Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I'm not fond of the self-help book, proverb-like statements that supposedly reveal deep life truths and motivate people to greater things.

Indeed, somewhere on my laptop there's a manuscript called Proverbial Nonsense that explains just how far my lack of fondness extends.

However, one that's always been suffused with a tinge of truth is that it's good for the mind and soul to endure a little failure.

It makes you appreciate your limitations and examine your hubris. 

It forces you to focus on the radical ephemerality of life.

It's easy, though, to get annoyed at tech types who insist you should fail fast and go on to greater glories.

Too many of these people actually saw success too young, with the result that our world is now a parlous bag of tripe.

But enough about Mark Zuckerberg.

You see, I've just been sideswiped by a new piece of research from Northwestern University.

Entitled Early-Career Setback And Future Career Impact, this study involved wise, purple-sweatshirted management scientists examining whether there really is some sort of connection between early failure and ultimate success.

At least, among junior scientists applying for R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health. (Disclosure: my wife is a scientist who has had some success writing similar grants.)

The researchers admit that the conclusions drifted into the opposite direction from their expectations.

They did discover that early career failure made around 10 percent more junior scientists quit altogether than those who had narrow successes.

However, swathes of hope also emerged from the pits of despair. As the scientists put it: 

Individuals with near misses systematically outperform those with narrow wins in the longer run. Moreover, this performance advantage seems to go beyond a screening mechanism, suggesting early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere.

The ones with near-misses may get less funding. They do, though, end up writing more "hit" papers that are cited more often.

This result isn't to be underestimated. As study co-author Benjamin Jones explained: 

The fact that the near-miss group published more hit papers than the just-made-it group is even more surprising when you consider that the just-made-it group received money to further their work, while the near-miss group did not.

Yes, when you fail people look down upon you. They lose confidence in you. 

You feel like -- in the charming American vernacular -- a loser.

The researchers say they looked at all sorts of possibilities as to why those who initially failed went on to enjoy elevated success.

In the end, all they can posit is that quaint characteristics such as determination and, well, the ability to learn from failure spur people onto greater things.

It seems that these effects are being observed beyond the area of scientific grant proposals.

It's worth, then, looking for narrow failures early in your career. They won't be entirely demotivating and they'll spur you to great things.

Please don't imagine, though, that these results exclude the idea that -- holds nose -- success breeds success.

We've all seen how the self-regarding young things of Silicon Valley have infinite dollars thrown at them the minute they sell a tiny app that makes investors -- and them -- money before it disappears into a large, dark hole.

Published on: Oct 5, 2019
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