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Why failure is good for you: How experiencing setbacks in your career could be the secret to future success

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Lauren Geall
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Why failure is good for you

Failure – and the act of failing – could be the secret to achieving success later on in our careers, according to new research.

It’s a universal truth that we all hate failing. If we were given the option to choose whether we succeed or fail in any given situation, it seems obvious that most of us would pick the former.

Why? Because failure truly sucks. We all hate that sinking feeling which comes when something doesn’t go our way, or that moment of disappointment when we find out all our work didn’t quite pay off. But, according to a new study, these moments could actually hold the key to our future success, proving that what doesn’t kill you really does have the potential to make you stronger. 

The research, which was conducted by a team of scientists at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, revealed that failure early in someone’s career could actually lead people to achieve greater success in the long run – as long as they make sure to get up and try again.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, focused on a group of young scientists at the beginning of their careers. The researchers analysed the participants’ career evaluation scores to separate the group into two categories: the “near-misses”, who were just below the threshold for receiving future funding, and the “just-made-its”, who only just made it over the funding threshold.

Why failure is good for you
Why failure is good for you: Career setbacks could help you to succeed in the long-run.

Following the scientists throughout their careers, the study found that, over the next 10 years, the “near-miss” group, who had missed out on funding at the beginning of their careers, actually ended up publishing just as many papers – and more “hit” papers – throughout their careers, compared to those who made it over the funding threshold when they were starting out.

Basically, they tended to absolutely boss it despite having a rockier start – an especially impressive fact when you consider they also missed out on money to fund their careers at the beginning. 

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“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,” said Dashun Wang, one of the authors of the study.

The research only further backs up the benefits behind the idea of “failing forward” – an approach to set-back which says we should be making the most of our mistakes and seeing them as a chance to learn and progress, rather than feeling defeated and discouraged. In fact, that’s the kind of outlook behind Elizabeth Day’s hit podcast How To Fail, which sees celebrities, journalists and public figures debate and discuss the moments of failure which made them who they are today.

“We are all going to fail in our life, that’s a fact,” Day previously told Stylist. “You might as well build up emotional resilience and you might as well confront failure so that the next time it happens, because it will happen, you feel better equipped, stronger and you can learn more from it.

“Failure is data acquisition,” she continued. Instead of thinking, ‘oh, this relationship has ended, I’m devastated’, allow yourself time to think that but also think, ‘this relationship ended for a reason, because this relationship wasn’t for me, and by it ending it has freed up space that I can use to find the thing that is for me.”

Why failure is good for you: Elizabeth Day
Elizabeth Day: “Failure is data acquisition.”

Besides the fact that experiencing, and learning from, failure is an essential part of life, it has the power to make us more resilient – and makes any future success we achieve all the more valuable.

So next time something doesn’t quite work out for you, keep in mind that everyone will experience failure at some point, and it’s better to reflect and learn from your mistakes earlier on in your career than finding out the hard way many years later. Failure is never going to feel good – and it’s healthy to take some time to feel sad and disappointed – but it’s just as important that you pick yourself back up again and give it another shot. 

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Images: Getty/Jenny Smith Photography

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