EMOTIONAL HEALTH
October 25, 2019

Mistakes Were Made -- And That's Good

You can't learn to be persistent if you don't face failure. So why are we so focused on success?

You can learn a lot from your failures. In fact, they may put you ahead of the game. The careers of young scientists bear this out — those who faced early failures tended to do better in the long run.

Researchers from Northwestern University examined the careers of two groups of scientists, scrutinizing 15 years of grant applications, from scientists who were just starting out, to the National Institute of Health (NIH). One group's applications barely scored high enough to receive funding. Another group scored slightly lower, just missing the funding cutoff. Then they looked at the scientists' publication history over the next five to ten years.

Failure may teach important lessons, but as a society we've studied success much more.

The grants they were considering are no minor matter. They average $1.5 million dollars over five years and can easily mean the difference between running your own lab or having to work in someone else's — or in another field entirely.

In fact, the attrition rate was 10 percent higher in the near-miss group. But those who didn't wash out performed better than the just-made-it group, according to their publication history over the next decade.

Those in the near-miss group published as many papers as the just-made-it group, but had more papers cited frequently by other scientists.

“The attrition rate does increase for those who fail early in their careers,” said study lead author, Yang Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. “But those who stick it out, on average, perform much better in the long term, suggesting that if it doesn't kill you, it really does make you stronger.”

And while the near-miss group received considerably less NIH funding in the first five years, that difference vanished after six to ten years.

“The fact that the near-miss group published more hit papers than the just-made-it group is even more surprising when you consider that the just-made-it group received money to further their work, while the near-miss group did not,” adds study co-author, Benjamin Jones, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Kellogg.

It's hard to measure grit, and that's one reason the researchers were unable to pinpoint a specific reason as to why failure might make you stronger. Failure may teach important lessons, but as a society we've studied success much more than we've studied failure, so it's not surprising, the researchers say, that we don't understand failure's lessons quite as well.

At least in the field of science, early-career setbacks appear to have two powerful opposing effects, hurting some careers but apparently strengthening many others. Yes, some failures can be devastating. But for those who are able to stick it out, failures are just a rough patch on a road to real accomplishment.

For more details, see the article in Nature Communications.

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