It turns out what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger — and puts you in a better position to succeed, according to a new study. Scientists at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management analyzed the trajectories of early-career scientists who applied for R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1990 and 2005 and found a link between initial failure and long-term success.
NIH evaluation scores were used to divide applicants into two groups: Those who were just above the funding threshold (“just-made-it”) and those who were just below it (“near-miss”).
Researchers then looked at how many papers the two groups published over the next decade and categorized whether or not those papers were “hits” based on how many citations they received.
“Analysis revealed that individuals in the near-miss group received less funding but published just as many papers, and more hit papers, than individuals in the just-made-it group,” reads a statement by the study’s authors.
“Individuals in the near-miss funding group were 6.1% more likely to publish a hit paper over the next 10 years compared to scientists in the just-made-it group.”
The authors hypothesized long-term success in the near-miss group was due to “weeding out”, meaning that early-career failure may have prompted some people to pursue other careers, leaving behind the most determined.
Researchers tested several possible explanations for the long-term success of the people in the near-miss group, but could not find any evidence to support their hypothesis, suggesting determination and grit may be important factors in the success formula — a theory that was examined in a separate study.
“There is value in failure,” Dashun Wang, a corresponding author and associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, said in a statement.
“We have just begun expanding this research into a broader domain and are seeing promising signals of similar effects in other fields.”
The study, “Early-career setback and future career impact,” was published Oct. 1 in Nature Communications.