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.
Walt Disney said, “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young…because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid.”[iii]
Below are some names you may be familiar with. These men and women all experienced some good, hard failure when they were young that provided the springboard for their success:
· Steven Spielberg, famed film producer whose movies have grossed more than $9 billion and won three Academy Awards, was rejected twice by Southern California’s School of the Arts.
· Jerry Seinfeld was booed off the stage at his first show.
· Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
· Elvis Presley was told that he couldn’t sing.
· Bill Gates’s first business failed.
· Katy Perry was dropped by three record labels by the age of twenty-four.
· Charles Shultz’s cartoons were rejected by his high school yearbook staff.
· Madonna was fired from Dunkin Donuts after accidently squirting jelly on a customer (ha ha, that’s great).
· Jay-Z was turned down by every major record label, so he started selling CDs out of the trunk of his car in order to make ends meet. He later started his own recording label.
· Sylvester Stallone was rejected 1,500 times by talent scouts and agents. He was offered $325,000 for his Rocky script on the condition that he would not star in the film. Eventually he accepted just $35,000 and a percentage of the film’s sales so that he could play the lead role. The movie grossed over $200 million at the box office! [iv]
Failure is inevitable, but quitting should not be an option.
We have the choice to assign value to our failure, or just wear the big L on our forehead and give up and go home. We always have a choice. A wise woman once told me, “If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters—204 if you’re in Japan.”[v]
It’s Not How You Start but How You Finish
I mentioned Tom Brady earlier. Did you realize that, unlike the men mentioned above who were first-round draft picks, Brady was drafted number 199 in the 2000 NFL draft? I would imagine that people attending the event were ready to pack up and go home by the time his name was called. I was amazed to discover that Brady, the only NFL player to be honored with four Super Bowl MVP awards, was not good enough in ninth grade to start the season on the 0–8 JV team that had not scored a touchdown all year.[vi]
Also joining the group of late-to-the-party, low draft picks who experience breakout success in the NFL is the highest paid player in NFL history, Kirk Cousins (fourth round), along with Terrell Davis (sixth round), Antonio Brown (sixth round), Shannon Sharpe (seventh round), Richard Sherman (fifth round), and Johnny Unitas (ninth round). It’s interesting to note that Unitas, a football legend in the 1950s, was cut from the Pittsburgh Steelers and forced to take a job in construction before winning a tryout with the Indianapolis Colts.[vii]
There are times when conditions outside of our control steal our plan A, right out from underneath us. Several years back there was a contestant on the popular reality show America’s Got Talent by the name of Mandy Harvey. Mandy was pursuing a degree in Music Education at a local university when she lost her hearing from a connective tissue disorder.[viii] What started as a cold developed into a virus that damaged her hearing permanently. She recalled the worst day of her life: She was sitting in class waiting for the music to start so that she and her classmates could chart the notes for an exam. As she was still waiting for the music to begin, one by one the rest of her classmates put down their pencils and exited the room. Her hearing was so damaged that she didn’t know that the music was playing. She was devastated. That was the day she realized that her dream of a career in music education was gone forever.
Then, nearly ten years later, she stood on the stage waiting to be judged for the performance of her original song[CC2] . Even though she still couldn’t hear the music, she didn’t allow it to stop her from pursuing her passion. To compensate, she took off her shoes so that she could feel the floor’s vibrations for her cue to come in. Was that her original plan? Of course not, but Mandy didn’t quit. Yes, it took her some time to regroup, but she didn’t pack up her toys and go home, even when the situation looked bleak.
Rejection is similar to that detour on the way to your vacation home. Like detours, these setbacks can throw a wrench in our plans and waste valuable time, leaving us miserable and frustrated. But rejection, like a detour, is a necessary evil. Detours steer us away from danger in order to get us back on track for reaching our destination. Rejection can also guide us away from traps that could shipwreck our chances for success.
It reminds me of a story that my father used to tell:
A battleship had been at sea on its routine maneuvers under heavy weather for days. The captain, who was worried about the deteriorating weather conditions, stayed on the bridge to keep an eye on all activities.
One night, the lookout on the bridge suddenly shouted, “Captain! A light, bearing on the starboard bow.”
“Is it stationary or moving astern?” the captain asked.
The lookout replied that it was stationary. This meant the battleship was on a dangerous collision course with the other ship. The captain immediately ordered his signalman to signal to the ship: “We are on a collision course. I advise you to change course 20 degrees east.”
Back came a response from the other ship: “You change course 20 degrees west.”
Agitated by the arrogance of the response, the captain asked his signalman to shoot out another message: “I am a captain, you change course 20 degrees east.”
Back came the second response: “I am a second-class seaman, you had still better change course 20 degrees west.”
The captain was furious! He shouted to the signalman to send back a final message: “I am a battleship. Change course 20 degrees east right now.”
Back came the flashing response: “I am a lighthouse.”
The captain changed his course 20 degrees west.[ix]
In the same way, failure can redirect us. It took me a long time to recognize that failure and rejection were not signs to give up; they were an indication that I needed to change my course twenty degrees! Being rejected by a prospective employer or publishing company didn’t mean that I should quit looking for a job or trying to get my book published. It wasn’t a sign that I was a failure and should just give up. It meant that I needed to switch gears and try another company or contact.
Rejection was an indication that the employer or the publishing house I was pursuing wasn’t the best fit for me at that time. Being offered the wrong position, even with the right company, could cause a setback that would take me years to overcome. I trusted that even when I couldn’t see more than two steps in front of my face, I needed to keep doing what I knew to do.[x]
I have understood for a long time that God has a plan and purpose for my life, but what I have recently come to appreciate is that failure—missteps, rejection, and disappointments—is an important part of His plan for me. My failures, more than my successes, have shaped who I am and presented a path forward. Failure creates the type of resiliency that we’ve discussed in previous chapters.
For the sake of our sanity we need to realize that failure is not only an option, but an inevitable reality. Resist the need to be perfect 100 percent of the time. The question is not, Am I going to fail? The question is, What will I do with my failure? If we choose to learn from our mistakes and shortcomings, we will have the opportunity to reach new heights that we could not otherwise achieve.
Our frustration comes, not because we can’t have it all, but because we can’t have it all right now. Moving on to plan B is not the same as failing. Plan B is often the new, improved version of plan A. Sometimes, when we are willing to abandon what we have believed all of our life to be plan A—the individual we thought we would marry, the career we thought we would have, the role we thought we would play—we are conceding that God had something much greater planned for us that our finite minds could simply not comprehend. In the words of Thomas Rhett, “We make our plans and we hear God laughing.”[xi] Sometimes we need to thank God for unanswered prayers.
Even when we fail morally and suffer dire consequences for our choices God is not so small-minded that he can’t redeem our mistakes and chart a new course for us. After all, He is the author of “Plan B.” The Creator of the universe gave man free will to make his own choices. We understand when we read the account of Noah’s ark and the flood that when God created mankind, failure was an option. We are not perfect, nor can we be. He understands our propensity toward self-destruction and still doesn’t give up on us.
The only marks for failure that show up in the scorebook are when we quit or don’t try at all. When we experience failure and rejection, we should recognize that we aren’t perfect. Like God’s plan for us, our plan for ourselves should be dynamic—marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change.[xii] Plan B isn’t failure, it’s progress.
[i] Richard Conlin, “Chesterton on Humility,” The Prodigal Catholic Blog (blog), May 19, 2016, https://richardconlin.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/chesterton-on-humility/.
[ii] Dan Van Wie, “32 Worst First-Round Draft Picks in NFL History,” Bleacher Report, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/980759-32-worst-first-round-picks-in-nfl-history#slide6.
[iii] Wanderlust Worker, “48 Famous Failures Who Will Inspire You to Achieve,” Wanderlustworker.com, https://www.wanderlustworker.com/48-famous-failures-who-will-inspire-you-to-achieve/.
[v] Claire Cook, Seven Year Switch (New York: Hyperion, 2014).
[vi] Rich Cimini, “Story of Boy Named Tom Brady,” NY Daily News, January 25, 2008, https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/giants/story-boy-named-tom-brady-article-1.341686.
[vii] Chris Chase, “The Best Late-Round NFL Draft Picks Not Named Tom Brady,” USA Today Sports, April 25, 2018, https://ftw.usatoday.com/2018/04/2018-nfl-draft-late-round-picks-tom-brady-richard-sherman-kirk-cousins.
[viii] Mandy Harvey, “Deaf Singer Earns Simon’s Golden Buzzer with Original Song,” America’s Got Talent, June 6, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKSWXzAnVe0.
[ix] Hwai Tah Lee, “Coaching Story: The Battleship on a Collision Course,” Coaching Journey, https://coaching-journey.com/coaching-story-the-battleship-on-a-collision-course/.
[x] Psalm 119:105.
[xi] Thomas Rhett, “Life Changes,” first released on August 31, 2017, Genius, https://genius.com/Thomas-rhett-life-changes-lyrics.
[xii] “dynamic,” Merriam-Webster.com, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dynamic.
[CC1]Have you heard of the butterfly coming out of a cocoon analogy?
Earlier this month, [CC2]she appeared on the Champions version of the show, where previous contestants from all over the world compete.