Early career failures can lead to more success later in life

Jessica Satherley
Early career failures can lead to more success later in life
Career failures can set you up for success later in life

An early loss in your career doesn’t mean you’re done for good, in fact, it could be the thing that sets you up for success in later life, according to a new study

The findings from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois seem to back up the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. 

Researchers at the American university looked at the records of a group of young scientists who had applied for research grants of more than $1 million between 1990 and 2005. 

Dr. Yang Wang and his colleagues found that scientists who were denied funding early in their careers went on to publish just as many papers later in life as the group who landed a grant. 

Scientists who failed to get grants early on (called the near-miss group), not only published as many academic papers as their peers who got funding, but their papers ended up being more successful. 

"The losers ended up being better,” Dr. Wang said in the Kellogg Insight article post research. 

The results are contrary to The Matthew Principle, which looks at accumulated advantage. 

American sociologist Robert K. Merton’s theory from 1968 suggests that early success leads to more success and early failure leads to more failure. 

The Northwestern University researchers were studying a group of scientists who applied for a National Institute of Health grant called the R01 in the 15-year period, which included 778,219 applications. 

This was a highly sought-after grant to young scientists in the biomedical field, which was worth an average of USD$1.3 million (NZD$2 million). 

Although 10 per cent of scientists who were rejected, never applied for a R01 grant again, the ones who kept pushing forward in their careers ended up better off than their peers with initial funding. 

Researchers chose 623 scientists who were unsuccessful with grants, and 561 scientists who did get funding, and evaluated their consequential careers over the 10 years that followed. 

Within the decade following, both groups ended up publishing academic papers at around the same rate. 

“Even more surprising, scientists in the near-miss group were actually more likely to have ‘hit’ papers (that is, papers that cracked the top-five per cent of citations in a particular field and year),” the article said. 

Five years after funding applications, 16.1 per cent of the near-miss group’s published papers were hits, while only 13.3 per cent of the group that won grants had hit papers. 

“The advice to persevere is common. But the idea that you can take something valuable from the loss – and are better for it – is surprising and inspiring,” Kellogg strategy professor and co-author of the study Benjamin F. Jones said. 

Dr. Yang Wang concluded, “failure is devastating, and it can also fuel people”. 

Westpac HR Consultant Christopher McIntosh says, “the key difference may be someone’s mindset, as made famous by Dr. Carol Dweck”. 

“Failure can be destructive for those with a fixed mindset, whereas those with a growth mindset are able to use it to their advantage by seeing failures as learning opportunities,” McIntosh said. 

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