New study reveals why failing early in your career is absolutely essential

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Though beautifully phrased, I don’t know that this quote would be quite as penetrating had it not come from Thomas Edison specifically.

Effectively augmenting the personality and potential of an entire nation is a feat reared by cultural acuity, imagination, and perseverance all at once. Nearing a century following his death, we’re still surrounded by the fruits of Edison’s triad. These ubiquitous beacons for when we miss the moon and the stars are too dim to receive us. Failure isn’t the enemy of success, but its liaison, shadows for candles to perceive opportunities when we’re bright enough to make the most of them.

A new study published in the journal, Nature Communications, articulates the mechanisms of misfires more clearly using fields of science as a model. After all, as Nobel prize winner Robert Lefkowitz, famously remarked, “Science is 99% failure, and that’s the optimistic view.”

Seed of production

The authors, Dashun Wang, Benjamin F. Jones, and Yang Wang found themselves motivated to unpick the Matthew principle, which itself is a secular extension of the parable of talents found in the Christian bible:” For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Fellow Sunday sleepers like myself might be more familiar with it put like this: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  Both incarnations imply that early success is a reliable indication of continued success.

Beginning with an analysis of  R01 grant applications submitted between 1990 and 2005 to the U.S. National Institutes of Health; the authors soon discovered Nietzsche’s iconic aphorism to be closer to the mark. Consistently, the junior scientists that remained active after their applications fell just a hair below the funding threshold went on to produce studies of great impact. Sadly many of the academicians decided to leave their fields after their brushes with failures. To this, the authors write, 

“Indeed, we find that there’s a differential attrition rate between the two groups, with each near miss associated with a 10% higher chance of disappearing from the NIH system permanently, suggesting many of them left academic science. This result underscores a devastating consequence of early setbacks, highlighting the fragility of a scientific career.”

Nevertheless, the wound lickers more often than not outperformed those that enjoyed narrowly won grant submissions early on. This proffers two relevant applications. For individuals, it teaches us to observe failure as an inevitable attendant of every venture. Ultimately, failure is an unbiased concussive force, blind to aptitude, status, affiliation, and circumstance.  When a bear eats a camper in the woods we don’t call it murder, we call it nature. Thusly when failure spots you toiling away at this or that, try not to think meanly of it or yourself if it decides to take its course. On an organizational level, the new study elevates defeat as an imperative ingredient of future success. The narrow losers were deprived of laurels to rest on, so they remained on their toes, determined to earn a seat at the table.

“Overall, our findings suggest that for those who persevere, early failure should not be taken as a negative signal — but rather the opposite. So for innovators and managers, it’s important to keep in mind that winners misclassified as losers today could end up being the bigger winners tomorrow.”