Failure is an Option

Rumiko and I have chuckled over recent advertising received for services as widely varied as financial planning to computer systems and internet web building. Must be just one guy out there doing all the advertising writing, because several different pitches all came with the same heavy super serious line – When Failure is Not an Option.

Isn’t that ridiculous? Who in the financial investment world can speak with a straight face about failure not being an option, when even America’s richest Warren Buffett has seen billions vaporized by the financial insanity of the last few months of 2008? Who in the computer world, which regards complete system crashes and virus-spawned destruction as routine and expectable, can honestly speak of no room for failure?

When Failure is Not an Option. Sounds so dramatic and imperative, doesn’t it, as though just by uttering those granite solid words, we can thankfully banish any probable worries about possible lack of success. Does it make me a cynic to state that the firmer a pitchperson speaks about what is inviolable and beyond challenge in the wildness of life in the marketplace, the more I suspect either an idiot or a conman?

Well of course failure has never been a cheerfully sought out “option” in my life, but sure enough, I have had to accept some failures along with my successes. It is possible that I have learned more about how to be stronger, cleverer, and more likely for success by examining what I did that allowed failure to happen, as opposed to learning from finding quick, lucky, and unpredictable success. How about you?

When I returned to America from Japan after living and studying ninjutsu there for the last part of the 1970s, I told my few American students at the time that I would agree to teach them under the condition that I would be permitted to make mistakes as I progressed through the learning ahead of me. I made them promise me, and they did. And predictably enough, when I was forced by failure to learn some valuable lesson in my 30s, many of those friends revoked in a self-justifying way their once upon a time quick agreement to my demand that I be given room to explore and grow. And then when I bounced back and advanced as a result of my newly earned dearly paid for knowledge, some friends told me they could never trust me again because I had tried something new and failed to generate success and I should have known better. By the way, you would not know those students to whom I now refer, because years ago they gave up their dojos and are no longer actively training. 

Most of my successes could have been colossal humiliating failures. I went to Japan to talk the grandmaster of the ninja into accepting me into his personal home dojo with his other 12 students. Ridiculous! I returned to America to introduce a new view of martial arts that posted its values at 180 degrees opposite of what everyone up until then believed to be true about martial arts. Impossible! I set out to get Rumiko to marry me. No way! I decided to be a writer of books. Doomed to disappointment! I decided to raise children. I decided to study leadership as a disciple of an Asian king. I decided to authorize other people to present my teachings in their own schools outside my ownership control. I decided that what I had to teach, based on all I had studied under others, warranted its own distinct name and identity as To-Shin Do. All absurd impossibilities! Those are just a few of my gambles in which failure was not only a major 100% without a doubt top of the list option, but was way more likely to result than was success. 

People who do not like me will accuse me of bragging here. That would be ignorant misreading of my words and purpose. Some day I will list my failures and what I learned from them, in case I am misperceived as gloating or showing off here, but for now I am sharing my experience of reality, and in my reality, the thought of failure not being an option is just ludicrous poser puffery. Come on. Be honest. Take a chance. Take a risk. Learn from the beatings you take and the coins that slip through your fingers. Possible failure is indeed one option. 

Of course, without challenging the possibility of failure, you will be more likely to remain safe. On the other hand, just trying to be safe does not guarantee you will be safe. Without risking failure as an option, you will never have the momentum to move into new ideas, new realms of strength, new abilities to be of value to others, and fulfilled capacities for making a difference in the world.

13 comments to “Failure is an Option”

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  1. Reminds me of an old quote:

    A ship is safe in harbor…

    … but that’s not what ships are for.

  2. Hello An-Shu,

    Brings to memory the old phrase:
    we can learn more from our failures (the how and why)
    than we do our successes.

    Feel each experience contains within it an important
    lesson for us.

  3. I’ve often felt exactly the same way about catch phrases such as “failure is not an option”. Of course, I was never able to put these feeling in to anywhere near as coherent a post as you did 🙂

  4. N Kuperwasser says: -#1

    Every statue starts as a collection of failures. As the failures are chiseled and polished away the inner beauty is revealed.

    As in life and learning, the “truth” is learned by chiseling away our failures 🙂

    Perhaps the message should be to have the strength and discipline to keep forging through our failures to get to that “inner beauty” we seek.

  5. As someone who works with technology, I agree with the sentiment that failure is always an option, whether you want it to be or not. In an increasingly risk-management-obsessed world, people should indeed keep this in mind.

  6. Hi … cool text … but I have to smile or laugh a bit when I read this because it reminds me somehow of an Israelian dojo motto a friend told me about that said: “Training is not an option.” … just a thought.

    Bytheway … the private teacher I just study under on Friday afternoons with not more than 2 or three other people is very good and learned from a great Israelian teacher at a time. He is not “poisoned style” at all … and although a Sergant in the defence-ministery here in Germany he is a very warm, sincere and not “drill-sergent-style” person at all.

    This teacher is half-Asian and I was a bit surprised because he almost looks somehow like the person on Christopher’s photo :-))

    Sorry … if I am a bit off-topic right now. That’s probably because of the night shift(s).

    But I just wanted to leave a comment since I had a dream the night before last night about An-shu answering some of my questions in this dream when I was sleeping. But I just remember my very last question in that dream just when I woke up … I was asking: “Who on earth is (are) this beautiful KU-No-Ichi on the front cover of the book with the title “Spirit of the Shadow Warrior.”?

    She reminds me of someone very dear and special … so.

    But right now I have to do another night-shift … although I would prefer to work for the protection of Kundun in the not too distant future instead of this kind of stupid protection of objects job.


  7. I needed to know that 🙂

    Failure is an option, but we should “fail forward”.

    Great stuff An-Shu.

  8. Success is often a form of failure.

  9. Long time student at a distance, and oftentimes not studying quite enough… still, always learning.
    Sometimes, it seems, returning to the same lessons after some time, finding them as true as ever, if not more so – but myself, having grown a bit after all.

    So, having recently moved (from Austria) to China to follow a long-held dream of getting to know this country, language, and culture, and putting myself on the line: Thank you so much for that post.
    It comes at a good time, when I’m torn between optimism and confidence, and reluctance to go on with some things because of the risk of failure. I noticed, however, that I don’t want to miss any of the experiences, whether good or bad, or as some of the most important ones now are, bitter-sweet.

    Life may be both joy and suffering, but trying to avoid any of those, it would be less than a life.

  10. Thank you, I appreciate the truth of this post. I am not a To Shin Do student, just a passer-by. In the self-defense industry you see slogans like this all the time. In moments of violence, failure could be catastrophic. But if one prepares for such possibilities, you will fail many times over. How many times have you missed the lock, not blocked when you should have, or be on the ground looking up when you didn’t want to be? Our failures lead to growth if we perservere, which leads to success. Falling down is not nearly as important as getting back up.

  11. What many call failure is but another opportunity to learn a new way that does not directly lead to ones goal.

    Of course, that discovery will lead to the goal through indirect means, so in the end all paths lead to ones goal in some way.

  12. Good news: As we get older and wiser we tend to make fewer serious strategic screw-ups.

    Bad News: We start to screw up in the basics, like remembering what the heck happened yesterday.

  13. It’s always a relief when sooenme with obvious expertise answers. Thanks!

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