What happens when failure is not an option, but it is the outcome?

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

By Joel Carpenter | February 15, 2019

When I enlisted in 2001 after our country was attacked, failure was not an option for me, but what that actually meant was that through making a somewhat impulsive and life-altering decision I had a short timeline to gather information and get myself in the superior physical condition to increase the odds of a successful outcome.  The reality was: failure was on the table and this became an extreme motivator for me to push myself as hard as I could in order to achieve my goal.

Ultimately, I was going to either succeed or fail.  If I failed, life would continue on with or without my approval and my choices would have consequences with lasting effects on my life trajectory and those around me.  If I didn’t make it to Ranger Regiment I had the option to meet with a Special Forces recruiter and immediately submit a packet to attend their assessment and selection course.  If that didn’t go well I would have been placed to “the needs of the Army” and most likely have been assigned to the 82nd Airborne, 10th Mountain or another infantry unit.  These were all options and choices that would arise from “failing.”

There is subtle and unseen poison that comes with achieving “elite” and that poison is in the form of pride and whether or not we admit to mishaps and failure.  These days it's refreshing to see that it’s becoming more acceptable to admit failure.  For years it seemed that no one would admit to failure because failing is viewed as weakness.  In the military we often view each other as assets vs liabilities.  Are you an asset to me or are you a liability?  Will you get me killed – or will you make the team stronger?  I’ve personally discovered that popular warrior mantras like “failure is not an option” have little meaning in the private sector because as the layers get peeled back many are realizing that failure, while not intended, can become an outcome and as long as the outcome is not highly destructive or lethal … that’s okay.

So if we reverse engineer the phrase failure is not an option, by definition failure is an omission of occurrence or performance or lack of success.  And by definition the word option means choice, to choose.  It’s highly unlikely that someone starts out with an intent to fail, but understanding that missing the mark is a conceivable conclusion to our pursuits for achievement can save us all a lot of pain and heartache. 

People choose not to fail during special operations assessment programs, but still miss the mark and are not selected.  Simply never quitting is sometimes not enough to allow us to triumph, but the true measure of success or failure is how we bounce back from an outcome.  What do we do next?  Do we let it overcome us or do we continue on?

One of the most common misconceptions is that failure is not an option.  So what happens when failure is not an option, but it is the outcome?  It’s not the option you desire, but it has become a reality and we better have a contingency plan for that outcome.  If not, we are unprepared which means we didn’t plan and this is an entirely separate set of problems.

So is failure a choice?  Do we choose not to give up until the moment we fail?  I can choose to fail or not to fail while in pursuit of a goal, but fail anyhow.  How does this happen?  While I can choose to give my best effort to counter a deteriorating environment, it is a series of successive decisions we make in combination with intangible circumstances outside of our control that determines success or failure

We study, we train, we rehearse, we persevere but at some point when the odds are stacked against us we can quickly realize we missed our goal to succeed.  In battle some fight until the end but ultimately are defeated.  The more we plan, rehearse and educate ourselves the greater we increase the likelihood of success and achieving our desired outcome.

Astute quotes from prodigious leaders like Winston Churchill who state that “failure is not fatal” is a hard concept for military veterans, law enforcement or fire fighters to grasp since many have been told their whole career that failure is not an option.  In war, on patrol or during a wildfire this is often true.  Outside of war these mantras can create a since of anxiety due to the perception of failing whether it’s failing as a spouse, failing as a parent, failing to find a job, complete college, missing a sales goal, failing at business. 

These concepts aren’t exclusive to former military, law enforcement, or EMS, but the magnitude of the concept of failing within this group is significantly greater because failing in the context of these environments can mean someone isn’t coming home. 

As long as failure doesn’t literally kill you, then it’s true, failure should not be viewed as a fatal consequence, but understanding context, definitions and the realms where it is safe to fail will be crucial for growth of the individual.  If you have goals, failure should be viewed merely a preemptive phase to defeat where there is still opportunity to change the final outcome. In this framework failure becomes an option and a choice.

Remember defeat is an outcome.  Failing outside of battle should always be viewed as repairable.  Showing your scars is okay.  Admitting failure doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means you’re human.  Weakness is the state or condition of lacking strength and viewed as a disadvantage or fault.  When we conceal our failure to others that is when we lack strength.  It’s okay to fail, but it’s what you do next .. beyond “failing” that counts. So always try, fail, repeat (adjusting strateglies as needed) until you achieve success and that is what makes a true champion.

About Joel Carpenter

Joel is the author of "Set Up for Success" and the upcoming book "Further, Faster, Harder." He is former U.S. Army special operator with the 75th Ranger Regiment, who prior to Sept 11, 2001, was an aspiring actor and spec-screenwriter living in LA.  Today Joel works with companies to provide inspiring keynotes, entertaining workshops, and dynamic learning & growth. Contact Speaker-Buzz if you're interested in adding Joel to one of your upcoming corporate programs or private events. Send an email to info@speaker-buzz.com or call p: 737.888.0038

Joel Carpenter | Speaker-Buzz



Definition of failure retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/failure

Definition of option retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/option

Winston Churchill quote

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