Eff-up Nights: Breaking the Power of Failure and Shame

“Americans Play to Win All the Time. I Wouldn’t Give a Hoot in Hell for a Man who Lost and Laughed.”

Guest Contributor / 10.2.20

This post comes to us from Joseph McSpadden:

In the opening scene of Patton, the brilliant WWII commander as played by George C. Scott has some stern words for his audience. “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed.”

But in fact, that is precisely what people in Richmond, VA, and around the world are doing. Laughing at failure might seem to run contrary to our entrepreneurial American spirit, yet for those attending a F*ckup Nights event it is quite liberating. Our bootstrap culture is saturated with books that expound the Six Secrets of Super Success, or the Seven Habits of Highly Overworked People, but there aren’t many manuals on how to close down your failed business.

What’s there for those of us who made the calculated decision to launch into the uncharted territory of our ambition, only to crash and burn? Nobody likes that “F” word — failure — or the shame that accompanies it. But we need not feel alone.

At a F*ckup Nights event people gather to talk about their biggest screw-ups. Thus the name, F*ck Up Nights. Birthed in Mexico City in 2012, F*ckup Nights has over 330 chapters world-wide. The brainchild of Pepe Villatoro and Leticia Gasca, the purpose of the organization is to bring people together to talk about their failures.

The F*ckup Nights meetings in Richmond, VA, are exciting and fast-paced. Set up like a TED Talk, the evening starts with an open bar and a chance to network and socialize. A DJ keeps things lively with some funky music and the prevailing mood is festive. Some in attendance wear shirts with slogans like “Try, Fail, Learn, Repeat” or “Everybody Fails, We Talk About It.” Many sport a self-adhesive name tag that says “Hi! My name is _________ … and I’m a F*ckupper.” It’s a good vibe, and the conference space is packed. At the appointed time, the crowd settles into their seats, and the meeting begins.

A typical F*ckup Nights meeting features three speakers who each talk for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of questions and answers. The speakers, like the audience, come from all walks of life: entrepreneurs, techies, creatives, and corporate types.

The Richmond chapter is headed up by Zane Gibbs and David Graham, partners in a consulting firm, ZADA Strategy. They purchased the rights for the Richmond market and kicked off their first event in June of 2019, with meetings following on a quarterly basis. The event is uplifting, in the way that confession unburdens the soul.

F*ckup Nights events featuring frank discussions about failure are cathartic. As David points out, “People are way more comfortable saying f*ck than talking about failure, and failure sucks.” The idea is to demystify and de-stigmatize failure. You may have effed-up but that doesn’t mean you are an utter failure.

For some, the name of the event might at first be off-putting, but Zane sees it as a positive. “It’s not about the f word, it’s about having genuine, honest, unfiltered conversation.” It is refreshing to hear testimonies from others who have had to take the business walk of shame.

Zane and David have very high standards for the stories that are told at a F*ckup Nights event. The first rule is that these are stories of professional failure, not tales of substance abuse or moral lapses. Second, speakers must avoid giving advice. The reason is simple: The listeners will be at different places in their own personal journeys, and what one person takes away from a talk will be different from what the person seated next to them learns. Finally, no hero stories.

The hero story: “Yes, I failed, but I’ve got it all together now.” The upbeat ending often robs the story of its inherent power. Even if there is a happy ending, Zane and David don’t want to hear it. “Tell the authentic story of your journey to the bottom,” Zane says. This approach ushers the speakers and the audience into a covenant of sorts, where it is safe to be vulnerable and human.

Done right, a F*ckup Nights event rises to a level of honesty often found in 12-Step groups. One attendee, a local pastor commented, “I wish my parishioners were as comfortable being honest about their failings as they are with dropping an f-bomb.” All of this honesty puts an arrow through the heart of the Imposter Syndrome. In the right context, failure is just a lesson; it’s the tuition we pay for our ongoing education in life.

Shame. Five letters that spell one of the most insidious forces we face. In the church it is a word most often associated with moral failures. But shame connected to business or finance is often just as devastating. This is especially true if your church places a strong emphasis on performance and excellence. As a man facing financial trouble and two failed attempts at self-employment, I knew I would never be considered when it came time to nominate elders. Opportunities to speak were rare. I would go to a men’s meeting and compare myself to my brothers.

The guys with the close cropped haircuts and business casual vibe were the guys I knew had it all together in all the ways I didn’t. As a man with a strong creative bent, who gets the big picture but has trouble with the details, I never measured up in my own eyes. I struggled to understand the verse “faithful in the little things.” It took a friend to help me see. “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides,” he said. They had problems, too, they just weren’t on display as mine were. It was a stepping stone towards self-acceptance.

Being truthful about our failures is the doorway to grace. It’s where we take off our imposter mask and stand emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually naked. In that moment of vulnerability, our nakedness can be clothed in friendship and forgiveness, and in the affirmation that we failed because we tried. In a way, the attempt can be a badge of honor. It is a critical component that keeps shame at bay. As much as you may feel embarrassed by your failure you do not have to be ashamed. That in itself is healing.