Blog: Why failure is the only option

Written by LJ Bartle, Director, HIGH FIVE® National Standard

“Failure is not an option.” 

You’ve likely heard this dramatic line expertly crafted by screenwriters for the film Apollo 13 about a space mission gone wrong.  The story is an amazing one of the joint rescue effort of both hundreds of NASA technicians and engineers, and the astronauts themselves, to get them safely back to earth - alive.

For most of us however, failure is not only an option; it’s at times inevitable.  Businesses fail, relationships fail and people fail to reach their goals…all the time.  This is not always a bad thing.  In fact, most people who fail will tell you it pushed them on to bigger and better things. 

That sentiment does not apply when it comes to our children.  Parents never want to see their children fail.  And of course, it’s with the best of intentions - not only do we want to shelter them from heartache, but we also want them to experience that euphoria of success, and of winning.    

But, the reality is, children need to fail.  Failure builds resiliency, the ability to cope, to carry on – and above all, to learn.  Children who are resilient are able to handle life’s challenges along their path into adulthood.  It makes them stronger.  But what of a child who never fails?  One who is perpetually sheltered from experiencing the disappointment of failure?  They will be missing out on valuable lessons on winning and losing which help them navigate their way through their life.

In recreation and sport, this can be seen through the introduction to the concept of healthy competition. 

Generally, people are in opposite sides on the value of competition.  Some think it is ok to have a ‘win at all costs’ mentality.  Others believe there should be no competition and children should only participate in cooperative activities.  These values will ultimately impress upon their children and affect their views on competition and fair play. 

HIGH FIVE research shows that competition can be good or bad for children depending on 3 factors:

  • The attitude of the parents
  • The environment created by the club or coach
  • The emotional readiness of the child

As a supportive parent, understand the need to help your child  learn how to win and lose graciously.  Help them to understand the concept of fair play.  We at HIGH FIVE know that when parents and coaches place too much emphasis on winning games, it creates an imbalanced view of reality where the child thinks they must never lose.  And when that loss invariably happens, the outcome is children who are full of anxiety about failure.

Healthy competition helps children see value in both winning and losing.  It allows them to celebrate their successes in a way that doesn’t make them feel invincible and powerful, but rather proud of their personal performance and enjoyment of a positive experience. 

And as for losing?  That’s just the kind of learning opportunity that every child (and parent) needs to experience to understand.  Building resiliency is key to building strength of character.  They need to understand the importance of trying, the importance of building skills, and the importance of taking loss in stride, and to always, ALWAYS, try again.

As an Interesting aside, while Gene Kranz, the Flight Director at NASA during the Apollo 13 Mission is often attributed with having spoken those words during the Apollo 13 mission, he actually never did.  No one did. 

"As far as the expression 'Failure is not an option', you are correct that Kranz never used that term. In preparation for the movie, the script writers came down to Clear Lake to interview me on "What are the people in Mission Control really like?" One of their questions was "Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?" My answer was "No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.  We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution." I immediately sensed that the writers wanted to leave and (I) assumed that they were bored with the interview.  Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, one started screaming, "That's it! That's the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it."  Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history."[1]   -- email excerpt from Apollo  13 FDO Flight Controller Jerry Bostick