The source of this dialog can be found here.

MARK: And this trip. I didn't know there were tornadoes.
SARAH: It's OK. It's not your fault.
MARK: I had it all figured out. I messed it up. I thought that I just—

According what I have found in the dictionaries. "I had it all figured out" means "I had understood all of it" but I am not sure. I guess the meaning of that sentence might be something else. Am I right or not?

  • I don't know if this will help or not but we also use a different phrasal verb - "work out" in this case. It means that you were able to think about and discover the meaning of something. – user19773 May 19 '15 at 14:53

Your understanding of the meaning of the sentence is exactly right. The only thing you're missing is that the sentence is stated ironically.

Irony is speech or a situation that means one thing to an audience who lacks some information, and another thing to an audience that knows better, and the audience that knows better takes some kind of delight or bitter pleasure in understanding the difference between the two interpretations.

Here's an example of "dramatic irony". In a movie, some criminals are running from the police, they crawl through a basement window into what appears to be an abandoned building, and one of them says "Whew! We're safe now." But the audience knows that the the building is actually a police station. (It's called dramatic irony because it occurs in drama.)

In your example, Mark is playing both roles simultaneously. His past self is the ignorant one, who thought he had it all figured out (that is, understood all of it). His present self sees how wrong he was. By saying it aloud, he is letting Sarah know that he has learned that in fact he did not have it all figured out. He could have just said "I thought I had it all figured out." You could understand that literally. But the ironic version carries a stronger feeling of contrition. Actually saying the false sentence as if it were true makes it sink in more strongly, and sting (Mark) a little more.

This is a common use of irony in everyday speech: saying one thing and meaning its opposite. Usually you say it to someone who will understand that you mean the opposite of the literal meaning of your words, and together you delight in the fact that they understand you correctly while someone less in-the-know would interpret your words literally. Sometimes people speak ironically intending to be misunderstood, and then take delight that they understand and others don't.

  • 1
    And if Mark wanted to have his words taken literally, he could have just said: "I thought I had it all figured out." – J.R. Feb 21 '15 at 13:54
  • @J.R. That is an interesting observation. I'll add something to the answer to explain the difference in tone between the two sentences. – Ben Kovitz Feb 21 '15 at 14:08
  • A concept/term that might be useful to introduce is "self-deprecation". Irony is often used in humor, as in your dramatic irony example; here Mark is mocking himself in a self-deprecating way. – Codeswitcher Feb 23 '15 at 7:12
  • @Codeswitcher I just watched the video, and I hear the irony as expressing contrition, not self-mockery. I'm worried that bringing up yet another term for talking about language will only cause confusion. Maybe self-deprecation is something to bring up in another question, though. – Ben Kovitz Feb 26 '15 at 1:00
  • @BenKovitz I defer to your judgment. – Codeswitcher Feb 27 '15 at 5:01

The phrase means what you think it does with the following modification: but the speaker was wrong, and realizes it. So it usually carries a subsequent "but" or "and then (something happened that did not fit my understanding)". The speaker's error can be of two varieties - either the speaker's understanding proved to be faulty, as in the video you linked, or the situation itself changed. An example of the latter might be, "I was making a killing in the stock market. I had it all figured out. And then 9/11 happened and I lost my shirt."


To figure something out is to solve a puzzle or untangle a difficult situation. Therefore, "I had understood all of it" isn't quite the right sense. The phrase often implies "I have a plan which I think will work".

Think of an engineering problem, where you've done all the calculations — the figures. You have a plan based on abstract math, and you have confidence that it will work, but it hasn't yet been tested with reality. To use another idiom, you've got it all figured out — on paper.

So, while I agree that Ben Kovitz is generally right about this being an ironic use, where the speaker is acknowledging that that in fact he did not have it all figured out, another way of thinking about it is that the speaker had the figuring done — had what seemed like a good plan — but didn't take some aspect of reality into account in that figuring.

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