Early Career Failures Correlate With Long-Term Success, New Study Finds 

mbg Health Contributor By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”

Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for the saying, "What does not kill me makes me stronger." But is that actually true? Do our struggles and failures help us in the long run? According to a new study, it might be. The research, published in Nature Communications, revealed that scientists who experienced early career failures have greater success in the long term.

From Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, the researchers used analytics to study young scientists and analyze the relationship between professional failure and success. To do this, they collected data on students who had applied for R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1990 and 2005 and separated them into two groups. The first group included students whose scores fell just short of what they needed to get funding (aka, the "failure" group), and the second included students whose scores were just high enough to receive funding (these students became the "success" group). Next, the authors analyzed the number and popularity of the studies each group published over the next 10 years.

The research team hypothesized that early success would be correlated with more long-term success, but they actually found the opposite. The results showed that for those who failed early but tried again, success was just around the corner. More specifically, compared to the initial "success" group, students in the initial "failure" group were 6.1% more likely to publish a hit paper over the following decade. As lead study author Yang Wang, explained, "...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."

So what does this mean for all of us? For one, it encourages us to express gratitude for all our life experiences—good and bad. "There is value in failure," said Dashun Wang corresponding author on the study and associate professor. "It turns out that, historically, while we have been relatively successful in pinpointing the benefits of success, we have failed to understand the impact of failure," he continued.

The researchers are from the Kellogg Center for Science of Science and Innovation at Northwestern, where the goal is to have a greater understanding of the conditions that lead to success and failure in science. For now, we can reflect on how failures in our own lives have driven us forward, cultivate habits of emotionally resilient people, and keep this newfound knowledge in our minds the next time we face adversity, failure, or rejection.

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