It's one of the most talked about topics, certainly in the startup world, and perhaps across society: failure.

Fear of failure is one of the top ten most common fears by some rankings and fear of public speaking, which is often listed as the number one fear in the U.S., is really a fear of a more specific type of failure. 

In a society that tends to measure success and failure in tangible ways like wealth or Instagram followers, it's perhaps no surprise that we've recast the idea of failure as a stepping stone towards success rather than a tragic end. After all, our economy isn't actually built on success; rather it runs on the striving of those chasing it. 

But research has proven that the cliche of failure as an important and often necessary pit stop on the road to success isn't just a line in a pep talk.

There are countless anecdotes out there about the value of failure, but new research actually looks at data and finds that all the words of wisdom around failing may really be wise after all. 

"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," said Dashun Wang from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Northwestern researchers looked at failure and success among young scientists and found that failing early in a career really can lead to great success later on, provided those individuals took a vital piece of advice we've all heard: Try, try again.

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

Researchers looked at scientists who applied for certain grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1990 and 2005 and separated them into a group of "near-misses" for receiving funding and "just-made-its" who were awarded grants by a slim margin according to NIH evaluation scores.

In other words, they were put into groups that narrowly succeeded or narrowly failed early on. The researchers then looked out how many papers people from each group published over the following decade and how influential those papers were based upon citations.

It turns out that individuals in the near-miss group were 6.1% more likely to publish a hit paper.

"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," said co-author Benjamin Jones.

The researchers say their findings provide an interesting counter-narrative to the "Matthew Effect," which is the "rich get richer" idea that success leads to even more success.

While it doesn't disprove the Matthew Effect, it appears to show that both things can be true and both success and failure can beget success.

The real key, of course, is persistence.

Published on: Oct 2, 2019
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