FailureFests (aka, Failure Fiestas)

Last year I was delighted be hired as a curriculum consultant/writer as part of a project Screenshot 2020-07-21 23.04.52initiated and funded by Jewish Teen Funders’ Network (JTFN) and developed by M2: the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. The year-long project was to design a new modular
teen philanthropy curriculum Screenshot 2020-07-21 23.04.36rooted in a Jewish framework.  JTFN engaged Mdue to their expertise in experiential Jewish education and Mcontracted me to be a part of an amazing team.

The first step in the process was to convene stakeholders from around North America for a two-day ThinkTank in NYC (January 2019).  As part of the process, and rooted in the core concept of M2’s educational philosophy, participants were asked to explore (thicken) certain values related to teen philanthropy and consider what education implications that value would have in a teen philanthropy program.

My partner, Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, and I chose to delve into the value of “Growth.”  Mhas developed a multi-step process they recommend people use when thickening a value (from a universal concept to a specific permutation of that concept).

The first step in the protocol is to articulate a definition (can be taken from a dictionary or other source) and to list associations of the value you are deepening.  Micol and I recorded the following:

  • The process of developing or maturing physically, mentally or spiritually.
  • Transformation, movement, challenge, nurturing, self, change, reflection, process, dynamic, flourishing, thriving, development

The next step is to share (and record) at least three ways we have seen this value in action in our own lives or in other known stories.  I talked about the impact that Alexander Muss High School in Israel had on my own transformation through challenge, reflection and personal development.  We identified the transition of Jacob into Yisrael in the bible story, and then Micol shared the story of her then-five-year-old daughter being taught about an “ish” mindset in order to combat her self-critical/perfectionist nature.

The next step in thickening a value is to pick one of the stories and flesh out the details of how the narrative played out.  Micol explained how two books: “ish” and “Beautiful Oops” were used as a trigger tool for her daughter to see mistakes as opportunities and to not quit or give up if she sees something as not “the best.”  Micol explained that her daughter’s teachers and her husband all provide encouragement, they help her daughter see the potential in certain mistakes, and they verbally reward her when she doesn’t give up.  As a result, her daughter may draw outside the lines or not see something as perfect and will acknowledge, “Look mommy, it’s ‘ish’!”

The Mprotocol then asks participants to extrapolate bigger learnings from the details of the story.  Micol and I developed the following:

Self-critical and Striving to be best:

  • self-understanding
  • desire to be better
  • knowing there is room for improvement
  • critique must/should honor where someone is/has been

The Potential of Mistakes:

  • Mistakes as opportunities to learn
  • Failing Forward/Reframing Failure
  • Reflection on new perspectives
  • Process is critical

Teaching moments:

  • outside help is often needed and needing help is okay
  • new perspectives give us different/fresh information
  • outside people give us mirrors to our blind spots
  • Teaching moments are “teaching with compassion”

The next step in this thickening process asks us to consider how might learners in teen philanthropy (or whatever program/initiative/curriculum it is) encounter or express this value (as seen through the lens of the extrapolations).  At this point, Micol and I developed the following list as it relates to Jewish teen philanthropy programs:

  • In the due diligence/evaluation process when choosing a potential beneficiary organization, teens explore how that organization has managed mistakes/failures/challenges in its own work.
  • In creation of their RFP’s or marketing, they are taught to look to outside people to get feedback before anything is final – they learn creating drafts and “red ink” is part of the process (i.e. 3 mistake rule)
  • The program manager develops a mentor program with outside philanthropists and a coaching program with educators so participants can also develop personal growth in addition to the group growth experience.
  • Time for self-evaluation is built into every session through journaling or image boarding to explore: what did I learn? what can I do better? what can I / did I bring to the group?  what did the group give to me?
  • Educators implementing the program receive training on reframing failure and addressing positive growth in focused ways.
  • The group holds regularly scheduled “FailureFests*” (failure celebrations with balloons and noise makers, etc.) so failures become something to celebrate – individually and as a group – and each one is accompanied by feedback (in the construct of critical friends’ feedback).

*(PARDON THE LANUGAGE) but Micol had heard about a concept called “Fuck-Up Nights.” Here are two articles (of many) explaining the concept:

The next step of the thickening protocol asks how the adoption of this value and these learning experiences impact the learners.  We said that participants will:

  • come to understand the value of transparency and humility
  • experience and discern between group growth and individual growth
  • internalize that not being perfect doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy – quite the contrary
  • accept that we (humans) never get things right the first time
  • recognize that tunnel vision is real when working on a project
  • appreciate that mistakes/failure are critical part of the process of creation and doing your best work
  • learn how to receive critical feedback
  • value other people and their different perspectives and that we need them to be successful (know that other people’s wisdom is valuable)
  • acknowledge #Idontknoweverything
  • have a sense that self-awareness and self-understanding make us and our impact better
  • set aside time from self-reflection because it is necessary
  • learn skills related to giving and receiving feedback
  • recognize that progress is not perfection and that perfect is not the goal and no one is perfect
  • welcome the idea that failure should be celebrated as long as we learn from it.

Fast-forward to my professional development experience today.  As an alumna of Northeastern University’s EdD program, I receive emails about on-going professional development opportunities and immediately registered for the “Experiential Learning in an Age of Disruption” program (aka SummerBash) co-sponsored by the University’s NeXT (Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning) Network and a national education network called CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies).  (For highlights, search Twitter for #NExTCAPSBash.)

At one point during this day-long virtual learning experience, the conversation between the panelists (and eventually spilling into the chatbox) turned to how we encourage learners to take risks even if it means failing and subsequently how do we help them see “failure” in this context as something good.  I immediately jumped back to the work Micol and I did 18 months ago and shared about “Failure Fiestas” and the two articles about F-Up Nights.  The concept caught the eye of the panel moderator and he mentioned that he would want to know more and several participants articulated the same in the chat box.

And so here we are …

Screenshot 2020-07-21 22.47.17You may wonder how the work that Micol and I developed ended up influencing the curriculum. On Page 45 of the first edition, there is a section dedicated to “Failing Forward” (shout-out to Dr. Stephen Pietrolungo for my new ‘Fail Forward’ t-shirt which he’s sending from SoCal, see photo at bottom) and includes information on a “Failure Party” but also includes ideas for reflection journaling prompts and a group processing exercise using these quotes:

  • “Perseverance is failing 19 times, and succeeding the 20th.” -Julie Andrews
  • “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” -J.K. Rowling
  • “One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities.” -Abraham Maslow
  • “Do you know what ‘FAILING’ stands for? It stands for ‘Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth.’” -Gary Busey
  • “If the possibility of failure were erased, what would you attempt to achieve?” -John C. Maxwell


So, as an education leader, parent, clergy member, mentor or coach: 

How might you celebrate your own “failures?

What risks might you take in order to achieve 
something new and great?


Fail forward shirt



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