Five things I Learned when I Shared my Worst F#ckup with a Bunch of Strangers
'Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.' William Shakespeare
What was my worst f#ck up? I was an Infantry Officer with the British Army’s elite Parachute Regiment. Just because you’re elite doesn’t mean you can’t f#ck up though and, while leading an ambush operation against the world’s most effective terrorists, in Northern Ireland’s ‘Bandit Country’ during the Troubles, I was almost shot and killed by my own troops. That’s a pretty big f#ck up, right?
F#ckup Nights – Stories about Failureis a global movement and event series that shares stories of professional failure. Each month, in events across the globe, three to four people get up in a room full of strangers to share their own professional f#ckup. The stories of the business that crashes and burns, the partnership deal that goes sour, the product that has to be recalled, they tell them all. On the lucky 13th of September 2018, at VIATEC offices in Victoria BC, I shared the story of one of my most serious, least known f#ckups with an audience of about 80 people, most of whom I had never met before.
Here are five things I learned when I shared my worst f#ck up with a bunch of strangers:
Most people crave hearing stories about the failures of others
Everyone has failed at something, sometime in their lives. At some level it’s probably comforting to know that there are others down there in the depths of failure with you because, as noted by Christopher Marlowe, ‘misery loves company’. On another plane, however, I imagine that this fascination with f#ck ups is also partly the result of millions of years of human evolution. In ancient times the stories of failures – to find water, kill game, mend disagreements with others – must have provided lifesaving information to small groups of hunter gatherers constantly perched on the razor's edge of survival. So, fueled by the curiosity of our audience, I and my two colleagues shared our stories of personal disaster, and they seemed to have been received as a gift. Their focus on our stories was laser like. You could have heard a pin drop.
2. It’s hard to admit that you’ve f#cked up. It’s even harder in public.
We live in defect free times, sadly, and the airbrushed lives we share with others, through social and other media, can sometimes bear little resemblance to reality. This tendency can be magnified when reputations are on the line. It’s even harder if people died, or could have died, or if lives have been unalterably changed in some way connected with your f#ck up. Consequently, it took me a couple of weeks of practicing to share my f#ck up in the way that it actually occurred, warts and all. Even then, sharing some of the darkest moments of your life isn’t easy. The sweat rolling down my face probably gave that away a little bit.
3. The more honest you are, the easier it is
James Altucher said that ‘honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure.’ I found that as long as I approached this challenge from the point of view that this was a way for me to learn, and share my learnings, it was a lot easier. It was also easier to use words that described exactly what happened from my point of view at the time. When I tried to deviate from the pure, unvarnished truth, I found that I got lost on various tangents that did not really reflect my experiences at the time. The other great thing about stark honesty is that no one can challenge you on whether you are right or wrong, it’s merely your personal experience of the event. It would be tough to recreate that kind of experience with just about any other kind of presentation.
4. There’s safety in numbers
Having a small team of ‘F#ckuppers’, as we were known, to present with helped a lot. After all, if you’re going to try something crazy, it helps to have a few other nuts along for the ride. I was in awe of their experiences, of course, as was the audience. Having a large audience to present to, paradoxically, seemed to provide more anonymity than would have been present within a smaller, more intimate group. It also helped that they were there to help, to help me and my colleagues share our stories within a receptive, safe place. The VIATEC hosts, Jim Hayhurst and Tessa Bousfield, as well as Ian Chisholm, the event sponsor, provided important coaching to get me to dig into my failure in a way that allowed my personal, subjective perspective on the incident to emerge far more effectively than if I had done it all on my own. But the important thing was that we were all of one mind and, as Thomas Paine said ‘not in numbers but in unity our great strength lies’.
5. Every time you tell a story about your f#ckups, you learn something new as well as generate more questions
I must have run through my seven minute presentation a hundred times, mostly in my head. My biggest problem was that, at the time, in Bandit Country, I didn’t think that it was such a big deal. Soldiers who have been to war can have hundreds of life and death type experiences, and they quickly learn to put those behind them in the haste to move on to the next task. It’s only on reflection that some of these experiences can provide us with some kind of meaning, and opportunities to learn. Multiple opportunities to reflect on my f#ck up helped me to reconnect with the incident, now over 30 years in the past, and take something meaningful away from each telling.
But, as with all good stories, it continues to generate questions because, as Brandon Sanderson said ‘the purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’