Failure is Not an Option

12.19.2014 | 10:05 am

“Failure is not an option. 

How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said it yourself? No, don’t answer either of those questions. (At least, not out loud. I can’t hear you.)

Here’s a little piece of actual wisdom for you, though: if you’re doing a hard ride—whether you’re training or racing—saying “failure is not an option” is completely idiotic.

I know, it’s tempting to say it. It sounds like you’re being tough when you say it. Determined. Resilient. Like you are hell-bent on not failing.

But you know what? When you say that—or think it—you’re explicitly imagining failure. You’re thinking about what a DNF looks like. You’re considering the call of shame. Even as you’re saying it, a chunk of your brain is preparing a rebuttal.

You may not like the idea of that failure, but you’ve planted the seed. You know what it looks like. And as the ride goes on and gets tougher, that seed can start growing. 

Slowly, you realize the counterargument to this aphorism is in fact more correct: “Failure is always an option.”

So do this instead: when you’re riding and suffering, think about the finishing line. About having just enough energy to stand and sprint across it. Think about the story you will have to tell after you finish this thing—about the story you are living right this second.

Think about your current effort, and how three percent of that is your ace in the hole. If you’re about to blow up or cave in, you have the option of dialing back your effort by that three percent. And then keep going.

Think about anything that does not include failure, or even the absence thereof.

I know, I know: This sounds like The Secret. And that might be because there is in fact something to be said for this philosophy when it comes to making decisions: you can’t decide to quit if you’ve never entertained the notion of quitting. 

Does this mean you’ll always finish every race, that you’ll ride strong to the end of every ride? No. Because occasionally you might hit the actual end of your strength; you will get to the point where you honestly cannot go any further. 

When that happens, you haven’t failed; you’ve just found the edge of your envelope. And you can’t stretch it next time if you don’t know where it is. 

An effort like that isn’t just a success; it’s a huge success.

Don’t say, “Failure is not an option.” Instead, focus on success.

It makes a difference. 


  1. Comment by ScottyCycles62 | 12.19.2014 | 10:15 am

    You can learn more from failure than success. Like you said you’ll know where the edge of your envelope is and push it. You will also be able to train that particular weakness.

  2. Comment by RB | 12.19.2014 | 10:21 am

    “Failure is not an option” is faaaaar worse than Rule 5. You can always get harder. Your team can always do a little bit more. Failures will happen. Building on Scotty Cycles…if you don’t fail, you won’t learn.

    FACT: the greatest of all time have lost more races than they have won.

  3. Comment by RedRivRev | 12.19.2014 | 10:21 am

    Agree with above, though we need to define failure a bit, too. You do usually learn more from losing than winning, because you now have a gauge of what it means to be better. In bike riding, you see somebody who rides better, which means you open your mind to the possibility that you could ride like that, too. Whether you see that losing as failure is a matter of perspective.

    My personal example comes from a completely different world, as a chess player. I’m a chess master, and one of the things that made that possible was an attitude as a young person that my rating *should* improve whenever I lose, because I wouldn’t be making that mistake again. Hence, losing made me better. Winning didn’t always do that.

    Failure in that world, as well as the world of cycling, is not trying–not giving it your all. Deciding that because you are losing it’s not worth it.

  4. Comment by ClydeinKS | 12.19.2014 | 10:36 am

    On rides and through life there are no failures, miscues and platforms for learning and redirecting to success – absolutely. Practice harder, train harder, study longer, whatever the case may be there are no failures. The very thought of failure can bring you down and then become fear which can consume your thoughts. Indeed, focus on success and make the steps small if need be. Once the goal is set, I follow Jim Valvano’s advice – “don’t give up, don’t ever give up!” Achieve and move to the next challenge! The next mile marker, the next tree, the next period/quarter/half, the next semester, the next….

  5. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 12.19.2014 | 10:53 am

    Failure is a lesser option.

    I can’t count the number of times I continued because I wanted to be part of the group that finished. Or post to Strava. Or just be happy with my effort.

    So it’s been those successes that have pushed me forward. Which, I think, is exactly Fatty’s point.

    One of my most memorable successes was on the Mt Greylock climb in western MA (note: the summit at 3491′ is about 140′ higher than the LOWEST point in my other “home” state, CO). This was the climb from the north, which is the harder of the two climbs. On one double-digit percent grade, I mentally gave up and just KNEW that I was going to unclip and stop.

    But I was wrong. Not because “failure is not an option” or because I valued success too much, but because I simply didn’t have the energy left to unclip.

    As it happens, it was only a hundred feet or so until the around the next bend that the road flattened out. If I HAD unclipped, wow I would have been mad at myself.

  6. Comment by berry | 12.19.2014 | 11:36 am

    Great post. And a nice Friday surprise, too!

  7. Comment by Heidi | 12.19.2014 | 11:51 am

    “focus on success”

    Yes! And throw some happy in for good measure.

  8. Comment by Miles Archer | 12.19.2014 | 12:32 pm

    Ever watch Mythbusters?

    (Why the heck not!)

  9. Comment by Henry Gillow-Wiles | 12.19.2014 | 12:41 pm

    As much as I like the more personal stuff you blog about (race reports, stuff about the Hammer, your kids, your extended family, etc.), it makes me happy to read these last two posts debunking the stupid, somewhat counter-productive “motivational” soundbites I hear. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the “second place is first loser” thinking that often turns a great experience into a painful memory.

    One of the best lessons I ever learned was riding with my lovely wife. She was able to convince me that every ride doesn’t have to be a race and that not riding this century faster than the last wasn’t a failure. With this shift in perspective came a shift in my memories of our rides together. Instead of being disappointed in my performance, I now think back with happiness about being able to share a fun experience with someone who means so much to me.

    Good for you in all that you do and how about tackling “Give 110% all the time” next.

  10. Comment by malkin71 | 12.19.2014 | 1:18 pm

    I have read all these. Failure is really nothing more than the step to success not matter how small or how difficult or how demanding. The times you think you are at the end of envelope , seal it and deliver it back to yourself. Then start again!

  11. Comment by MattC | 12.19.2014 | 1:32 pm

    “Failure is not an option” applies in my world only when I’m mt biking. Where I’m going outside my envelope and trying the kind of move where once started you are totally committed, and yes, Failure is NOT an option.

    As to the rest of my life, failure is a state of mind. I used to play a LOT of beach volleyball. I played up a division from where I should have been playing, and got beat almost always. However, IF I played well, to the best of my abilities, then it was a complete and utter success. Failure was only when I did not play my best game.

    As to road rides (and failure), I think the old pilot’s landing motto (any landing you can walk away from is a good one) re-worded for cycling applies: any ride you walk away from was a good one. The word failure doesn’t even come to mind. However, the word “pathetic” pops into my mind now and then, mostly around this time of year when my cycling hours have shriveled up to near non-existant. Pathetic, and Wimpy. Yep…but not Failure.

  12. Comment by CVR | 12.19.2014 | 1:36 pm

    when you wake up while being loaded into a ambulance you know you probably should have dialed it back a bit. But I now know when you I start seeing gnomes dial it back and when they are talking to you things are about to go dark.

  13. Comment by Papa Bear | 12.19.2014 | 1:47 pm

    I took a lesson from the FISH! Philosophy management technique that basically sums up as “Choose Your Attitude”. That one statement makes so much sense! If you go to work, or on a ride, or to the store for that matter and you think “This day is going to suck”… well, guess what… That day IS going to suck! Go into your day (or ride, or whatever) with the attitude “I’m going to have a good day no matter what happens” and you will have a good day. You may not win your race, you may not even finish, but you will have had a good time doing whatever it was, and you will learn a lesson about whatever beat you. You will see what you can work on, and you will have ENJOYED the experience.

    Try it, you’ll like it!

  14. Comment by Brian in VA | 12.19.2014 | 1:55 pm

    You’re on to something, Fatty!

    I’m told that the human brain doesn’t recognize the negative. As a competitive pool player, I’ve taught myself to say, “Make the stroke” rather than “Don’t miss this” because the brain hears “Miss this” instead.

    It works. Always look to succeed!

  15. Comment by Jim | 12.19.2014 | 2:27 pm

    Bike racing is all about the excuse. Failure is not only an option, it happens to all but one in the race!

  16. Comment by Anonymous | 12.19.2014 | 2:45 pm

    Failure is like trying to avoid something on the road/ trail. If you look at the thing your trying to avoid, you will likely hit it. If you look where you want to go instead, chances are you will be just fine. Turns out that is a pretty good perspective on life too- the power of positive thought. I take the long view, every day I wake up and am able to get out of bed on my own is a good day. Everything else is a bonus.

  17. Comment by JL | 12.19.2014 | 2:51 pm

    I think you are saying this:

  18. Comment by UpTheGrade, SR, CA | 12.19.2014 | 3:34 pm

    Wise words indeed.
    Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from the better cyclists around here is never to focus on what you want to avoid. That is especially true for a rough mountain bike trail and for potholes on the road, and I suspect it is equally true for motivation as you point out. Focus where you want to go and your body will follow, somehow. In my experience, this works.

  19. Comment by bykjunkie | 12.19.2014 | 6:05 pm

    There is no failure in what we all love to do. Just ride and enjoy the ride. it is that simple. just my take…..

    And a mighty fine take it is. – FC

  20. Comment by leroy | 12.20.2014 | 9:59 am

    My dog explained that if failure is an option, you’re in the wrong line at the buffet.

    Wonder if that applies to dim sum.

    Probably should check that out.

  21. Comment by J | 12.20.2014 | 12:42 pm

    Secsess is always an option

  22. Comment by esteefatty | 12.20.2014 | 2:47 pm

    Thanks Fatty, loved this post and the way it dovetailed with Paul Guyot’s newsletter post “A Goal is Not a Plan” Initially stunned when a doctor said, “they always come back , you will be on chemo the rest of your life”. Then I thought, I plan to be exceptional. I’m with Up the Grade, SR, CA, Anonymous, Papa Bear and Bykjunkie. Attitude counts, Baby. Did anyone else just hear Al Davis…

  23. Comment by Brad | 12.21.2014 | 9:13 am

    There is a local triathlon club whose logo is a circle with a line across the letters “DNF”. I can’t imagine starting every race with DNF on your back; “Finish Strong” would be a much better option.

  24. Comment by Mark in Bremerton | 12.21.2014 | 4:20 pm

    Wisdom, for sure.

    There is a local triathlon group here of mostly middle aged, overweight, women started by a real dynamic woman whose motto is “The miracle isn’t that I finished, the miracle is that I had the courage to start”. (

    My paraphrase; the only failure is not starting.

    Ooh, I like that! – FC

  25. Comment by Kate | 12.21.2014 | 6:07 pm

    Love this.

    My mind works better when I tell myself “just ride as long as you can” rather than something like “no stopping!” Maybe it’s like you said, when you say no stopping your body just hears that last thing. Which is funny now that I’m reading you say it and repeating it, because when I used to work residential care for kids with severe/profound disabilities one of the early things we learned was the importance of stating things in a positive manner (“please put down the toy” rather than “don’t throw the toy!”) because they’d skip right over the “don’t” and throw the toy.

    But I digress. What I cling to during tough times in races is a line I first heard from a friend: “Just thing how good the story wouldn’t be if it ended ‘and then it got hard and we quit.’” So I think about how I want my race story to end.

    Thinking about how I want my race story to end is a huge motivator to me too. – FC

  26. Comment by Anonymous | 12.21.2014 | 9:04 pm

    What the?? Is it free verse Friday and nobody told me?

    In any case, that’s not a bad attempt at an unintentional haiku.

  27. Comment by Spencer | 12.22.2014 | 9:59 am

    My little brother hit a tree while snowboarding. Afterward, I asked him how he hit the tree. He said “I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I thought I might hit it.”

  28. Comment by Chris | 12.22.2014 | 3:34 pm

    Very complex, that phrase. We cannot forget where it was originally sourced: Gene Kranz, Flight Director for Apollo 13. There, “Failure (was) not an option.”

    Context is terribly important. When you’re dealing with people’s lives, whether it’s space exploration, military activities, firefighting, whathaveyou, “Failure is not an option.”

    For the rest of us, it’s not so much that “Failure is not an option”, it’s having a better, realistic definition of success, then acting appropriately in reaching that success.

    The most successful people fail much more often than they succeed. Those failures were not, truly, failures; instead, they were learning experiences, opportunities to grow smarter, wiser, stronger, somehow better than they were when they went in.

    A 7:55 Leadville is a great goal, and you’re taking the steps to accomplish that goal. In a real sense, you’re living “failure is not an option”: A good, achievable goal; a solid plan on how to accomplish that goal; and executing that plan. I’m quite sure you’ll hit it; but, if not, you’ll understand why and learn from the experience – while still probably faster than in the past.

    Others might set more reasonable goals, but with our individual experiences, talents, and personal circumstances those goals are just as challenging.

    To me, failure is only when one sets a goal one cannot accomplish, doesn’t take the appropriate steps to accomplish it, attempt under circumstances one cannot control or overcome, and then doesn’t take away something from the attempt. No preparation, and no learning.

    In that sense, “Failure is not an option.”

  29. Comment by @NosajMoore | 12.22.2014 | 6:00 pm

    They’ll tell you “failure is not an option.”
    That is ridiculous, failure is always an option.
    Failure is the most readily available option at all times; but it’s a choice.
    You can choose to fail or you can choose to succeed.
    Chael P. Sonnen

  30. Comment by GregC | 12.23.2014 | 9:09 am

    The Great Fatsby book arrived today, love the inscription! If you had half as much fun writing this book as I am enjoying reading it, this is a huge success all around. Reliving the old posts with your new insights brightens everyday. Thank you Eldon!!!

  31. Comment by Gary | 12.23.2014 | 11:02 am

    I always liked this one:

    “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” ~John Wooden

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