I'll be in Pittsburgh for a Failure: Lab event in front of an audience who've come to hear stories of failure that aren't just sucker-punches that lead to "out of all that failure came my bright, shiny win." Instead, the failures who share their stories will end at the failure.
Just over a decade ago, I owned over 4,000 apartment units across the United States. I had a net worth in the tens of millions. Less than two years later, I financially flat-lined. I had lost everything. I was $26 million in debt, publicly shamed and even arrested. I failed.
One of the founders of Failure: Lab, Jordan O'Neil, has said in interviews that he conceived the idea when he attended a success talk that started with failure, turned on a 'but then,' and concluded with a glorious tale of success. O'Neil wondered what if, at the point in the story where the now-successful entrepreneur had failed, "he had dropped the mic and walked off the stage -- just left it there?"
The idea is that, in some way, when audience members hear from the speakers onstage that their success was built on the foundation of their failure, it's really only the latter half of the path that they remember. Don't give them the happy ending, the lesson wrapped up in a pretty bow. Give them the strength to push through their own failure to whatever comes next.
Psst: what comes next may not be success.
Failure: Lab started in 2012 in western Michigan and now licenses similar events around the country. Some people call it the Anti-TED, because TED Talks are the standard-bearer for "but then" pivots. Props to TED; it's got a great roster of inspirational speakers, and ideas come pouring out of them like rain. Failure: Lab is an alternative with a more cynical edge: failure is failure, and that's all.
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, three fields that its originator, Richard Saul Wurman, believed were converging in new ways back in the mid-1980s. By the mid-2000s, TED had become this worldwide juggernaut of success talks. One problem: with so much talk of success, is there any room left for failure in the workplace? Failure is inevitable, right? Can we talk about that?
That's where Failure: Lab came in, launched by O'Neil, Austin Dean and Jonathan Williams three years ago. The concept is to change the conversation about failure in the workplace. One tagline is, "Everyone Fails, but how do we respond?"
At a Failure: Lab event, each speaker takes 10 minutes onstage to talk about a disappointment, no matter how dark. Crime, drug use, divorce: any failure gets aired. All the speakers end on the failure. There's no moral to the story, no sunny sequel allowed.
It's liberating, though. I've experienced a lot of success in my life, but also one colossal failure that changed the course of my life forever. As I tried to rebuild myself, my failure haunted me. No one wanted to do business with a loser.
Here is my reality: I am a high school dropout. I have bad credit. I have millions of dollars in judgments against me. I was arrested. Google searches will turn up stories of government officials planning felony charges against me and labeling me a "schemer" and "Public Enemy #1."
These revelations show up in background checks, and I have had to write dozens of explanation letters. Finally, I wrote Burn Zones, a book that shares my every triumph and, more importantly, my every failure. The next time someone asks for an explanation letter, they'll get a copy of Burn Zones instead. While you're at the failure end of the spectrum, all you can do is share what happened and hope people kind of understand.
At Failure: Lab on Friday, I'll share all, along with other entrepreneurs, activists and artists. Audience members are encouraged to tweet their thoughts about each speaker's tale of failure, and musical entertainment rounds out the program.
If past experience is any indicator, the event will be a great success. Er...let me rephrase that.