Are Setbacks a Springboard for Stratospheric Success?

Early-career failure can spark the "right stuff" for long-term career success.

Posted Oct 31, 2019

The legendary automobile inventor and 20th-century industrialist, Henry Ford, famously said, "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligent."

Last weekend, my 12-year-old daughter put this maxim to use after finishing in last place at an IEA horse show. During two events with seven riders, she was the only person in both categories not to win one of six prized ribbons. 

Thankfully, her immediate reaction to this bottom-of-the-barrel failure wasn't to feel hopelessly defeated. Instead, losing helped her realize the importance of getting smarter and more determined about her training.

Source: Pixabay

Truth be told, I was secretly happy that my daughter came home ribbon-less. She's won plenty of blue ribbons over the years. Therefore, in my opinion, losing seemed like a better opportunity for growth than winning again. As one of my coaches said to me as a rookie athlete: "Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn." It's true.

As we were driving home and discussing her "failure," I told my daughter about a new study from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management that identified a relationship between early-career failure and future success among peer-reviewed scientists.

This paper, "Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact," was published on October 1 in the journal Nature Communications.

The goal of this research was to utilize advanced analytics to assess the relationship between early-career failure and long-term impact and success among young scientists.

The three researchers from Kellogg who conducted this research—Yang Wang, Benjamin Jones, and Dashun Wang—are all faculty members at Northwestern's Center for the Science of Science and Innovation. The ongoing mission of this "science of science" organization is to gain a better understanding of various factors and conditions that influence scientific success and failure.

To explore the link between success after a "failure to launch," the researchers started by gathering data associated with RO1 grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1990 and 2005.

Then, based on the NIH's in-house evaluation metrics, they divided scientists into two groups: 1) a "near-miss" group who almost received a grant, but scored just below the threshold to receive funding and 2) a "just-made-it" group who scored just above the threshold to qualify for NIH funding.

Lastly, the Kellogg-based team collected data and analyzed the number of peer-reviewed papers scientists in each cohort published over the next decade and how many of their scientific papers were high-impact "hits," based on the number of citations each article received.

Notably, the data showed that individuals in the "near-miss" group were significantly more likely to publish a hit paper in the 10 years after failing to receive NIH funding than scientists in the "just-made-it" group.

"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," co-author Benjamin Jones said in a news release.

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

Failure teaches valuable lessons. Usually, we learn more from our failures than our victories. But, the million-dollar question remains: Why might failing right out of the gate lead to greater success later on? According to Wang et al., there is probably a combination of multiple observable and unobservable reasons.

As the authors explain, "If early career setbacks increase attrition, it may act as a screening mechanism, leading to a more selected set of individuals who remain, with fixed, advantageous characteristics such as commitment, perseverance, grit, and high self-confidence."

Other science-based motivation literature has shown that setbacks may motivate people who fail early on by giving them a warning sign that more effort is needed. On the flip side, early-career success may result in a reduction of effort. Especially if someone adopts a "this is a piece of cake" attitude and becomes overconfident or cocky about his or her unwavering ability to always succeed.

That being said, the authors warn that their results do not imply that someone should purposely create setbacks or instigate failure as a way to boost motivation or long-term success.

Nevertheless, they do hope their findings will encourage people to flip the script and realize that—for anyone who perseveres and doesn't give up or stop trying—early-career failure can be a blessing in disguise.

Hopefully, this study will inspire you to adopt Samuel Beckett's famous creed: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 


Yang Wang, Benjamin F. Jones, Dashun Wang. "Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact." Nature Communications (First published: October 1, 2019) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12189-3