Celebrate your failures at “Fuckup Nights”

Mistakes are inevitable.
Mistakes are inevitable.
Image: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Tori Dunlap was feeling stagnant at her job when she received an email from a recruiter with what looked like a perfect position at another company. Dunlap went in for an interview and her internal alarms went off right away. Something didn’t feel right.

After 10 minutes, the company’s CEO offered her the job. Surprised, Dunlap pushed her luck by asking for her dream salary, which was also accepted.

“My gut was you’re not going to be happy here, this is not going to be good,” says Dunlap. “But I got distracted by the green and ignored all the red.”

Dunlap took the job, and by her second day she knew it wasn’t right for her. A week later, her boss made her cry and over the 10 weeks she was there, it got worse: Her job title was changed unexpectedly and her duties expanded so dramatically that she was essentially doing the work of several employees.

She quit, without other prospects lined up. She felt crushed, like she had failed. “That boss took every ounce of confidence I had,” says Dunlap.

Six months later, Dunlap was up in front of dozens of people telling her story at an event in Seattle called Fuckup Night. And four months after that, she did it again.

Those two events were part of a global network of Fuckup Nights (FUN) in which professionals recount about their worst work screwups. The original Fuckup Night was in 2014, put on by a group of friends in Mexico City’s start-up scene who complained that they were tired of hearing about founders’ successes and wanted to hear about their flubs. There are now Fuckup Night event chapters in 304 cities representing 80 countries.

One way to exorcise

Mary Fritz, one of Seattle’s FUN organizers, first heard about the event series while working for a start-up accelerator that took her across South America. “I came across the original FUN team, and I was immediately into the idea of talking about failure to destigmatize it,” she says. “So when I moved to Seattle, I found out there wasn’t a chapter here, and I started it.”

Since its founding in August 2016, Seattle’s FUN chapter has held four to five events a year, with stories told by professionals who have pitched Fritz and her team. They’re looking for tales that explore a failure in an honest, authentic way, with themes attendees can relate to. Dunlap’s story, for instance, is a familiar scenario to many: it’s common to ignore your gut and discover you should have listened to it after all.

“Tori described how [that decision] affected her for a while, which I think is cool for people to hear, because something like that can make you feel really alone,” says Fritz. Dunlap says that’s exactly what she was hoping to do. Usually seen as a person who, as she puts it, “has her shit together,” she wanted to show others that failure is a part of every career.

Other stories at Seattle’s FUN events are similarly relatable—one speaker talked about the time they made a coworker cry in a meeting. Others analyze their not-so-relatable failures (a founder who lost out on a funder’s $5-million investment) to draw out more relatable lessons about what they learned (your integrity might be worth more than $5 million).

Name badges of honor

While the FUN team doesn’t track direct outcomes of their events, Dunlap’s experience suggests the stories do connect with people. “Every time I tell this story, I’ve had people come up to me after talks or message me on Twitter, saying, ‘Hey, I’m going through the same thing right now,'” she says. “I even talked to a woman whose husband read my story, quit his job, and then found his dream job three days later.”

FUN events are not just cathartic or inspiring. They can be effective for networking, connecting speakers and attendees with new opportunities. Dunlap, who says FUN “changed my life,” has now told her story on podcasts and has found other media opportunities.

For attendees, the vulnerability in the air at FUN events sparks genuine conversations. Fritz says Seattle’s chapter sometimes asks attendees to write their fuckup on their name tag, which helps jumpstart conversations. It’s a far cry from networking conversations that start with stiff introductions, name-dropping employers or startup pitches. FUN creates a space where it’s acceptable to skip the small talk in favor of deeper conversations about fears, goals and dreams.

Some attendees have told Fritz that FUN events are like therapy. “We’re not therapists! We’re not licensed!” Fritz says, laughing. “People mention that they carry failure with them still and think about it regularly, even if it was a small thing a really long time ago, which really demonstrates that we need to talk about it.”