Plan B Is the New Plan A: The Key to Overcoming Failure
When I was in fifth grade and my brother was in fourth, my parents signed us up to play soccer for Shaler Soccer Club. It was the first year for the program, and it was kind of a big deal because we were one of the first communities in our area to have an organized soccer league. My dad was excited to get us involved since he didn’t have the opportunity to play organized sports until he was older. And even though money was very tight, we could afford the $20 per child fee. He didn’t have any aspirations for us to receive a full ride to college when he registered his ten- and eleven-year-old children for the season; he was just happy that we would be getting exercise.
In my generation, parents are crazy enough to pay thousands—and I mean, thousands—of dollars for their nine-year-olds to play year round and attend tournaments out of state. The main objective is no longer just exercise. This is a far cry from the $20 fee days. Our kids can’t even play for a school-funded team for $20. There is no judgement here if this is you, because I’ve done it too. Our older kids both played hockey at the same time, and we’re guilty of the above.
It’s no wonder that both we and our children suffer from anxiety at alarming rates. We have this notion that our six-year-old is going to be the next Sydney Crosby or Matt Stafford, so we invest in the best equipment and the most elite training. So when our growing, awkward fifteen-year-old son is cut from the school football or hockey team, we both feel like failures. No pressure there.
Sports are not the only arena where this incredible focus on performance starts at a very young age. The stress of getting into an elite university can begin in ninth grade. A bad grade in algebra as a fifteen-year-old can affect a student’s GPA to the point where it ruins their opportunity for acceptance to their higher education institution of choice. When I was in school, we took college placement tests once, maybe twice. There are now courses that students can take to prepare them for taking college placement tests so that they can compete with students across the country for limited spots. The competitive nature of academics has reached a new level. It can be a hard pill to swallow when our children have to accept our second or third choice in colleges when they’ve worked this hard for their goals and dreams.
The Price for Perfection
We have trained ourselves and our children, me included, to believe that failure is not an option. In fact, many respectable sources tell us that the way to ensure that we will reach our goals is to not even have a plan B. Plan A is the only possibility. As a culture, we have convinced ourselves that we’re better than second place. We have to be the biggest, brightest, most successful, or wealthiest, or we have failed.
Don’t get me wrong: I am all for aiming high. It’s important not to underestimate the value in setting goals for ourselves. As we discussed in chapter 3, if we don’t determine who we are and what we want to be, then someone else will. Constructing an ambitious plan, putting in the necessary time and effort to make it a reality, and never giving up are all admirable. This ambition and drive—the feeling of being imperviable to failure—are to be applauded.
But they come at a price. The price is our sense of personal peace. We lie awake at night obsessing about our failures and how we can work harder to be…well, perfect. The reason that adults and children alike are experiencing anxiety issues at unprecedented levels is because we have told ourselves that failure isn’t an option. If something doesn’t go according to plan, we are weak and imperfect.
Guess what…we’re by default weak and imperfect. Let yourself off the hook.
Failure Is an Option
So, what if we fail? What happens when failure turns out to be a viable option? There are times when our plan of playing professional baseball, going to law school, joining the military, performing on Broadway, or being signed by a major record label doesn’t materialize in the timeframe that we are convinced it would. Our window for fulfilling our dreams is closing fast, or at least we tell ourselves this. What if we are rejected by the MLB, the Screen Actors Guild, Harvard Law, etc.? Despite our best efforts, there are times when plan A becomes a tiny speck in the rearview mirror. Should we just quit or lower our expectations?
The fear of failure doesn’t just apply to long-term, “dream big” goals either. This fear is constantly on our minds in our day-to-day routines. We’re afraid that we won’t get everything done on our to-do list today, or that the proposal we’ve spent the last six weeks putting together at work will be rejected, or that we will mess up the recipe that we’re making for dinner tonight, or that our spouse won’t like the birthday gift we bought for them, and the list goes on. Let’s not forget that “trial and error” is often the most effective process for determining the best and most successful solution to any problem. We want to be perfect on the first try, but that’s just not realistic or productive.
Think about it this way: let’s say that you have vacation plans in Florida with your family. You’ve planned for three months for this trip, and the car is now loaded and everyone is ready for a road trip. The first ten hours of the journey go by without incident, but as you are heading south on I-95 through Georgia, there’s a flashing sign saying, “Road Closed Ahead.” Flooding has caused a road closure on your current route. What do you do now? Do you turn around and go back home?
Of course not. You find a detour to get around the roadblock so that you can continue toward your destination.
No Is Just for Now
Failure can actually be a springboard to success, taking us places that we would not typically go if we had never encountered obstacles. It causes us to work harder, dream bigger, and think outside of the proverbial box. It appears that there is a certain level of success that can only be accessed by the will, opportunities, and grit that come as a direct result from failure and setbacks. G. K. Chesterton, a theologian from the early twentieth century said this: “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”[i]
Personally, I’ve observed that there are very few pathways to success that do not originate, or at the very least travel through, the valley of rejection and trials.
Success is a funny thing. It can’t be predicted with a formula; intelligence, skill, and opportunity do not guarantee achievement. When success comes too quickly and too easily[CC1] , it’s very hard to sustain.
You are probably familiar with NLF elites Tom Brady, Shannon Sharp, and Antonio Brown. But are you familiar with the names Aaron Maybin, Russell Erxleben, David Klingler, Andre Wadsworth, Courtney Brown, Cedric Benson, Trev Alberts, Curtis Enis, Tony Mandarich, Ryan Leaf, or JaMarcus Russell? Even if they sound remotely familiar, they are certainly not household names. You may be surprised to find that they were all NFL first-round draft picks.[ii]
Yes, they were the top of their class, the cream of the crop. They were told that they couldn’t fail. They were courted by the top agents in the country and were probably voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by their high school classmates. But all of their talent and good fortune couldn’t guarantee a contract with the NFL.