cause failure for the person in this situation. First, it could be possible that you overlooked something and the plan did not consider something. That could be a lack of experience, skill, or knowledge. Second, failure may have happened as a result of some type of change. A good example of that may be found in looking at a real-estate investor who has sunk money into properties just in time to watch the real-estate market bottom out. This would still be a lack of information or the ability to predict the trend in real-estate.

There is a third option for failing when you do recognize failure as an option. This happens when you focus on the failure as something unavoidable. In that situation, you are not putting forth the best effort to avoid failure. In a sense, you have already accepted failure as the result, even if you do put forth effort in your action. This could be a learned behavior from previous attempts, lack of confidence in your own abilities or other people involved. However, is that really so wrong? Sometimes you have to fail at something to get a better understanding of what you should do to achieve success.

So, how do you conquer failure?

  1. The first way to conquer failure is to consider its reality as an option.
  2. Planning helps decrease the chance for failure.
  3. Asking for advice to validate plans is not a sign of weakness.
  4. Once you have acted on your plan, monitor your results
  5. When a possible fail is noticed – evaluate WHY
  6. Alter your plans if possible
  7. Keep your eyes on the goal
  8. Stop rationalizing why things do not happen
  9. Accept failure as part of the growing process
  10. Learn from the failure


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