Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stupid clichés shouldn't be an option

Failure is not an option.

I saw a bumper sticker bearing this phrase a few days ago, and it got me to thinking: Really? When is failure ever an option?

This motivational cliché has been used countless times over the years: maybe it's used by the CEO in the boardroom, or the coach in the locker room, or the political candidate in the campaign room. (Contrary to popular belief, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz never uttered it during the Apollo 13 mission.) And on the surface, the phrase makes sense in its purpose of getting a group of people to understand the critical importance of succeeding at a given task. But dig a little deeper, and the cliché really makes no sense at all.

About a year ago, former ESPN columnist Patrick Hruby asked, "Is there any contemporary catchphrase more cliched, more tired, more dumb and more just plain fraudulent than 'failure is not an option?'" After providing a few examples of its use, he writes:
Here's the thing: Failure truly isn't an option. Not now. Not ever. Not in any circumstance. Because tough-sounding talk aside, failure is an outcome. There's a difference. A world of it. Options involve choice. Outcomes involve what happens because of -- or despite -- choices.

Look, nobody save sports point-shavers and stock market short-sellers ever draws up a what-to-do-next list and includes failure in the action plan. No one intends to fail. No one sets course for the center of the sun. Not everyone can win like Charlie Sheen, but everyone wants to. If success was exclusively a matter of choice -- as Rick Pitino suggests -- we'd all be rich, famous and publishing Pitino-like victory manuals from the helipad of a yacht docked off the coast of Southern France. 
Exactly. Whether it be in the business world, the sports world, the political world or anywhere else, no rational person (or group of people) who earnestly wishes to achieve a particular goal would "choose" to fail. Anybody who does so is either not rational, or for whatever reason does not want to succeed (for reasons of apathy, or a deliberate desire to sabotage).

Maybe the straight-A student decides to fail a test every now and then so as not to appear to his teachers and peers to be the insufferable overachiever: that's fine, but that falls under sabotage - under the "does not want to succeed" category. Maybe the basketball player purposely misses a few crucial shots in order to make a few sports bookies - and likely himself - a bit of extra money. That's also a (rather illegal) form of sabotage. But nobody who truly wants to succeed is going to choose to fail. Period.

Sometimes, in spite of our greatest efforts, we fail at a task that we earnestly wished to accomplish. It's not because we "chose" to fail. It's simply because other factors - outside forces out of our control, or the fact that our best effort, for whatever reason, just wasn't good enough to complete the task at hand - came into play and determined the outcome. But as Hruby notes, "outcome" is not the same as "choice."

So please, folks, stop using this stupid cliché.

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