Saying Goodbye to Failure/Hello to the next Big Question

By Jess Van Nostrand
Posted on February 27th

“… The split second when I know what is right, but choose not to heed that truth: that is failure. ”
–Barbara Earl Thomas

“Fear is a good thing for me.”
—Carrie Akre

“When important things happened in my life, I was very uncomfortable.”
–Tom Kundig*

I am often asked how I select the Big Questions and the related topics for each TPR programming series. It sounds like I’m joking when I respond, “These are the things that keep me up at night.” Sadly, this is true. Happily, I have a place to work through these things. Using The Project Room as my therapist to identify and address what I can’t understand, I have created topics that stimulate me (in either a positive or negative way), and which I hope carry some meaning for others as well. This should be good news for my husband who does not always want the job of Jess’ therapist, but he is still very much needed- sorry dear! I realize this is a very self-centered way of explaining what drives the organization but, like everything at TPR, it’s a partly intellectual/partly personal endeavor.

In the case of the Failure series, I was thinking through all of the interesting things that were said during the previous Solutions topic. My thinking went something like this: In order to seek a solution, you need a problem. And, in order to tackle an especially complicated problem, you need to take a risk of some kind. “Risk” didn’t get me very excited, probably because I find it a very safe word creatively, one that we can all feel good about making use of regardless of the outcome. It feels good to say to someone else, “Wow, that was really risky” as in “Glad I’m not you!” So, I was not losing sleep over that. But what got my nerves in a jumble was the idea of what lives on the other side of that risk: failure. How close we live to it, how we don’t like talking about it, and maybe- just maybe- how essential it is to making something and to simply being a person.

Bringing it back to ME again, I wonder where the future of TPR lies and how it can sustain itself- what’s my definition of failure for this organization? That cost me at least a few night’s decent sleep right there. So, in keeping with my format, I decided to dedicate some time to Failure and see what others think.

In order to inform the conversations— and bring some inspiration to this potentially dreary topic—I created the series “Successful People Talking About Failure.” I didn’t want to kick anyone who might already be down, so to speak (“Sorry your career tanked and no one knows who you are- would you like to be featured in a series called “failure?”) These lively presentations featured a diverse group of people sharing their different points of view, and ended with many people telling me they wanted it to continue because it was the TPR topic they most connected with personally. The humor in this is not lost on me: the people have requested more failure! I agree- it was great fun and needs to make a comeback, so look for an encore presentation in the future…

You can read more about what occurred in Off Paper Editor Tessa Hulls’ perceptive response, A Failed Essay on Failure.

It has been nearly two years since we began the main theme “Why Do We Make Things?” I had originally created the Big Question structure to allow for a theme to be explored in depth, something I found lacking in my curatorial practice. As I learned, however, “nearly two years” is not long enough for something this interesting. This is why there are scholars who have devoted their careers to the work of one person, or one body of work, for example. Overall, I was surprised by how much substantial programming grew out of this theme and have come to understand that, if you have a good idea, you can make it last a loooong time.

But it is time to get into a new theme, so here we go. For the next eighteen months, The Project Room will ask the question, How Are We Remembered?

In this new theme, you will be invited to participate in conversations and other happenings around the idea of legacy and what it means to leave your mark in this world. There will be some experimentation with new event formats along with lots of roundtable conversations and other happenings online and on-site. I am also proud to announce the forthcoming launch of The TPR Book Circle, which employs an unusual book-club format. Expect lots of special guests and great reads around the current theme! More about that is also coming soon…

Thanks to everyone who joined the conversation during the first Big Question and made it a diverse, informative, and really fun programming experiment!



*These quotes are from three of the presenters from the Successful People Talking About Failure series. To read more about this program, go here.