STORY Conference 2014: Failures Educate

October 3, 2014 — Leave a comment

If I were to identify a theme that presented itself at that 2014 STORY Conference, it’s this:

Those who are prepared to fail, succeed.

For a conference about dreaming and story-telling and creating, that seems like a fairly negative theme, but to me it was refreshing and encouraging. There were a litany of other lessons to be gleaned from this year’s experience to be sure, but that theme permeated several of the presentations in one form or another.

Jonah Lehrer bravely began the conference by sharing his story of success, complete and utter ruin, and what he’s learned for the experience. If you don’t know who Jonah is (like I didn’t before hearing his story), a quick Google search will bring you somewhat up to speed. Jonah is a NYT Best-Selling author and a brilliant mind in the area of neuroscience and had everything going for him as a young author and journalist. But then…scandal. The way I understand it, he stood accused of plagiarizing his own material – essentially regurgitating previous work and passing it off as new – as well as others’ and was fired/resigned from essentially every position he held.

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer’s tale is still in process. He didn’t stand before us triumphantly, telling us how he rose from the ashes after flaming out. He told us he’s still figuring it out. Suddenly he had nothing but time on his hands and he said that enabled him to become a better husband and father. The fall reminded him of his true passion, writing, and kept him up at night lamenting how he’d lost that passion amidst the fame and popularity he was experiencing. So, now he’s working on a book about love, the only thing he had left after losing everything he thought was important. He dreads the day he has to explain to his kids what happened and wishes he could purge Google of the results that currently represent him (including one dude who has a strange obsession with hating on him), but has come to realize, “Say what you want about failure – it educates.”

Tattoo artist and painter, David Allen, shared his heart with us about his process and why he recently took up painting. He, too, took risks to begin his career and stared failure in the face to do so. David’s body art is breathtaking, but what stuck with me was how he connects with his clients. He proposes that as he gets to know them, the tattoo takes on new depth and meaning. He shared the story of a couple who came in once and looked sad. He usually wouldn’t ask why, but this time he did. The had just miscarried and wanted matching “+” tattoos to commemorate that happiest moment of their lives so far. As you can imagine, the session was hushed, yet pregnant with emotion. “They were the best plus signs I’ve ever made,” he said.

David Allen

David Allen

As to why he recently began learning how to paint, he spoke about how all his art “walks out” of his shop and he wants to create pieces that will last and that he can hand down to his son, Xavier. I’d never thought about that concept before – how a tattoo artist’s art literally walks away – but it’s powerful to realize. David’s heart to connect to his clients really inspired me to do the same with the people in my own life.

Josh Boone, the director of The Fault In Our Stars, shared his journey with us, too. His story is the classic “I just drove out to Los Angeles and started doing stuff and now I’m kind of a big deal” story we all know and love. I kid, I kid. Josh toiled for years before making the right connections and writing the right script (he supposes he wrote more than twenty before hitting his sweet spot). As Ben pointed out, his success seems to have come from a series of seemingly disconnected moments that led him to where he is now. I’d suggest that’s how it works for most of us.

Josh Boone

Josh Boone


My favorite part of Josh’s interview was when he explained that he’d been a HUGE fan of Stephen King, but when his parents became “born again Christians” they decided he could no longer read King’s work. So, Josh took the covers from Christian books like Peretti’s This Present Darkness and covered his favorites by King with them. I might or might not have done something similar with Metallica’s Black Album. Josh just seems like a good dude who constantly worked on his skills and put himself in positions where he could get wins. He was prepared for things not to work, so he could give everything he had to try and make them anyway.

Tony Hale concluded the conference with a hilarious, yet powerful presentation, sharing the things he’s learned from being “in the industry” for over 20 years. Full disclosure: I love Tony Hale. I’ve been a fan of his, especially for his work as Buster Bluth on the brilliant Arrested Development, which is why I did this:

tony hale ryan haack

WE’RE MONSTERS! Tony and me.

Buster Bluth. Yes.

Buster Bluth. Yes.

Tony established his importance by pointing out that nobody else in the room had made-out with Liza Minnelli, which was and is an indisputable fact. In all honesty, though, Tony’s talk resonated with me more than any other. He spoke about contentment and how, if we’re not content with now, we will not be content with “the big thing” when it arrives. He went through a time after booking the role of Buster where he felt terrible because this “big thing” wasn’t satisfying him as much as he thought it would. He had spent so much time in NY looking forward that he had not learned to be content where he was, so even when his dream became reality, his brain only knew how to look forward to the next thing. He proposed that the way he combat this mindset is by being present. “Wake yourself up 100 times a day and just remind yourself of where you are and what you are grateful for,” he said.

He also spoke about fame and the danger it introduces. What’s the draw of fame anyway? Tony says that we all want to be known and fame seems to us to be the pinnacle of being known. “If you are known by God and by those who love you, that’s all the known you need,” he says, reminding us of the truth of the matter. We are as valuable now as we ever will be, which is a difficult thing to remember when you work in an industry that values you based only on the “success” of your latest project.

So, what am I taking away from this weekend? I was reminded that I’m loved and I am known by God, my wife, my kids, my family and friends…and ultimately that’s all I need. Everything else is gravy. I was challenged to be courageous (Welby Altidor) and to take risks, even (and perhaps especially) when failure is an option. Because say what you will about failure – it educates. I was encouraged to have fun, even while working hard.

Which is exactly what I plan to do.

I decided not to write about every speaker or performer, but they all added something unique and important to the event and I appreciate each one. Malcolm London blew me away with his spoken word poetry, Harris III with his magic – he made it snow! – and Barton Damer with his motion graphics. Sharon Irving, Andrew Belle and Jon Guerra made the stage sing, literally. Sarah Lewis, Christopher Chapman, Melissa Weigel, Matt Knisely and Jonathan Collins all inspired us as well. Checkout their spaces online and see the incredible work! 


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