Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Option to Fail

Recently I saw a bumper sticker which gave me some pause. It said, “Failure is not an option.” Underneath that was some type that was too small to read, so I don’t know exactly what they were saying couldn’t fail, but that statement got me thinking.

I am writing this from Albuquerque where I flew on Saturday. Certainly I don’t want failure to be an option when I’m flying, but how do airline pilots make sure failure is not an option? They practice and fail constantly in flight simulators, then study and rehash their mistakes so that they don’t make them again. In other words, in order to make sure that failure is not an option they fail a lot in order to learn from their mistakes.

Most people work to avoid failure as much as possible. There are usually two paths to this. The first is a reluctance to try new things or to take any risks, thereby keeping our lives limited only to the things we already know. The second is that we will often continue things long after they are effective, if they ever were, because to stop them means that we will have to admit that we failed.

But here’s the problem with both of these positions. When we are afraid to fail we are also afraid to succeed, because it is only through admitting failure that we can face our mistakes, learn from them and teach ourselves to be better than we are. It is through embracing the possibility of failure that we are able to take the risks necessary to advance ourselves, those around us and the institutions and groups with which we are affiliated. Indeed, there are few advancements in the course of human history that did not take significant trial and error before succeeding.

When asked by a reporter for the New York Times how it felt to have failed 700 times in his attempt to create the light bulb, Thomas Edison is reported to have said, “I have not failed seven hundred times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those seven hundred ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Edison learned from what did not work, and kept pushing forward until he finally found the right answer. Had he been afraid of trying new things he would never have been successful.

I have written in the past that I believe there are a series of questions that every church must answer. One of them is “If there was one thing you believe your church should do, but have never done, and you could be guaranteed it would succeed what would you do?” The follow-up, of course, is what is keeping you from doing it?

The only way we can get better is to be willing to take risks. Being afraid to push ourselves to try new things is a much bigger failure than trying things and not having them work, because, as someone else once said, “Failure is not an outcome, it is an attitude.” Maybe, in that sense, failure is indeed not an option.

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