Failure is Always an Option

Allen Faulton
10 min readApr 14, 2023


An Article of the Modern Survival Guide

Photo by Nathan Cowley:

Hi, and welcome to the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog about things you need to know to survive the modern world. And in the modern world, which is a pretty dense minefield in many ways, there are a lot of opportunities for failure — at work, at home, in social life, and of course personal failures.

In this article we’re going to talk about failure, and in particular how most failures happen and how we can respond to them, because here’s the thing: you are going to fail at something, at some point, and some of those failures are going to be crushing. To err is human, we are all human, therefore we will all make mistakes, and some of those mistakes will cause a failure. It’s best to know how to deal with it.

Failure is formally defined as a lack of success or an inability to complete a task. Now, the first part of that definition is tricky — success is a very individualized concept — and the second part is a bit of a trap, because it’s arguably not particularly insightful to say that I failed at something in which I had no chance of success.¹

Maybe we can narrow this down a bit. When we commonly talk about failure, what we usually mean is that someone embarked on a task that they had a reasonable and expected chance of completing to a certain standard, and they were not able to complete that task or meet that standard.²

With that in mind, let’s all collectively accept the simple truth that failure is always an option, and we should be prepared for it. To that end, we will look at five ways that failures typically happen, and what you can do about them. These are, in descending order of fault and descending possibility of mitigation:

  • Failure due to incompetence
  • Failure due to ignorance
  • Failure due to interference
  • Failure due to malicious action
  • Failure due to chance

Each of these failures happens for different reasons, and countering the chance of each type of failure occurring is something that we can do, with greater or lesser degrees of efficacy, in most cases. Don’t get me wrong, you will still fail. But that doesn’t mean that everyone fails equally, which is to say that we can mitigate most failures to some extent. Let’s dive in.

Failure Due to Incompetence

This is the classic sort of failure, when you fail at a task because you simply were not good at it in some form or fashion. Incompetence in this sense can mean a lot of things; you might be insufficiently trained to attempt the task, you might make foolish choices that doom the endeavor, you might flub a key action, or you might trust the wrong people (and this isn’t even slightly an exclusive list).

The bottom line for any failure due to incompetence is that you failed because you, personally, messed up. You had a chance to succeed, there was a reasonable expectation that you could succeed, and you quite simply did something wrong.

I’m not judging. We’ve all been there.

Now here’s the thing: most of the time, failure due to incompetence is the easiest type of failure to mitigate, because incompetence (particularly your own incompetence) is something that is typically a problem with a solution. Because of this, people tend to heap a lot of blame on those who suffer from failures due to incompetence.

Failure Due to Ignorance

A failure due to ignorance is a situation in which you fail because you didn’t know enough to succeed. Common examples include messing up a work assignment because you didn’t know about a requirement, making a conversational faux pas, or simply not being aware of an opportunity.

This might seem similar to a failure due to incompetence, but it’s actually very different. A failure due to incompetence means you were just bad at doing the thing. A failure due to ignorance means you lacked a key piece of information. You might be very good at whatever thing it is you’re doing, and still fail because you were ignorant of a piece of the puzzle.

Every failure due to ignorance is mitigatable to some extent, but the bottom line is that you failed because you lacked knowledge… and it’s hard to know what you don’t know. This is why formal training is so important in so many careers and activities — self-taught people are typically more likely to commit a failure of ignorance because they often lack the experience of being trained by someone with expertise and deep subject knowledge.

Failure Due to Interference

Broadly speaking, this type of failure occurs when you are embarked on a course of action and something interrupts you at a critical moment. Common examples of a failure due to interference include things like getting sick and missing a work assignment, getting in a car wreck because you got distracted by a spider dropping from the dashboard, or forgetting to take out the trash because your baby was crying.

It’s possible to mitigate a failure due to interference, but by it’s very nature this type of failure is something that interposed itself at a moment and in a way you didn’t expect. It’s never the rock you see that trips you. Nonetheless it is possible with preparation to lower your chances of failure due to interference.

Failure Due to Malicious Action

The difference between “interference” and “malicious action” in this sense is that malicious action is done with intent, and interference is not. A malicious action means that someone or something decided they didn’t want you to succeed, and took steps to ensure that you didn’t. Common examples include things like murder, stealing credit for another person’s work, and your cat tripping you on the stairs. You know it was malicious if a cat did it.

It’s possible to mitigate a failure due to malicious action, but the problem here is that you’re going up against another person’s intelligence and will; that can be very hard to counter, especially if they are prepared and you aren’t. Accordingly, people are significantly less likely to blame you for failure if they know that someone or something was actively working against you (unless, of course, if was your specific job to stop the malicious actor).

Failure Due to Chance

A failure due to chance simply means that you did everything right and you still failed because of factors completely outside of your control. The universe rolled the dice and you came up sixes; it sucks, but it happens more often than most of us are comfortable with. Some examples include having someone else hit you with their car, opening a business just in time for a recession, and the Kobayashi Maru.³

It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate a failure due to chance, because by its very nature this type of failure is something that is difficult to predict, beyond your control, and non-systemic. You can do absolutely everything right and still get hit by a bus tomorrow, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it. Eventually we all have to leave the house. And even if you stay home all the time, your fridge will probably fall on you out of a sheer piqued sense of irony.

Mitigating Failure

I use this word a lot: “mitigation.” To mitigate an event in this sense means that you decrease the severity of its consequences or decrease the odds of it happening. Note that phrasing — I’m not planning to give you advice on how to avoid all failure, necessarily; this is more along the lines of how you fail fast and fail soft, so that the fall isn’t so bad.

Now, there are a lot of ways to mitigate failure, and most of them boil down to one word: contingency.

A contingency is a just a plan to do something in response to something else. Establishing contingency plans is how you mitigate most failures, operating from the assumption that failure is always an option and therefore we should be prepared for it. Every contingency requires that you do at least the following things, in more or less this order:

  • Establish a list of risks: For any significant activity, it’s worthwhile to think about (and in many cases write down) a list of things that could go wrong. For example, when driving a car, there’s a long list of things that could go wrong — I could get a flat tire, I could fall asleep at the wheel, someone could hit me, a spider could drop from the car roof causing me to veer into oncoming traffic in terrified shock, etc. Making this list forces you to think through potential risks and consequences, which is almost always useful. This is basically the whole point of Driver’s Education.
  • Catalogue your resources: Now that you have a list of what could go wrong, figure out what resources you have on hand to blunt each risk. To continue the example, I might note that I have a spare tire, I have a radio to keep me awake and money to buy coffee, I have airbags to protect me from impact, and I’m sure someone makes an anti-spider facemask for sale somewhere on the internet.
  • Understand your limits: No one has infinite resources, infinite patience, infinite time, or infinite knowledge, because we aren’t Gods. Some risks aren’t worth mitigating, others can’t be mitigated at all, and others can’t be mitigate through the application of your personal resources. Those risks should be noted and accepted, but no further action needs to be taken because there’s nothing more you can do. I cannot build or buy a car that will protect me from a head-on 100 mph impact if some random drunk guy jumps the median and crashes into me, and therefore that’s a risk that isn’t worth mitigating.
  • Learn from past failures: Pretty much every failure has happened before; you’re not nearly as unique as you might think, and if you ever find yourself doing something 100% new to the human species, well… good luck! You will need it. But most of the time, other people have already gone ahead and committed most of the failures we’re likely to encounter. A fair few of those people wrote down their experiences, or are happy to tell you about it if asked. Listen to those people, learn what you can, and apply that knowledge forward. Do the same for your own past failures.
  • Establish contingency actions for failure scenarios: Now you’re ready to plan your contingencies. For example, I acknowledge the risk that a spider may drop down on my head while I’m driving. I understand that there are few products I can buy that are guaranteed to prevent this from happening, and most of them represent an unreasonable reaction to the risk, but I am in possession of two eyes and a brain. I know from past experience that spiders usually drop from the car roof. Therefore before I get into my car, I will check the roof for spiders. And if a spider drops on me anyway, I will plan to avoid freaking out, find a place to pull over where I can safely exit the car, and then proceed to run around screaming for a bit while beating my head with my heads in an attempt to dislodge (or possibly terrify and traumatize) the spider. The mere fact that I have planned this makes it more likely I will actually keep my shit together and do it.

If we go down the list from earlier — failures due to incompetence, ignorance, interference, malice, or chance — we can expect to apply fewer contingencies as we move from a failure due to incompetence to a failure due to chance. For example, to mitigate the chances that I fail due to incompetence at work project, I might take classes, practice the activity beforehand, find a mentor, find someone to double-check my work, or use any one of the dizzying number of project management strategies to identify trigger points or tripwires that would alert me that I’m screwing up and give me the chance to bail out before things get too screwy.

In contrast, my contingency for a coworker backstabbing me is probably just to keep an eye on the office gossip or ask people to tell me if they hear something, and to keep detailed project records. My contingency for my project failing due to the sun randomly firing a solar ray into my computer does not exist; I can’t predict such an event, and I certainly can’t affect the odds of it happening, so it’s not worth dealing with.

Obviously this is a broad-strokes look at this subject, but that’s kind of my job. I can’t tell you how each individual failure that you might experience is going to look. But I can tell you that it’ll most likely fall into one of the previously mentioned categories, and I can pretty much guarantee that everyone has failed and will fail throughout their life.

On that note, I’ll leave you with two thoughts. The first is that most battles are won by the side that makes the second-to-last mistake, not the side that makes no mistakes at all, and all battles are won by the side that gives up last. Sometimes we fail and the thing to do is get up and try again, and again, and again until we succeed.

The second thought is that the repeated high-speed application of your head to a brick wall will not likely result in any noticeable change to the wall, aside from a slight red-colored spattering. Sometimes we fail and the thing to do is to walk away and try something else, because we simply cannot succeed.

You will at times fail, and you will overcome that failure and then succeed. You will also fail, sometimes, and that failure will stick. I can’t tell you, with any degree of certainly, which of these scenarios you’re planning for at any given time. But I do hope that your contingencies take that into account, and I hope that by applying a contingency strategy you are able to mitigate the worst of your failures.

If you liked this article, check out the Modern Survival Guide, Volume I, and my current work on Volume II! It’s an utterly random assortment of things I think people ought to know; there’s something in there for everyone.

¹I.e., today I completely failed to punch the moon, eat an entire elephant, and catch a bag holding a million dollars. Sure, you could say these things are failures, but it’s silly to expect success, so we generally don’t consider something a failure if it has effectively zero chance of success in the first place.

²I.e., today I failed to send an email to my boss reminding him to buy that elephant for the ridiculous elephant eating challenge. Sending an email is a task at which most anyone could reasonably expect to succeed.

³A famous “Star Trek” test in which a ship captain is faced with a no-win scenario beyond their control as a test of character.