NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, YES

Silicon Valley renaissance man Gary Bolles has lectured and produced events for the biggest brands in Silicon Valley and is the co-founder of eParachute, an online career guidance platform. In May, he visited New Zealand with the help of Callaghan Innovation and travelled the land, spreading the good word on surviving disruptive times. At Project Connect, part of Techweek AKL, we asked him what we, as New Zealanders, can learn from the Valley’s acceptance of failure as a necessary part of eventual success.

I could point to a number of what you might categorise as failures – startups that didn't start up, jobs that didn't work out. But let's make a distinction between 'failure' as a noun independent of a person, 'failure' as a noun that refers to a person, and 'failing' – or, as I prefer to say, making mistakes. We all make mistakes and there's no emotional coding behind that language. But failure has a lot of cultural anchors, many of them negative, and in some cultures, the fact that someone had a failure, independent of the person, means that the person becomes the failure. This has traditionally been one of the frictions in traditional Western cultures in Europe, for instance, where, until very recently, especially in countries with a historical caste system, there have been relatively strong stigmas against having a failure. 

Edison is famous for saying that he tried a thousand times to make a lightbulb, none of which worked. But they weren't a thousand failures, he just found a thousand different ways it wasn't going to work. And there's a marvellous book on job hunting by Tom Jackson, who says that the job hunt is characterised by NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, YES. So in making mistakes, or not being able to achieve what you set out to, the underlying mentality is simply that there's a solution you're going to get to and what you need is to have the support and the trust to allow you to get there.

From a cultural standpoint, in Silicon Valley there's absolutely no question that failure is rewarded by capital, by investors. When they see a person who has had a failure, or a company that didn’t start up, they ask what was learnt. Then they say: 'Make new mistakes. Don't make those mistakes again on my dime, make new ones'. You need this mentality of risk and this mentality of trust. 

So how do you create that culture? Well, if a kid comes to you and says they got an F on their paper, is that kid a failure? It could be that they tried their absolute hardest, that they got some tremendous learning from that paper and they're going to incorporate it into something new. So think about how you react when you see somebody do something that you think might be a failure. And if you support them personally and give them trust, that enables them to learn from that series of mistakes and go do something new. That's what you build a culture from.

It's the same thing in a business environment, it's the same thing in an investment environment: you've got to build up that culture of trust and that starts with every single one of us as individuals.