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The long-term benefits of losing, according to science

We’ve heard winning isn’t everything, but new research proves that “losing” might boost your success in the long run.

The long-term benefits of losing, according to science
[Photo: Louis Hansel/Unsplash]

After three years of pursuing an ambitious project to understand what kinds of teams promote optimal innovation, my colleagues and I were nearing the finish line. The resulting paper was nearing long-awaited publication. The journal we’d targeted had put the paper through several review rounds, we’d addressed all comments, and the editor had revised the paper to meet the journal’s stringent space requirement. So when we left for the year-end holidays, we felt great.

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But with each hurdle cleared, the stakes felt higher, especially because the lead author—a postdoctoral researcher I helped supervise—was imminently entering the academic job market. Getting published in that prestigious journal felt make or break for him.

Then we received the worst news: the editor had sent the paper to new reviewers, who killed it.

We were devastated and put the paper aside for a month. Though a logical next step would have been to resubmit to a less-selective journal, none of us felt good about that.

One day I confided this heartbreaking experience to a friend. “Didn’t you just tell me about your new research result?” he asked me. “According to that, maybe you should try an even better journal next.”

He was half-joking, but our conversation motivated me to call my collaborators. After a quick discussion, we submitted the paper to the most prestigious journal we knew, one we hadn’t dared try. They ultimately accepted it, and it was published earlier this year.

So what was the research that changed my mind?

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Postdoctoral fellow Yang Wang, Kellogg colleague Ben Jones, and I found that people who experience near misses actually do better long-term than “winners” who finished just ahead of them. These results make us rethink the relative importance of winning and losing, with implications for both individuals striving for achievement and organizations that wish to identify and nurture them.

Winners keep winning, but losers keep winning, too

We examined all R01 grant applications submitted between 1990-2005 to the U.S. National Institutes of Health—the NIH’s predominant funding mechanism.

We focused on two specific groups: early-career scientists who landed just above or just below the threshold for funding—that is, those experiencing “narrow wins” or “near misses” early in their scientific careers. The winners had on average $1.3M in NIH research funding for the next five years; the losers, zilch.

But how would the groups fare in the future? If narrow winners and near misses came to you for a job interview 10 years later, whom would you hire?

The answers used to be simple. Research from multiple domains has shown that winners keep winning (the rich get richer). That means even a narrow win can snowball to generate runaway inequality, increasingly distancing winners from losers. So conventional wisdom would be always to bet on narrow winners.

That’s not what we found.

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We examined both groups’ track records over the 10 years following their initial grant application, including grants won, publications, and publication impact (number of citations). As expected, winners gained more NIH and other grants over time—the rich did get richer.

But their near-miss peers matched them on number of papers published. And the most surprising part: their work had a greater impact than that of those who’d narrowly won early-career NIH grants.

These so-called losers outperformed the winners longer term.

One explanation is a “screening effect.” Failure weeds out those less equipped to succeed in the future. Indeed, near-miss scientists had a greater than 10% chance of permanently leaving the NIH system. But we found that wasn’t sufficient to explain our results. So we offer some of the first empirical evidence for Nietzsche’s classic phrase “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

The benefits of failing

Failure is ubiquitous. Our results highlight its potential benefits and offer an uplifting message to individuals struggling to succeed. The tunnel to achievement can be long and dark, perhaps curved just enough that you can’t see that light at the end. But our findings highlight the rewards that may await those who persevere and keep building their capabilities—whether scientists, entrepreneurs, or others.

Keep in mind most of us have been persevering in some form from our earliest years. When our first son Allen was 1, my wife and I struggled to keep him in daycare, routinely bringing him home because the constant exposure to germs there meant congestion, cough, and other symptoms seemingly every week. “Let him stay longer,” the teacher urged. “Getting a little sick now will build his immune system for the future.”

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We took the advice, and Allen is a healthy 3-year-old now. That experience, in retrospect, dovetails nicely with our research findings. Many near misses ultimately become better versions of themselves—not in spite of the failure but because of it. The setbacks we experience shape who we become.

Let’s take the daycare analogy further. We know that kids who grow up in a sterile, risk-free environment tend to be fragile later in life. That speaks to our result that near winners may be leapfrogged by those they finished ahead of. The danger is in becoming complacent, rather than upping your game.

Granted, ours are among the first results unearthing the benefits of failure. More research is needed to illuminate mechanisms that transform a near miss into future success and to understand the bounds of our findings.

As far as our rejected-then-accepted paper, it could have just been luck. But the truth is, without this research, I wouldn’t even have tried. I hope our findings help you do the same.

Losing, it turns out, doesn’t mean you’re out of the game. Near misses who stay in it may become the bigger future winners.

Dashun Wang, is an associate professor at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and leads the Center for Science of Science and Innovation.

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