We all know the old expression "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." It sounds nice, but many of us don't act like we believe it. 

When it comes to guessing future winners, we pick the candidate with the golden résumé full of continual achievement, not the person whom life has kicked around a bit. Or when we ourselves face a setback, we worry it will be a black mark that will forever hold us back from future success. 

So, which is it? Do early struggles make you tough or knock you back a step for life? Recently, a team of researchers out of the Kellogg School of Management aimed to find out (hat tip to the always fascinating Marginal Revolution blog). What they discovered is good news for all those whose lives haven't been one unbroken ascent up a sunny slope. 

Golden children versus early losers 

The research team utilized a handy natural experiment for their study. For decades, the National Institutes of Health has been handing out hefty research grants to young scientists. These awards, worth more than $1 million on average, can make a scientist's career. You'd think getting one would be a golden ticket. 

So what happens when you compare very similar scientists who either narrowly won or narrowly missed out on the funding? (Each application is assigned a numerical score by the NIH, so it's easy to see which applications were close to the cutoff line.) 

Given the tiny gap between the two types of applications and the similarity of those who submitted them (in terms of age, credentials, etc.), the only significant difference between the two groups of scientists was one experienced a coveted early career win while the other experienced a significant setback. So how did the two groups fare in the end? 

"The two groups published at similar rates over the next 10 years--not what you'd expect, given that narrow winners got an early leg up from their NIH grant funding. Even more surprising, scientists in the near-miss group were actually more likely to have 'hit' papers (that is, papers that cracked the top 5 percent of citations in a particular field and year)," reports Kellogg Insight

In short, "the losers ended up being better," Kellogg management professor and study co-author Dashun Wang summed up.  

Failure really does make you stronger

Why did the near-miss researchers end up doing more and more influential scientific work? The researchers sifted through the numbers to test a number of hypotheses. It wasn't all down to the weakest performers in the near-miss group giving up entirely after failing to secure a grant. Nor was the difference due to their switching schools or collaborators. After all the number crunching, only one explanation remained: What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. 

Is this only true for scientists? This study can't say, but it seems unlikely. Which suggests that, no matter your field, the school of hard knocks, while far from fun, is actually a pretty great teacher. 

That's personally encouraging for Wang, who jokes about his own "extensive experience with failure."

"Failure is devastating, and it can also fuel people," he commented. Perhaps the fact that the latest science has confirmed this fact will be encouraging for you, too. 

Published on: Nov 1, 2019
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