Early-career failure can mean later-career success, if you keep at it

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“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Scientists at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management have proven a causal relationship between professional failure and success.

If you’re a young scientist who scores a major grant early in his or her career, you’re destined for success in the future… right? What does it mean if you’re the scientist who just missed receiving that same grant – is it over for them? Many people take it as common sense that failure early on breeds more failure, and the same goes for success.

However, the findings of the study were counterintuitive.

Researchers utilized data from scientists who had applied for grants from the National Institutes of Health early in their careers to assess the relationship between professional failure and success. Findings showed that failure early in one’s career led to greater success over time for those who buckled down and kept trying.

“The attrition rate does increase for those who fail early in their careers,” lead author Yang Wang said, in a release. “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.”

They noted who got the grant, and who missed out. Then, they kept track of how many papers those scientists published over the next decade and counted how many times those studies were cited in other papers – a mark of how successful and influential their research was.

Those who had failed to get the grant early in their career were 6.1% more likely to publish a successful paper than the ones who had been awarded grants. Missing out the first time but sticking it out resulted in better outcomes than out-of-the-box success.

You just have to keep going, said Dashun Wang, an associate professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School. “Failure is devastating. It can also fuel people.”

The study was published in Nature Communications.

The researchers involved in this study were Dashun Wang, an associate professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School, lead author Yang Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University, and Benjamin F. Jones, Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.