Celebrate Defeat

photo credit: kcphotos

I spent the weekend celebrating my friend Andy not being dead.

In February 2006 he went sledding, landed in a concrete culvert and broke his back in five places.  It was an incredibly traumatic time for everyone involved.  My partner and I traveled the two hours between our home and the hospital almost every day for over three weeks.  Andy spent a considerable amount of time in ICU, underwent extensive reconstructive surgery, and then spent most of the next year healing.  It was touch and go for awhile but, in the end, he made a full recovery.

Since then, February includes a new ritual for our circle of friends.  We all travel to Bristol to celebrate ANDY (Andy’s Not Dead Yet).  We play games (including Operation which is very funny to everyone who isn’t Andy) , drink adult beverages and, perhaps most importantly, tell stories* about our experience nursing Andy back to health.

Hill 1; Andy 0
Celebrating success is natural.  The stories about the times we were at our best are easy to share (and make great copy for marketing materials).  But while they are valuable, they don’t paint the whole picture.

We also need the stories about the dark times.  the ones about dicey situations, stupid mistakes and general embarrassment.  The soul of your organization is carried in these stories.  They create bonds between the people who experienced the stories first hand and the people who came after.  When shared with the right people at the right time, they can turn casual supporters into loyal fans.  The key is making sure these stories get passed on.

The good news is your people already do that  informally–in the bar after work, at the opening night party-after-the-party, in the office as an example to the new person on “what not to do.”  This level of sharing is good–but to take full advantage of the power of story a full-on celebration is in order.

Celebrate something specific
It doesn’t have to be as traumatic as a week in ICU, three weeks in the hospital and a year of physical therapy, but it should be significant.  Chances are the right moment has popped into your mind already.   If you are stuck, think about the stories you are most likely to tell after a drink or two.  Pick the event with the most stories attached.

Invite the right people
This should not be a public event.  You need to feel completely safe to share the hard stuff.  The right people to invite are the people that know the stories (staff, board) and the people you want to be more intimately involved in your work (very active volunteers, potential board members,  possibly engaged donors) In the beginning it’s better to err on the side of being too exclusive. If  after an event or two you find no one is learning anything new, it’s time to expand the invite list.

Finally, intimate is better.  It’s hard to air dirty laundry in a group of 500+.

Provide a structure
You need free-form mingling time at the beginning and end of the event–but if you don’t provide some structure for sharing, it will be hard to get people started.

If your people aren’t shy, an open-mike style event is the easiest way to go.  Get a sound system, some kind of stage and plenty of comfortable chairs.  Start with a welcome message, any ground rules, and hand over the mike to people as they are inspired.

If you can’t imagine working like that, try sitting everyone in a large (or several small) circle(s) and share that way.  The key is for everyone to be comfortable, have the chance to share if they’d like, and to be able to hear the storytellers.

Finally, the actual story-sharing portion of the event shouldn’t last more than 60-90 minutes–after that people will start to get antsy.

Food is a requirement
Wine is probably a good idea as well, but you know your people better than I.  Also, don’t skimp on the food.  There is something about eating together that helps people feel comfortable.  That comfort will be key to the success of the experience.

Don’t make it a fundraiser
You will be tempted to use this opportunity to raise money.  Please resist.  If you need a sponsor or tickets to cover expenses, that is one thing,  but as soon as you use the event as a way to improve your bottom line you will start to make subtle changes to raise more money.  Before you know it, the spirit of the original event will be lost.

Are you ready to share?  You don’t have to go into the gory details–just let us know the general idea of which defeat you’d be most likely to honor with your own ANDY-style party.

*Most every night Andy would get disoriented and have drug induced hallucinations about people chasing him.  Sometimes it was the mafia, sometimes he was a WWII fighter pilot; you get the idea.  The only consistent part of the story was he needed to get away fast.  This was a problem because his back was broken–so it was really, really important he stay in bed.  Most nights were spent with one or more people sitting next to him  assuring him he wasn’t being chased.  He’d had an accident, he was in the hospital, he needed to stay still, remember?  Yes.  10 minutes later–lather, rinse, repeat.  He also had a tendency to use his hospital gown as a prop–but I promised not to get into that on the internet.

12 thoughts on “Celebrate Defeat

  1. Maureen, that’s a great story, and a great idea. Battle scars lead you to real insight if you look at them the right way.

    Food is important. When you get into heavy stuff, solid food (and stable blood sugar) is a way to stay grounded.

    Inspiration to start the day. Thanks for this.

  2. What an incredibly motivational story — about failure, of all things! It just goes to show you that everybody’s human and everyone makes mistakes. Having the “scars” to prove it just shows that we (hopefully) gained experience from the ordeal!

    I hope Andy was able to hit the trails again after his accident!

  3. Maureen this is such a great idea! It’s the defeats that can turn out to be the source of the biggest transformations and we don’t very often make time to really honour them.

    And I especially like the social celebration you’ve described. WAY better than hunkering down by myself with a bottle of wine mulling over what went wrong.

    • While wine (and chocolate) make most things seem a little better I find sharing them eases the burden. When I hunker down alone I tend to obsess in unhelpful places. With friends I almost always find the humor–and the lesson much more quickly. Plus, when sharing a bottle of wine the morning headache is seriously reduced.

  4. Maureen —

    I’ve been in groups where we’ve made timelines of the organization’s history on big sheets of butcher paper taped to the wall, which have included the highs and the lows. It gets people reminiscing together as they fill in the timeline. That’s followed by a discussion of the organization’s journey and its many turning points. And it often illustrates that low moments play important roles in later successes.

    I like the informality of your example and because it is more informal, it can be an ongoing conversation. (Not to mention it’s easier to get folks to bring wine than a big roll of butcher paper, tape and markers!)

    Either way, the creation and preservation of an organization’s stories as a group effort instills a unique sense of shared ownership.

  5. Anne, the nice thing about your butcher paper idea is that it shows the lows in context with the highs. I think it’s a great idea, even if it’s a bit more corporate.

    Maureen, this is a fantastic post, and applicable to people and organizations both. Celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly …. because that’s life!

    • I focused on the stories of low times because I think those are the ones most likely to be lost–but sharing stories of highs and lows together is as (or more) powerful depending on the situation. I’d love to see the mixing of stories idea used as a birthday celebration–for an organization or a person.

      Thanks for extending the idea into new purposes!

  6. This is such a great idea. I agree that it’s important to acknowledge difficult events. The hardships are packed with lessons. And when you regularly acknowledge the dark times, it makes the successes seem that much more vibrant.

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