One of the most intense movies I’ve ever watched is Apollo 13, the story of the space mission that was to land on the moon but went awry. Based on the true story of the ill-fated mission, it was a gripping tale starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise.
At one point, Ed Harris, playing Gene Kranz at Mission Control in Houston, tells his colleagues that they have no choice but to figure out how to save the astronauts’ lives. “Failure is not an option,” he says – in the movie.
The real Gene Kranz said something like that during the actual crisis, but it took Hollywood to turn what he said into a line both memorable and enshrined in the American cultural lexicon.
In the case of Apollo 13, failure was indeed an option – and three lives hung in the balance. In fact, in anything worth doing, be it space missions, writing a novel, implementing a new program at work, or anything else, failure is always a possibility, and it is always an option. We can experience failure through unforeseen circumstances, and we can choose to fail by the actions we take and the decisions we make.
The question is, is the possibility of failure sufficient to stop us from trying in the first place?
Over the years, I’ve worked for several large organizations, mostly in the corporate and educational fields. Organizations become large for many reasons – marketplace success and natural monopolies (like school districts or county governments) are two of them. One thing all large organizations have in common is the desire to minimize risk.
It’s a natural phenomenon. You become successful, and the desire to remain successful leads you to minimize risk and seek control over things that can upset your success, or challenge your natural monopoly. The problem is that that the desire to control or reduce risk comes with a cost – the stifling of creativity and innovation. Over a long period of time, creativity and innovation can become anti-cultural, which may explain what happens to so many Fortune 500 companies that have disappeared forever.
This desire to avoid risk isn’t limited to large organizations. It also applies to individuals. “It’s our survival instincts that help us judge when to take a risk of failure and when to retreat,” writes Matt Appling in Life After Art. “But we’ve reprogrammed our instincts with the assumption that failure is not an option. So we stay home and protect ourselves from failure and deprive the world of our gifts.”
If we believe in what we’re doing, or what we want to do, we have to accept the reality that failure is an option. Creativity is dangerous. It upends the status quo. It challenges vested interests. It challenges the whole notion of “this is how we do things here.” If we are being creative, we should expect opposition, or worse, indifference.
Failure is always an option. The fear of failure is always present.
We can play it safe. Or we can choose to create, knowing we may fall flat on our faces.
We’re discussing Life After Art over at The High Calling. To see the discussion, please visit the site.
Photograph: The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, seen after separation from the Command and Lunar module; via Wikipedia.