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John McCartney and Herald staff | jmccartney@heraldnet.com
Published: Sunday, May 25, 2014, 6:11 p.m.

Michigan men finding success in failure talks

  • Jeff Barrett, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, talks about how he overcame personal failures as part of the Failure:lab series at Michigan State University ...

    Matthew Dae Smith / Lansing State Journal

    Jeff Barrett, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, talks about how he overcame personal failures as part of the Failure:lab series at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., on April 1.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — An entrepreneur told a Detroit audience about how he had failed as a father, husband and businessman.

In the crowd sat a riveted Jordan O’Neil. At least until the speaker intoned in the inevitable “but,” followed by his tale of second-chance success.

“He basically told a story that grabbed the full attention of the 800 people in the crowd because it was so different,” O’Neil said. “What if he had dropped the mic and walked off the stage — just left it there?”

Thus was born the idea for Failure: Lab. He gathered three friends and developed what would become an event featuring six speakers sharing 10-minute failures — straight with no “lessons learned” chaser. The audience is left to glean the meaning and encouraged to share its thoughts on social media as well as notecards that are collected afterward.

It’s working, at least in O’Neil’s home state of Michigan. During the past year, Failure: Lab has come to theaters in Grand Rapids, East Lansing and Detroit, and its return Friday to Grand Rapids is sold out. Now, his team believes stumbling self-help for the 21st century can succeed beyond its comfy confines — they’re planning shows in New Orleans, Mexico City, Brooklyn, New York, and possibly Baghdad.

Failure: Lab’s focus is meant to stand out in a crowded field of “idea conferences,” such as the global juggernaut TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design). Following TED’s lead, Failure: Lab now licenses the name and concept for shows worldwide.

“At first we were trying to hold it very tight, then we realized we have to let it fly,” said O’Neil, who by day designs university community relations plans. “We can’t continue to do it on our own.”

Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs love to say there’s no success without several failures, and an online search for “books on failure” finds titles such as “Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success” and “How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In.”

Yet even with failure blooming in business circles, there’s a contradiction with a larger culture that prefers stories come with a moral. Jonathan Williams, a Failure: Lab co-founder, says the goal isn’t “to glorify failure” but “to crush the stigma around it.”

A recent show at Michigan State University proved succeeding at failure can be tricky, as some speakers slipped in lessons or sprinkled stories with triumphs.

Miz Korona, the rapper best known for being in the 2002 film “8 Mile,” spoke that night of the lows following the high of appearing in the hit movie with Eminem.

“I am not the ‘8 Mile’ lunch truck lady — I’m a struggling artist,” she said, adding that “at the end of the day, I’m still in Detroit,” working at a retail superstore and her “entourage” long gone.

She couldn’t help offering advice, such as “Never let your friends become your manager if they don’t know the business.” Lessons shared by the audience and posted on Failure: Lab’s website include, “Don’t get reality and fiction mixed up” and “Being in 1 movie does not make 1 a movie star.”

Other storytellers included author and journalist Mike Sager, who spoke of selfishness that led him to self-destructive behavior upon becoming a father, and Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who choked up as he lamented failing his family by working long hours yet says he feels guilty when he’s home.

“It’s so hard for people not to deliver some sort of lesson,” O’Neil said. “We’re getting better at coaching storytellers.”

The speakers aren’t the only ones who have struggled. O’Neil said a big sponsor from the first event loved it but lobbied for lessons.

“We said, ‘We appreciate your support but it’s really not the route we want to go,”’ he said.

Christian Terwiesch, an author and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said Failure: Lab fills an educational niche and capitalizes on a business trend — demystifying the innovation process and “making failure much more acceptable.”

His advice as Failure: Lab seeks a global audience: Stay grounded with storytellers who aren’t marquee names — and TED alums — like Bono or Bill Gates.

“Oftentimes it’s much easier to talk about failures ... if you’ve just made a billion dollars,” Terwiesch said.

O’Neil said he and his partners — Williams, Austin Dean and Brian Dokter — want to keep a local feel.

“We’ve had NBA players, Grammy winners ... and regular Joes,” he said. “I think it’s those regular Joes — they have the most powerful stories at each one.”


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