Failure Breeds Success: Study Validates Old Adage, ‘What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger’

EVANSTON, Ill. — Ever since German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed, “What does not kill me makes me stronger” in 1888, the adage has become synonymous with persistence or rising above a tough experience. There’s no disputing that the saying is useful from a motivational perspective, but now a new study analyzing failure and success finds that there’s actual scientific evidence to back up the claim as well.

Scientists at Northwestern University have established a causal relationship between failure and subsequent success in the future. Despite expecting to discover the opposite, they found that failure early in an individual’s career is actually associated with great success in the future among those who dust themselves off and try again after an initial setback. According to the study, the key to future success is not allowing early failures in life to discourage one from pursuing their goals.

“The attrition rate does increase for those who fail early in their careers,” comments lead author Yang Wang in a release. “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.”

Interestingly, the study also serves as a counter-narrative to the “Matthew Effect,” a principle that asserts that wealth leads to more wealth, or in this case, success begets more success.

“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,” explains associate professor Dashun Wang, a corresponding author on the study.

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For the study, researchers used advanced analytics to look into the relationship between professional failure and success among young scientists. More specifically, the records of scientists who had applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1991-2005 were analyzed. Using the NIH’s own evaluation scores, scientists were separated into two groups: the “near-misses,” or the scientists who failed to secure funding by just a few points, and the “just-made-its,” or scientists who just barely qualified for funding.

Then, the number of papers each scientist went on to publish was investigated, on average, over the following 10 years and how many of those papers turned out to be considered successful by the scientific community. Success, in this sense, was measured by counting the number of citations each paper received.

After analyzing all of the data, researchers discovered that while the near-miss group would go on to receive less funding over the subsequent 10 years, that same group published just as many papers as the just-made-it group, and even published more successful papers. Statistically, scientists in the near-miss group were 6.1% more likely to publish a hit paper compared to the other 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,” says co-author Benjamin Jones.

The research team would go on to speculate that their findings could be explained by a “weed out” effect, or the theory that early-career failure caused many scientists to drop out of the profession, leaving only the most determined individuals. So, in order to investigate this theory, researchers calculated the percentage of scientists who left their profession among both groups, and while the near-miss group did show a 10% higher turnover rate than the just-made-it group, the study’s authors do not believe such a small percentage could account for their overall findings.

Additional possible explanations were tested by researchers, but they weren’t able to find any real supporting evidence for any of their theories. With this in mind, they believe a number of unobservable factors, such as grit or determination, may have contributed to their findings.

“There is value in failure,” Dashun Wang concludes. “We have just begun expanding this research into a broader domain and are seeing promising signals of similar effects in other fields.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

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