Monday, 01 May 2017 09:00

Celebrating Failure

Written by  Kayla Tucker
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Failure is not a word that many people take lightly. It's certainly not something many would like to admit they are dealing with or have experienced. And yet, a local business-turned-movement is celebrating five years of failure this month.

Failure:Lab was co-founded as an experiment by Jonathan Williams and his business partner Jordan O’Neil in 2012. It soon grew to become a global movement, with Failure:Labs now taking place in places as far apart as Atlanta and India.

“The whole purpose is to really push back on the fear and isolation and stigma around failure,” Williams said.

This year’s event is going to be held at Fountain Street Church, the biggest venue the event has booked so far, with a 1,600-person capacity.

“That space is so perfect for what we do,” Williams said. “It’s really intimate, dimly lit, minimally-produced. There are no emcees or introductions — it’s kind of like a dark play, blended with local musicians and entertainers.”

The show features six storytellers, who get 10 minutes each to present public confessions.

“No lessons or morals, that’s kind of the provocative part of what we do,” Williams said. “We invite community leaders or people we view as progressive … and we just ask them to open up about a time in their life where they felt like they were failing, or a time where they weren’t sure they were going to get through it. They’re really leading the audience up to a cliffhanger.”

Williams said this draws some criticism, as most people want to hear a solution to a problem. However, because the event takes guests out of their comfort zones, it has succeeded in opening up a new type of dialogue in the community.

“After each story … the audience gets 90 seconds of reflection, and they can share on social media via our hashtag their thoughts or their lessons,” Williams said.

In the digital age of 2017, Williams said it’s less common for people to seek out these types of activities — many guests leave the show with some processing to do.

“People are just kind of hungry for vulnerable narrative, authenticity, being honest about what’s not working,” Williams said. “I think if I’ve learned anything from this project, it’s that we all go through different circumstances but we’re still battling the same feelings.”

Williams said guests can expect to be taken on a “rollercoaster ride,” as the show moves through six storytellers and seven entertainers.

“The music and the entertainment, they go before and after each story,” Williams said. “It’s really designed to clear the air, recharge the room and be an upbeat piece.”

One of the unique, recurring themes of Failure:Lab is that each story is different but everyone can relate.

“Anything you’re starting is scary,” Williams said. “There’s just this fear, whether it’s a relationship or parenthood or whatever you’re trying to do, we all have that moment where we doubt ourselves.”

Since the genesis of Failure:Lab, Williams has coached about 200 storytellers. In being personally immersed in all of these lessons and stories, the founders of Failure:Lab are continuing to learn even more as time goes on and want to share that story with their audience.

Williams said the company’s goal is to make as big of an impact as possible.

“We’re trying to reach people around the globe to remind them they’re not alone and that failure is a part of the process,” Williams said. “Our goals for the communities and companies we work with are to help them overcome fear, stigma and isolation around failure. We’d like to change the conversation around failure and create environments where people feel safe communicating and trying new things.”

For now, the Grand Rapids community is invited to attend the next storytelling event this month.

“It’s our signature annual event,” Williams said. “So it’s always kind of the one that means the most to us, because it’s where we began.”


Talking about failure in work and at school

Beyond the annual performance, the company works year-round providing training sessions to companies and schools. The staff of three works with vendors to facilitate curriculum for groups.

“We’ll go into a company and we’ll do a private event or write a training and, essentially, it’s the same mission as Failure:Lab, which is to remove roadblocks to innovation, collaboration and creative thinking,” Williams said.

Recently, the company did a workshop with Dell, Inc. in Austin, Texas and finished up projects in New York and Florida. They have also facilitated workshops locally with Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University and businesses such as Steelcase and Herman Miller.

The training focuses on addressing failure, understanding blame, measuring success and expectations, practicing how to learn from failure, tackling stigma and incorporating more of a learning culture into the environment of the company.


Fountain Street Church
24 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
May 12, 7 p.m., $20

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