Scientists Find That Early-Career Failure Could Lead to Bigger Future Success


It’s often said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – a quote inspired by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. There is a new study to support this, with researchers reporting that a setback early in a person’s career may provide impetus for more long-term success.


The scientists concluded that failure has its value after going through the records of scientists who, early in their careers, had applied for research grants in the United States. It was found that some of those individuals who narrowly missed out on being given the grants went on to make more significant impact later in their career.

This new study, done by researchers at the Kellogg School of Management, was published in Nature Communications. It was co-authored by Yang Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the school.

Challenging traditional belief

Without a doubt, most people would opt to win any contest only narrowly than losing out to a rival by a tight margin. A win is a win after all and everyone loves a winner.

When talking career, early successes – whether significant or minor – can go a long way. There are studies that have shown that such a success can bring about recognition and other benefits that may help facilitate more future success. It is little or no wonder then that most, if not all, people would take a narrow success than losing out.

Findings in the new study, however, showed that losing narrowly might be better than succeeding only by a slight margin.

The researchers analyzed all R01 grant applications submitted by scientists to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1990 to 2005. They concentrated on junior scientists whose applications scaled through or missed out narrowly.

There were 561 “narrow wins,” while the “narrow misses” were 623 in total. The scientists who won narrowly got $1.3 million, on average, for their research over the following five years.

Something similar to the “Matthew effect” – captured in the saying, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” – was observed by researchers. This was after they monitored the research activities of active scientists for the next 10 years and the grants they got. The “near miss” group received fewer grants from sponsoring agencies, including the NIH, over that period.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers observed that each near miss seemed to increase the likelihood of unsuccessful scientists vanishing permanently from the NIH system by 10 percent. This probably suggests that near misses lead to loss of interest in academic science.

Yet, those in the near-miss group who succeeded in overcoming the setback recorded bigger long-term successes than narrow winners. They published as many research papers as the latter, with their work also having more impact, despite receiving fewer grants.

Applying the results

The study provides empirical evidence to back the popular saying credited to Nietzsche. It shows that failure should not mean it is over, but should rather serve as a stepping stone for bigger successes.

There is nobody who cannot experience failure, the researchers pointed out. Every person will experience a form of failure at some point in their career, no matter how good they are at their job. Yang and his team hope their research will give inspiration to rise and forge ahead when failure is experienced.

Results from the study also serve as warning for those enjoying narrow wins in their career. There is the danger of such feeling complacent, which could make them fall behind in the long term.

Going by the research, organizations may also need to re-consider how they view failures. They should see them as useful pointers to future performance, the researchers said, rather than focusing exclusively on successes.


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