Failure Is the Only Option

November 4, 2014

Finishing up work on Among Heroes, my next book with my Navy SEAL sniper buddy Brandon Webb, getting it ready for its release this coming May. A scene late in the book gives us a chance to talk about what it means to fail.

It takes place at a tournament for top high school basketball teams, where Brandon and another former Spec Ops guy have been invited to come give talks to the students. Brandon is about to go into a locker room to give his last talk of the day when he gets a text on his phone telling him that one of his good friends has just been killed.

Devastated by the news, he slumps back against the wall and thinks, How can I possibly go in there and face these kids right now? Someone else has got to do this. Not me.

But of course, he does:

I took another breath, opened the door, and walked into the locker room.

I don’t remember exactly what I said. I know I talked about teamwork and sacrifice, and the fact that no matter who you are or how good you are at what you do, you can’t accomplish anything truly worthwhile on your own. That any great achievement is always at its core a debt you owe to your teammates who hold you up and support you through the good times and bad.

And I talked about winning.

“We have a saying in the SEALs: ‘It pays to be a winner.’ I know you guys are all serious about being winners and being part of a winning team. So I’m not going to blow smoke about what that really means. Because winning is hard, and it takes more courage than most people know. Winning isn’t about being lucky, or fortune smiling on you from above, or being graced with special talents. Winning is something you decide on, something that comes from the inside.

“You may have heard it said that winning is about refusing to accept defeat. Not true. That’s just denial.

“You can’t avoid failing. You’re going to fail. The question is, How will you deal with failure? Because what you do next will make the difference between ultimate failure or success in the long term. Sometimes losing is what helps motivate you to win.

“The truth is, winners are the ones who understand loss, who understand adversity and hard work and don’t run from any of it. One individual can affect the whole team with how he chooses to deal with a tough break. Winners play full-out and refuse to give in, no matter what. Loss hurts, and it’s part of the game. Accept it, embrace it, use it as your teacher. ‘I will never quit,’ the Navy SEAL creed says. ‘I persevere and thrive on adversity. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.’”

At least that’s what I think I said. My fellow SEAL teammate Mark Donald was there and spoke some great words of his own. Tony told me afterward it was the best talk we gave all day.

I was just glad I made it through.

You’ve probably heard it said, “Failure is not an option.” This strikes me as a foolhardy philosophy. Of course failure is an option, and if it isn’t, then it sure better start being one. Because it’s going to happen, whether you and I consider it an option or not.

When I look back at the most painful failures in my life to date, I notice two things about them.

The first is that out of those failures, the course of my life was changed for the better, eventually. In each failure, I can trace the manifest trail of new growth and good fortune, like new-growth forest unfurling its leaves from the mineral-rich ash of past calamity.

(Proof positive that the universe is a merciful and forgiving place!)

The second is that in most cases, things were made far worse than they probably could and should have been, and the suffering prolonged, by my steadfast refusal to acknowledge the failure for what it was early on.

(Proof positive that within this benign universe, we individuals can be a stubborn and thick-headed lot!)

Adopting a head-in-the-sand stance, one that said, “Failure is not an option, so this can’t be happening right now,” I have plowed on in worsening situations, causing them only to worsen further.

I am deeply grateful for that first point — and doing my best to improve upon the second.

Seeking to “avoid failure at all costs” is a losing proposition. Failing is an essential nutrient in the biochemistry of existence. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but death is the parent of growth, and error the seedbed of accomplishment.

Failure is not simply an option. It’s the only option.

Maybe the question to be asking isn’t, Will I fail? but, What is my relationship to failure?



  1. Art

    Good post. This came to me last week: “We wouldn’t know what we know if we hadn’t done what we already did.”

    Might be bad grammar, though.

    • John David Mann

      Love it, Art – the grammar underneath is solid, but even if it weren’t, the wisdom sitting on top of it is golden!

  2. Adrian Mann

    I didn’t come up with this saying, but I sure believe in it:

    “To err is human — to forgive, divine.”

    • John David Mann

      Amen! “And to genuinely learn and grow from that erring is human at its best!”

  3. Laura Steward

    This story reminds me of why I stopped answering phones before I walk into a speech, yet it also reminded me of the depth of strength we have. Deeper than we often realize. And that the inner strength we have, when we allow our emotions and pain to be channeled towards good, as Brandon did that day, can create a deeper impact for those around us.

    I agree 100% that acknowledging failure sooner would save us so much grief and enable us to move forward on what is the right thing to do next.

    You rock, John.

    • John David Mann

      Such a great point, Laura. I once had an editor tell me, “The key to effective public speaking is, it’s okay to be nervous, but never let the audience see it.” And she was precisely, exactly, 100 percent wrong. Your vulnerability is not a deficit. It’s an asset. It makes you real — and makes your message convey with far greater power.


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