Failure is Just One Option

A few weeks ago I noticed a large sign hanging in a high school classroom that read “Failure is not an Option”. Since the poster had no obvious historical connection, to the Apollo program, for example, 1 I gathered it was supposed to be motivational for the kids.

But is that really a philosophy you want to teach students? That you want them to adopt?

Even if you go back to the space race example, no one working on that complex project actually believed everything would be completely error free. On the contrary, they knew that  something was going to fail at some time. Which is why they prepared for failure, spending a relatively large amount of time and effort planning, modeling, practicing for what everyone would do when something went wrong.

In a few weeks, the students of our overly-large school district will be in the middle of testing season, and their teachers are already making clear (directly or by implication) that failing to pass the SOLs (or whatever the high stakes tests are called in your state) is not an option. Or at least one that will be very unpleasant for everyone concerned.

However, instead of telling kids that failure is not an option, that it’s something to be reviled and feared, we should helping them understand how best to cope with situations that don’t go according to plan. Creating a plan B (maybe even plan C). Find a new approach. Repurpose the pieces of a project that doesn’t work.

Learn that failure IS an option, and to think of it as a starting point, not the end of the line.


  1. By the way, that phrase was created for the movie Apollo 13, not something said by anyone at NASA.

Comments

  1. Jim Randolph says

    That’s why I like watching Mythbusters with my daughter. They’re forever saying “Failure is ALWAYS and option.” They show that failing is data too and they learn from it. They also frequently re-visit myths when someone writes in and tells them they screwed up somehow or didn’t consider testing in a different way. Much better way to look at things.

  2. Mia Pezzuolo says

    Sometimes failure is NOT an option. That phrase, “Failure is not an option,” was the mantra of a the previous school in which I worked. For this school, for the district in which it is located, for its staff and students, with the threat of being closed by the state, failure is not an option. Sometimes in life, it is necessary to believe that success is mandatory. However, at times we need to adjust our idea of what success or failure will look like.

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