Grand Rapids, Michigan

Jordan O'Neil and team embrace the profound effects of failure

In a constantly changing world, it would be a mistake to think that failures are not going to happen. They crop up at work, at home, at school, in public, and behind closed doors. Regardless of the ubiquity of failure, few people are willing to talk about it without hiding behind the success that followed or a lesson learned. Failure’s approval depends on it being wrapped nicely with a bow.
Jordan O’Neil, along with the rest of the Failure:Lab team is working hard to pull back that wrapping. Three years ago, O’Neil was driving back from TEDxDetroit where he had just heard Randal Charlton tell a profound story about personal failures; the loss of a business, a home, and a daughter.
“He shares this story and the whole audience is completely silent. He had 110 percent of the attention in the room. I thought, ‘How brave, how bold, I’ve never seen anything like this before,’” O'Neil said. “Then he started to gift wrap the story and give the three little lessons everyone is used to.”
Jordan wondered, what would’ve been if Charlton had ended the story when the audience was silent? Were they relating the story to their own lives? Discovering their own lessons?
“I left early that day. I was so blown away. The whole 2 1/2 hour ride back, I was thinking, ‘Could I get people to do this? What would that look like? Would the community back [it]?’” O'Neil said.
Failure is not a strange concept to O’Neil. The story Charlton told hit close to home. His mother’s side of the family had built several successful businesses in New York, run by O’Neil’s uncle in the early ’90s. He controlled the company, along with most of the family’s money. Unbeknownst to the family, the investments were failing, and on the day of his 50th birthday, his uncle took his own life, leaving a distressed and bankrupt family behind.
“Houses and life savings were lost. Everything was stripped away from our family. What hurt the most is that we all went our separate ways,” O’Neil said. “When I thought about what the audience was thinking, I thought I would’ve loved to know what my extended family members were thinking. How do I get people to talk about things more publicly?”
Within the year, O’Neil pulled together Brian Dokter, Austin Dean, and Jonathan Williams, who make up what is now the team behind Failure:Lab. They’re all on a mission, “to eliminate the fear of failure and encourage intelligent risk taking.”
One of the first things they did as a team was bring in a camera and lights, sit down, and share deeply personal failures from their own lives.
“We were in that room by ourselves. Five people did it. It was the heaviest room I ever sat in,” Dokter said. “We said, that is the point. There was this gravity there.”
What resulted is an event is made up of performers, storytellers, and 90 seconds after each story for the audience to process and write down or tweet their lessons.
“The silence and the feedback is the magic ingredient. It gives people a chance to become part of the story. We don’t tell them what to think, we get to hear what they are thinking,” Williams said. “[There is no] justifying or blame-shifting. They get to internalize and think about their own lives and apply it to their own struggles.”
The format and content of the event is important to the team. It’s not your typical conference or motivational seminar.
“I always wanted to call them storytellers. They aren’t really speakers, they are charged with crafting this really personal tale,” O’Neil said of those featured in Failure:Lab. “There are no slides behind them, there is nothing for them to refer back to. It forces them to craft the story. It’s stripped down and really personal.”
But what is the point? Where is the added value? They knew this question would come. They had asked it themselves.
“I think most people, after the first one or two speakers, are very uneasy hearing these raw stories. Then you get to the fourth or fifth and they are embracing it. You see a transformation during the event that is really cool,” Dean said.
Rick Beerhorst, a Grand Rapids based visual artist and musician, was one of the first people to jump on board with the inaugural Failure:Lab event, held May 23, 2013 at Wealthy Street Theatre.
"What connected with me is that as a working artist, failure and risk [are] something that I always feel like I’m on the precipice of. One of the earmarks of who I am has a lot to do with being emotionally vulnerable. People are hungry for that. Failure:Lab was a perfect fit,” Beerhorst said. “This was a safe place to open up about something that didn’t turn out as you had hoped.
“Grand Rapids is risk averse. No one wants to get caught in a failure. We stick with what we know, which is problematic,” he said. “When you do that, you end up in a community that doesn’t know what to do with pioneers and doesn’t know how to cultivate them.”
Between the now completed Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing events, Failure:Lab has brought together a diverse blend of storytellers, performers and audience members alike.
“The reason I really wanted to do it is because I wanted to. I love storytelling. I felt that for all of these years, the telling of the actual story wasn’t as horrific. I’m always more sensitive to how people will react to it. It is a part of me, but it doesn’t define me,” said Diana Sieger, a Detroit storyteller and President at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “Failure:Lab is different. It is a focus on the frailty and vulnerability of human beings. That we all survive. We go on and we learn.”  
Another Grand Rapids event is in the works as well as events in New Orleans and Mexico City.
The team’s goal for any new location is that the event speaks the voice and the language of that community.
“One of our favorite comments was ‘That was so Detroit,’” Dokter said.
Shel Kimen, founder of Detroit Collision Works, is one of the key people who helped bring the event to Detroit.
“I was really impressed with the curation. I think all of the stories were compelling; all of the stories were intimate and connected,” Kimen said. “It reinforced my belief in the value of vulnerability. It is always compelling to engage with the authentic. We got that. It was a very honest experience. That is satisfying.”
Failure:Lab is meant to change the conversation around failure, and it is doing just that.
“Sometimes learning from the journey is more important than what the success is,” Sieger said.
“We’ve talked about once you’ve had a failure and needing to get back up. We are talking about risk-taking too. We are trying to encourage people to understand that there is this veneer around failure and how you should be successful.” Dokter said. “Early in life, you are taught to mitigate your risk, take safe routes and follow a certain marching order.”
Failure:Lab recently formed a partnership with Michigan Radio to broadcast the stories told at each event. After hearing the broadcast, people are even sending in their own stories.
“We are toting innovating; we are toting a culture of change. But when we really approach failure and things going sideways, everyone locks up and it’s weird and it’s awkward,” Williams said. “That is what I love about what we are doing. It’s a safe place. It’s really needed and relevant and I think that is why it hits the nerve that it does.”
The team has big dreams for this event, from a book, to corporate trainings, and a presence in any community that desires it.
“Every event is still an exercise in the entire philosophy of why we are doing this. We have to embrace the risk of getting ourselves out there, and it might totally flop.” Dokter said.
To learn more about the event, visit
 Kelly LeCoy is the founder of Uptown Kitchen  and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids.     

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