How Ten Stories Turned the World on its Head

Back in September, for just a few hours, in a cosy bar in Covent Garden, we turned the world on its head.

The room was full of really brilliant people. Friends, clients, colleagues and relations: A crowd who have achieved great things, have qualities that we truly admire and awesome strength. Any one of them could have held court and done a pretty great job of showing off.

But they didn’t. They did something far more arresting. They talked about the stuff they’d got wrong, the failures, the blips, the uncertainties and the regrets in their lives. This was a storytelling evening in celebration of failure and the important role it plays in our lives.

Alex Dalton and Linda Cockburn

Linda and I had wanted to officially celebrate our formal business partnership after years of casual collaboration. We wanted to thank all those people in our lives who had got us to this exciting point. A point where we felt our work together could become something really special. We work as creative consultants. A bit of a woolly title, which, to us, means; 

  • we help people have really great ideas
  • we work with them to develop them into something truly useful, powerful and original and  
  • we give them the skills to make these ideas live beyond paper and actually come to life.

It’s the last bit we struggle most with, the ‘making the ideas actually happen’ bit.  It’s because of one HUGE cultural issue here in the UK (and in many other countries). We like the idea of risk, originality, bravery etc. but we don’t deal well with the idea of failure.

What if we could create a space where people could talk openly and honestly about failure? Could we shift people’s thinking just a little bit or even just get them to look failure in the eye without squirming?

We were unsure until the very last minute about how the stories and the vibe of vulnerability would be received. Now the event is over, it seems insane we had even a moment of anxiety about it.

People, on the whole, are generous and supportive and brave and they’re also capable at any one moment of cocking up royally. This meant we all listened to ten brave stories with empathy and open minds. Amongst them, we heard about the wannabe Spanish translator who figured he could wing it and was horrified to find himself in front of an audience at a complex medical conference; the editor who, on her first day in the job, had to take the blood-chilling decision to pull her programme from the schedule and the high-flying creative, whose confidence and passion earned her nothing but the sack. It’s such a terrible cliché, but there were some tears and there was certainly laughter. Most satisfyingly, between stories there was eager conversation, with that slightly tedious edge of showing-off organically erased.

So what use is this to anyone else outside that little fuzzy bubble? Well, it’s a note of hope. It was a small chip away at a big problem, but lots of people said they felt a little bit differently about themselves and the story of their lives so far after listening to the stories. My daughter (15) and my nephew (20) were there and they said it was just brilliant to watch successful people stand up and talk frankly about the things that had gone so wrong for them. It just took a bit of pressure off as they looked forward to their adult lives.

For Linda and I, finding ways to normalise and value failure in a professional context gave us the initial impetus to try this. But it feels like there’s something more important going on.

Lots of the storytellers spoke about the importance of getting this message to children – many could trace stumbles in life back to pressure and beliefs about the need to succeed when they were younger. Seeing how the night touched two young people, we'd love to reach more.

Everyone who openly accepted their own role in a failure, took a huge leap forward. And it felt like a really strong thing to do, it didn't demean or weaken them, it made them admirable. 

EVERYONE found joy and value in the opportunity to just talk happily about failure. It’s just not done enough. It turned the world on its head for a little while – now we want to figure out how to make the impact last a little longer.

This is where you come in. We'd love even more refreshing, fearless stories of failure. Would you be prepared to share yours? What (if anything) did you learn as a result? What did it feel like at the time? We want to build a liberating library. The stories can be anonymous or you can proudly put your name to them. We'll keep you posted on how we might use these stories to try to break our habit of fearing failure. We feel like we created a bit of magic and we want it to last. Get in touch: hello@leadingideas.co.uk.