Silicon Valley is 90 percent men. Jessica Erickson

Get back up, try again

Across the world, people are getting to stage to share their biggest failures.

Would you dare to share your failures with a broad audience? Perhaps you do in the United States, but in Europe we generally prefer to keep setbacks to ourselves, or at least to an intimate circle. The “FuckUp Nights” do the exact opposite – failures get shared with a wider audience in an attempt to remove the taboo of failure.

The accidental genesis of the FuckUp Nights took place in México City, when five entrepreneurs ended up in a pub. They chatted a bit, drank cold beers, and soon started – in the confines of the bar – an honest discussion about their business failures. That sharing went amazingly well. Social media may be full of successes, but stories of failure are not shared very often. A missed opportunity, according to these entrepreneurs, because sharing such stories can lead to crucial insights. And as it befits entrepreneurs, they started taking action – the bar was switched for cultural centers, the stories were given wider audiences and fresh pints, well… they remained a permanent fixture. The FuckUp Nights were born.

Failures on stage

The concept of the FuckUp Nights is simple – three “fuckupreneurs” all have seven minutes to share the tale of their biggest business failure. Afterwards, the audience can ask questions. Ironically, the FuckUp Nights, FUN in short (the abbreviation speaks for itself), is a big success around the world. Every month, these nights take place in 100 cities simultaneously. The main idea of the FuckUp Nights is that failing is a part of life. And that there is now a stage for it.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a FuckUp Night at the Beursschouwburg in Brussels. The evening itself was already a fuck-up, because all other 99 cities held their FuckUp Night a week later. Four brave speakers mounted the podium to share their biggest fuck-up stories. The animated audience unabashedly asked questions such as: “How is it possible that you didn’t know the business sector of the product you wanted to sell?”, “How big is your debt mountain?”, or “What would you do differently next time?”The fuckupreneurs answered honestly and without hesitation.

Carina Verveckken was the first entrepreneur to climb up on the stage of failure. Fifteen years ago, she founded a cleaning company called “Contract Services”. Soon she found out that she had little knowledge of the sector she was operating in: “I knew nothing about cleaning windows or the things that come along with it.” She went to training courses and workshops, but the damage was already done. Contract Services went bankrupt. “If you have an idea, you have to start with the product and know it thoroughly.” At the end of her speech, she confidently stressed: “But: I’m not a failure.” The lesson of Carina’s story: Knowledge of the product you wish to sell is crucial.

David Kesteloot also shared his story. From an early age, Kesteloot knew that he wanted to become an entrepreneur and founded a small IT-company immediately after graduating. For ten years his company prospered, until he decided to set up a second enterprise with a central focus on wellness. But, wellness wasn’t really his cup of tea, so as you can probably guess, the fuck-up began – the launch of the company failed and shortly afterwards, it was declared bankrupt. The financial loss was so big that his first business went down too: “During the second bankruptcy I thought: they can take everything from me – my company, my cars, my building… really everything. But my knowledge and my experiences, they can never take from me.” Kesteloot did not give up, and he gradually regained the trust of other CEOs, banks, and insurance companies. The moral of the story? Failure may ultimately lead to new successes.

Other lessons we learned that night were: “Accept that people and cases can be different then you [want them to be]”; “Take your time to do things properly instead of handling them too fast”; “Reflect on what you are doing by taking the distance to know what you really want”; and “Dare to depart if you notice your company is doomed to fail”.

Setbacks happen

In Europe, openly talking about failure is relatively rare. In the United States, however – like in Silicon Valley – failure is simply regarded as the result of a taken risk. It follows that Nietzschean thought ”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. In Europe, people tend to get more easily demotivated after a setback, and their thoughts tend to be rather negative: ‘I failed, this means I am not good enough’; ‘Maybe I should quit my job’; ‘I will never be as good as everybody else’, or ‘I am a failure.’

Does this sound familiar? Well, the FuckUp Nights try to tackle these feelings by saying that we shouldn’t take failing too seriously. The organizers of the FUN in Brussels believe that failure is neither good nor bad. It is a natural part of life: “Failure happens. Like winter, spring, and love, setbacks happen. You can never fully control it”. So the question is: Why should we be ashamed of it? Failing can be seen as an opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to learn.

Sharing the burden of failure

The FUN fit in at a time where failing has become a crushing individual responsibility, especially since bigger frameworks that used to provide support and meaning – such as religion and class – are diminishing. As a consequence, the burden of failure is carried on one’s own shoulders. A FuckUp Night, you might say, is the exact opposite of a TED talk: No trendy, new ideas get pitched, but stories of deep depths, shame, and anxiety are featured. In our compulsory culture of success and luck, performances such as the FUN have a reassuring effect. Not everything has to be big, great, and awesome. Authenticity and transparency are being seen as more and more important.

The FuckUp Nights are saying that it is okay to take a leap and accept failure. Risks can succeed, and even failures can be seen as successes, or lead to new accomplishments. In that way, the FuckUp Nights speak to the younger generation; with tons of new ideas to shape a common future. The FuckUp Nights challenge you to be true to yourself and in relationship with others. And they do it with lots of humor. So, check out if your country will be hosting a FuckUp Night. Laugh about the failures of others, and most importantly – laugh about yourself.

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