“Failure is not an option” is a line immortalized in the movie “Apollo 13.” The maxim was the mission ethic of NASA engineers who fought to save the damaged Apollo 13 space capsule in 1970. The line has become so emblematic of persistence in the face of catastrophe that teenagers, professionals and leaders around the world often repeat it.
Based on its popularity, one might infer that society refuses to accept failure. Yet, if there is no opportunity for failure, then we as a society are unable to learn from our mistakes, and, ultimately, to recover and progress. Failure is an even more important ingredient for leaders. If society does not let us fail, then how are we able to grow as individuals and become better, more resilient leaders?
Why isn’t Failure an Option?
Children are taught that failure is not acceptable. The roots of our intolerance for failure date back to the self-esteemmovement, a term coined in the 1960s by psychologist Nathaniel Branden. At the time, Branden suggested that self-esteem was the key to a child’s success and encouraged parents to help their children to develop confidence to deal with life challenges.
Many parents interpreted the self-esteem message as an edict to protect their children from pain and adversity, at every turn, as this could have adverse repercussions on their future development. Well-meaning parents arranged for awards to be given frequently: participation trophies, completion awards, accomplishment stickers and verbal accolades. This belief drives teachers, in part, to avoid grading papers in red ink as this action may perpetuate negativity, which will impact a child’s self-confidence.
The children who grow up in this type of environment expect tributes for trivial accomplishments and have an inflated sense of themselves. To preserve their delicate egos, helicopter parents hover around their children to limit or bypass adversity, challenges or failures on their paths to the future (. By creating a no-failure bubble around their children, parents hope to avoid the painful consequences of letting them flop, get hurt or even fail.
The pattern is repeated as young adults move back home after college with the so-called boomerang effect. Many of these adult children share a home with their parents because they are unsure how to move forward as an adult. In prior generations, moving back home was viewed as failure. Many current parents encourage the boomerang and welcome their adult children home, offering a comforting safety net for daily life.
These adults have been so bolstered by parental adoration they often are ill prepared for the workplace. Confident and entitled, they expect their managers to praise them for any and all efforts, either through glowing performance reviews or rewards. At this stage, they do not know how to accept failure. It is not in their vocabulary.
– James Bailey Ph.D. and Sophia Lohrum