July 20, 2024

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Failure overrated, says study led by Northwestern Kellogg professor

2 min read

You’ve heard the axioms: success is built on failure; failure is a hallmark of innovation; the only absolute failure is giving up. Objectively successful people have long offered advice for navigating defeat—from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates who said, “it’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure,” to entrepreneur Mark Cuban who wrote, “No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you. All you have to do is learn from them …” New research, however, suggests the perceived benefits of failure are overrated.

Linking failure to success may be not only inaccurate but also damaging to society, according to a paper published last week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Researchers from Northwestern, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia universities conducted 11 studies involving more than 1,800 participants, and found that people overestimate the rates at which failure begets success. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, led the team.

“We’re just trying to understand what holds people back from true resilience,” she tells Fortune. “Business leaders like to talk about failure as fuel. While [this view] could lead you to be a little bit less scared of failure, when failure happens it makes you less likely to take the active steps that bring actual resilience about.”

Failure comes in countless forms, but here Eskreis-Winkler and her colleagues defined it as any event that didn’t achieve a desired goal. They considered success a corrective action that achieved or made progress toward the previously failed goal.

In one part of the study, participants were asked to predict the likelihood of a nurse, lawyer, or teacher passing a licensing exam after having failed. People overestimated success rates in each profession. For instance, they predicted a 58% success rate for lawyers who retook the…

Lindsey Leake

2024-06-19 11:00:00

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