Nietzsche Was Right: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger, Study Approves

Early failures in life might make you a successful person in the future.
Ali Halit Diker

Researchers from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management found a relationship between failure and future success. Findings are published in Nature Communications journal in an article titled Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact, co-authored by Yang Wang, Benjamin F. Jones & Dashun Wang.

On one hand, the study goes hand in hand with why we love good success stories, where the hero falls somewhere along the journey but learns a lesson, goes through catharsis or a similar process, and gets up to reach the end of her/his journey. On the other side, the findings of the study offer a counter-argument to Robert K. Merton's Matthew Effect: "rich get richer, poor get poorer."


Dashun Wang, one of the corresponding authors and associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg points out that "we have been relatively successful in pinpointing the benefits of success, we have failed to understand the impact of failure."

Analyzing National Institutes of Health (NIH) applications

Wang and his colleagues analyzed R01 applications between 1990 and 2005. Researchers picked two groups for comparison. One of the groups was tagged as 'near-misses' and the other 'just-made-its.'

The latter was expected to be more successful as early success is a source of motivation and positive feedback boosts self-confidence. Thus, 'just-made-its' are more likely to achieve success in their future careers, according to Matthew Effect. But the results of the study suggest that early-career failures have the potential for valuable lessons to be learned which is not possible otherwise.

Near-miss group published as many papers as just-made-its

Researchers evaluated the number of papers published by each group, and how many of them were hits. The popularity of the papers was determined by how many citations they had.

Benjamin Jones, study co-author and the Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship at Kellogg, states "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."

Individuals in the near-miss funding group were 6.1% more likely to publish a hit paper over the next 10 years compared to scientists in the just-made-it group.

Early career setbacks Fig.1
Pre-treatment comparisons between the narrow-win and near-miss applicants. Source: Nature Communications

How this is possible is not very clear to researchers, yet

Researchers are undecided whether or not their research is an attribution to a "weed-out" phenomenon. It is possible that some of the most-determined scientists stayed in the field while others just quit, but further research is needed to explain the later success of the near-miss group.

Dashun Wang admits that there is a great value in failure and adds, "we have just begun expanding this research into a broader domain and are seeing promising signals of similar effects in other fields."

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