Fail First… Succeed Later.

Woman holding baking tray with burnt cookies

In an October, 2019 article published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Dashun Wang and Benjamin Jones describe a research study in which they tracked the progress and career trajectory of scientists for 10 years following either their success or failure to receive major grant funding for their research.  They found that those who received the grant funding showed more progress in the short term, but in the long term the “failure” group had just as many significant publications as the “success” group.  What’s even more interesting is that they found that the “failure” group “…produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts than their narrow-win counterparts.”  In other words, the work of the “failure” was equal in volume, but ultimately more important that that of the “success” group.  In the article, they attribute this to the screening effect, which means that the act of failing removes the weaker candidates from the pool early on, and that those who persist despite their early failure are actually stronger candidates for success.  I’d argue that the work of rebounding after the early failure is, by itself, a factor in the later success of these subjects.  These scientists aren’t surviving just because they are good – they are being made better through the act of surviving.

The takeaway here is that failure doesn’t have to be fatal.  At a minimum, our ability to survive through failures reveals something about us, that we have the strength and ability to be something greater.  Moving through a failure, learning from it and processing the reasons why, also gives us a toolset that could give our work a level of depth and significance that it might not have otherwise.

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