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Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned Through Failure

flickr / Christopher A. Dominic

The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at

When I was a boy, I dreamed of growing up and becoming a race car driver, fighter jet pilot, or ninja. What I didn’t prepare for was co-founding an international storytelling and training company called Failure Lab. It’s a strange thing to be so closely tied to failure, because frankly failure is weird, and we all have a powerful relationship with it. The ironic thing about running a company with the mission of eliminating the fear and stigma around failure, is that you have to simultaneously face your own fears, even as you’re trying to help others with theirs.

My 2 greatest fears in life have always been sharks, and becoming a father. Thankfully I’ve never been attacked by sharks, but last year I entered into a new relationship and a surprise pregnancy. I found out I was going to be a father. The thing I’d sworn I’d never do, the thing I’d told anyone who’d listen that I wasn’t cut out for. I had to face my greatest fear head on.

In our work with Failure Lab, I’ve had the unique honor of working through the failures of over 200 high profile storytellers from around the globe. We’re the only format in the world that features the untold failures behind success, and crowdsources the lessons. I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned through my own failures as well as from the professional athletes, Grammy-winning musicians, artists, rappers, and global CEO’s we’ve showcased. If you’re also facing fatherhood, change, and fear, this is a great guide to: examining your own story, reframing it, and using it as a powerful tool for change.

Identifying The Stories That Hold Us Back

The toughest part about our story is that it always begins before we do, and often times we pay for the failures of those before us. My dad always used to say our gene pool is shallow on the deep end — this (while funny) has haunted me my whole life. I come from a long line of rebellious entrepreneurs who didn’t much take to parenting. My grandfather was an angry alcoholic, my father is the son of an angry alcoholic, and I’m the son of the son of an angry alcoholic. It’s a cycle of passing down anger that has harmed us all. Due to the strained relationship I had with my dad, I developed this story about myself that I wasn’t capable of being a parent, or breaking this generational chain of dysfunction. I internalized this fear of becoming a bad parent so strongly that it held me back from having healthy relationships, and growing a family of my own. The first step in overcoming our past, is identifying the story, and acknowledging it.

Accepting Blame And Asking For Forgiveness

After becoming aware of this story I had spoken over my life, I needed to take action to change it. In my early 20s I left my family, and Michigan for the sunshine of Southern California. I started a contracting company and began building a new life. After a tumultuous adolescence battling my father, depression, addiction, and dropping out of college I finally felt like I was getting myself together. That was until the recession completely ruined me and my young business. I found myself alone, broke, jobless, drowning in debt, and forced to sell everything I owned. My mom had to help me buy an old Ford Ranger that I drove 2000 miles back to Michigan. With my tail between my legs I moved back into my parents basement feeling like a complete failure. I’ll never forget my father’s reaction when I walked into the house, “why did you come back here, there aren’t any jobs in Michigan?” For the first time in my life I needed to accept responsibility for my own actions and failures. For years I’d blamed my father for my mistakes, using his faults to mask my own selfish behaviors. On top of that I sat down with my father and apologized for being such a challenging son, I certainly never made it easy for him. I’m not sure he accepted the apology, but it was important for me to acknowledge my part in it.

Regaining Perspective And Remembering Who You Are

The scary thing about failure is that it can completely shut you down. So many of us when knocked down, allow our thinking to keep us down. We can be our own worst enemy and we have to change our perspective. It’s not enough to identify our story, and accept it, we have to remember that we are not a failure, we are not the sum of our mistakes. Failures are events, not people. This is a theme and attitude I see shared with all our Failure Lab storytellers. Every single one of them views their past mistakes as struggles that helped them get where they are. Often times they don’t even see the situations as failures, they see them as learning opportunities. Adopting this mindset has completely changed my life. I was not a failure in business and family, I just made mistakes. I was not incapable of starting another company because my first one failed, and certainly wasn’t incapable of starting my own family. I still had more than enough talent to get back up, I just needed to look in the mirror with a new attitude.

Being Vulnerable And Asking For Help

A lot of men (myself included) tend to charge forward alone, too proud to ask for help along the way. Whether you’re starting a family, or company, you absolutely cannot do it alone. Most great things in life were created by groups of likeminded people helping each other. As I was trying to overcome my past and rebuild my life, I was forced to humbly ask for help on every level. My finances were so bad I was cashing in pop cans for gas money to take job interviews for jobs I didn’t even want. I decided to stop being a lone wolf, and started reaching out to friends, mentors, pastors, and therapists. When meeting with them I stopped sugar coating my situation and started being vulnerable. I was bluntly honest about my current situation, and the mistakes I’d made that got me there. I will never forget my good friend Randy handing me $80 so I could fill my old Ford with another tank of gas. This willingness to reach out to smart people, be honest, and ask for help very quickly changed my trajectory. It wasn’t long before I had a new job and was working on another startup. I firmly believe one of humanities greatest enemies is isolation. There is no weakness in needing help, I still ask for advice every day on how to be a better businessman and dad.

Focusing On Your Journey And Ending Comparison

One of our storytellers put it best when she said, “all of us are comparing our personal blooper reels with our friends Facebook highlight reels.” We’re living in strange times where communication is exponentially changing around us and we’re all trying to keep up. It’s interesting and a bit scary that we’re more digitally connected than ever yet more physically disconnected. Sitting in my parents basement watching my friends succeed around me was demoralizing. My peers were all getting married, having kids, buying homes, and padding their portfolios. The more I compared my situation to the pictures I saw online, the worse I felt about myself. So many of us fall into this trap, believing we’re behind, off track, and unworthy of succeeding the way our friends are. I had to change the negative focus, and own my journey. Our self worth cannot be tied to our net worth. It’s OK to be exactly where you are, when you are. By focusing on what you do have, you can find peace and contentment amidst the storm of struggle.

Embracing Fear And Taking A Risk

We all have these moments in life, these painfully important forks in the road, that force us to make impactful decisions. Getting the phone call informing me I was going to be a father was certainly one of these moments. I was still digging out of debt, I was still stumbling along in business, I was still terrified of being a father — but I had a choice. Despite my failures and fears, I choose to embrace this news, I decided to dive wholeheartedly into fatherhood. My beautiful girlfriend Lindsey and I had some major challenges, we had just met, we didn’t know each other, we had uncertainty on every level. But we decided to take a risk and move forward together. Our pregnancy was wrought with terrifying moments, each one begging us to quit. Lindsey was put in the high risk category, we nearly lost our daughter in the second trimester. She pushed for over ten hours during labor, and I nearly fainted at the end. I’ve since realized all women are warriors and should be sainted, my baby momma battled like a boss. After 9 wild months and 2 crazy days in the hospital, we brought a healthy baby girl into the world. I softly wept when I held her for the first time — I was a dad, and I was going to embrace this kid with every ounce of my being.

Sharing The Fruits Of Our Labor

You can now find me happily walking a stroller in downtown Grand Rapids, usually covered in breast milk. I’m the self-proclaimed fastest diaper changer in the midwest, and one proud father. I have faced my greatest fear, and am too busy enjoying fatherhood to be afraid of it. The coolest thing about our failures, is that with the right perspective they can be transformed to help ourselves, and our communities. I’m proud to say Failure Lab has gone on to impact thousands of people around the world. Our stories are shared on NPR radio programs, in college classrooms, corporate teams, and played for men in prisons. One story even helped change healthcare laws throughout the entire state of Michigan. So too have my failures helped me become a better parent, boyfriend, and resource to other new fathers. If you’re willing to face your past, change your perspective, and embrace your fears, who knows what you can accomplish. Your reframed story and resources could be a catalyst for change in your career, community, and family. We all find true purpose when we use our pain and powers for good.

All of us face different circumstances, yet we all wrestle the same emotions. Failure is universal and yet unique to each of us. If I’ve learned anything from Failure Lab it’s that we don’t grow in comfort. Every single one of us is going to fail again, the real question is how will we respond?

Jonathan Williams is the co-founder of Failure Lab and works as a business growth consulant with his firm Graybridge. He’s also a travelling speaker and has given keynotes around the country and at 2 TEDx events.