In 2013, he is known simply as Brian Vander Ark.
But 17 years ago, he was the lead singer of The Verve Pipe -- the band that hit #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart with a ballad called "The Freshmen." The song was heard everywhere, over and over again. The Verve Pipe played "The Tonight Show," toured internationally and made an album that went platinum.
Things couldn't have been better for the band -- until they decided to record a follow-up. For all involved, The Verve Pipe's second album was a critical, commercial and spiritual fiasco. The band quickly tumbled from the top of the charts and were soon reduced, quite simply, to one-hit wonders. Vander Ark stayed in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he's always lived. People thought he just couldn't handle the fame.
But at an event called Failure-Lab held earlier this year, a nervous Vander Ark finally told his story to the crowd.
Failure-Lab co-founder Jordan O'Neil is a big fan of TEDx. And he was inspired to create his own version of the presentations when he heard TEDx speaker and former TechTown CEO Randall Charlton share his stories of divorce, joblessness and family tragedy in Detroit a few years ago.
The vulnerability and power of that speech resonated with O'Neil. "It's always about, 'Look at me now, look at how successful I am,'" he told The Huffington Post. "Nobody ever gets really personal around the idea of failure."
One night over bourbons, O'Neil and Jonathan Williams had an idea for a new kind of event -- storytellers sharing the most personal, intimate details of a time where they failed. There are no life lessons and no happy endings, instead, six people from each city are chosen to tell an audience exactly how it all went wrong. O'Neil and Williams enlisted the help of Brian Dokter and Austin Dean. This past May, two years later, Failure-Lab held its first show in Grand Rapids.
It sold out.
The stories are structured as acts, with 90 seconds of quiet reflection for each. Guests are asked to write down their impressions, which are collected afterward. Those scribblings become the "lessons" the audience took from their stories and are posted online. A musical or artistic performance punctuates every act to keep the energy positive.
"We try to go vulnerable, we try to go relatable, we try to go with a really diverse group," Williams said. "We want them to own a failure and share it and talk about the consequences."
Once people become successful, it's often their stories of victory that get shared or publicized. Inner tragedies, or what they learned after meeting despair face-to-face, is swept under the rug or presented as stepping-stones to later success.
"You don't get to learn from all these struggles that they went through," said O'Neil. "And for the rest of us that are trying to overcome hurdles, that's the most important part."
Afterward, the four hosts of Failure-Lab buy every guest a drink (hard cider from West Michigan's Vander Mill) and invite them to keep the conversation going. The emotional outpouring is immediate and honest. Anonymity fades to fellowship. Tales of woe are shared. Failure, as it turns out, is democratizing. And it nurtures connections in a way plain old networking can't.
"Both times, we have had to make everybody leave after two hours, because the venue had to shut their doors," O'Neil said.
When Vander Ark stepped on the Failure-Lab stage that night in Grand Rapids, he was almost shaking with nerves. He felt like he knew everybody in the crowd -- and thought everyone there knew something about him and what had happened to his once-popular band. Ironically, "The Freshman" is a song about a young man tortured by a tragedy and the guilt he carries.
"When Brian [Vander Ark] walked off stage after he was finished -- he's 6-foot-5, and he actually picked Jonathan [Williams] up and hugged him, he was so happy," O'Neil said. "He told us, 'You need to tell everyone how meaningful this is and how good it feels.'"
Watch more stories of heartbreak and loss below, and head over to Failure-Lab to find out more about their scheduled events -- or how to host a Failure-Lab where you live.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified one of Failure-Lab's co-founders as Austin Bean. His name is Austin Dean.
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