The first man to take the stage was named Tom. He announced himself as the world’s largest provider of bachelorette party supplies and wore a red leather suit. He explained that his company, PriveCo, specializes in creating websites that sell items privately that are simply too embarrassing to buy in stores: enema supplies, hemorrhoid cream, and, as you can imagine, a wide variety of “adult” products. As internet usage surged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so did PriveCo’s sales, and Tom’s efforts to expand the company’s offerings led to success after success.
One day, after reading a newspaper article about a coming lice epidemic, Tom was certain he had found his next big score. Six months and tens of thousands of dollars later, his online superstore for lice-eradicating supplies went live. But there was a problem. The site had oodles of features—advanced for the time—to help the customer determine whether they in fact had lice. It had a well-designed flowchart to direct them to the right products for their needs, but no one was buying.
Then it clicked: as soon as a person discovers he or she has lice, Tom realized, they go to the store immediately. Who would consider sitting at home for a few days waiting for shampoo to arrive in the mail while lice multiply on their scalp? No one. Suddenly the man who had made a small fortune helping others avoid embarrassment stood alone, pierced by the sharp laughs of a packed theater of strangers like Saint Sebastian in a red leather suit. The lights dimmed, and he was gone.
In his place appeared a timer. It began counting down from 1 minute 30 seconds. All around me other Failure:Lab participants scribbled thoughts onto their programs in the darkness or sat in the glow of their cellphones tweeting a lesson they drew from the story to #failurelab. The time drew to a close—15, 14, 13—we shuffled our papers and pens into their appropriate places—4, 3, 2—we sat back and a new storyteller appeared.
Apart from its basic format (“Six storytellers, seven entertainers, two hours, one evening, one intimate venue”) Failure:Lab’s website explains little—only that its mission is to “destigmatize failure.” And when it comes to failure in our culture, there’s not just a stigma, there’s a whole culture of ridicule, maintained by thousands of tweets, memes, and blogs, joining in a chorus of “FAIL, FAIL,” and even “EPIC FAIL!” Nothing defines us in the early 21st century as much as our desire to mock the doofus, the numbskull, the person who slipped up or has egg on their face. We’re convinced those who disagree with us are ridiculous, and we have talk shows to help us prove it. Even “serious” news sites now consist largely of reports about slip-ups (and nip slips), stars’ ill-timed tirades, and politicians’ gaffes. When it comes to ridicule, we’re connoisseurs.
Failure:Lab swims against the metaphorical (and twitter) stream, with an unlikely tool: stories. The storyteller draws the audience into the heart of a failure and then leaves them there. This makes being at Failure:Lab like experiencing an upside-down TED Talk. There is no lesson, no redemption, and no explanation. Instead, there are dark, empty moments where you sit quietly and let the story steep. Whether you laughed, cried, or were left speechless by the story, when the teller leaves the stage you feel like you’ve been introduced to their failure. You don’t just know about it, you know it personally.
Historically, there has always been a deep affinity between failure and stories. Many, if not most, of our greatest and most memorable tales are about something that went seriously, irredeemably wrong: Icarus crashed, Ulysses never sailed beyond the setting sun, Ponce de Leon didn’t find the Fountain of Youth. It is only we in the 21st century who find the tragic sensibility of earlier times so hard to understand. And with our cultish devotion to competence, it is we who need great failure stories most of all.
The stories of failure I heard that night ranged from a failed college class due to plagiarism to a multi-year failure to make it in the New York City music scene. Some of the failures were particularly notable because of the person behind them, like the avuncular executive of a security system company who was arrested after driving off the road while drunk, or the sophisticated-looking director of a contemporary art center who admitted that she did not qualify for a credit card at Target due to her lack of money skills. The storytellers ranged in demeanor and field of work from the red-suited privacy guru I mentioned to a Detroit-based rockstar to the regional director of Goodwill stores. The one thing that united all of the storytellers was that they were, despite their failures, successful individuals. They walked onto the stage and declared their failure directly and openly, and if not without pain, at least without fear or shame.
Since its first show in 2013 in a small theater in Grand Rapids, MI, Failure:Lab has spawned a movement. Shows are currently planned in New Orleans, Chicago, and Mexico City, and its popular YouTube channel has spread stories of failure across the globe. Last month, Failure:Lab announced it would begin licensing host sites to have Failure:Labs in other countries. Within 24 hours requests came in from cities as far away as Dubai and Melbourne.
Failure:Lab could soon be in your back yard. If so, go. It will remind you of the surprising power of stories. And it might even convince you that it can change the tide and destigmatize failure. Maybe. Or maybe not. Our love of ridicule runs deep—perhaps as deep as any aspect of human nature. Of course, Failure:Lab doesn’t have to be successful. Wouldn’t that be entirely beside the point?