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Failing to Learn: Jackman-Atkinson

February 2, 2020 8:00 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press

Idea - Bulb - Learn

When we’re young, failing doesn’t really bother us. Babies spend months trying to turn over, sit up, crawl, stand, walk, then run and jump. No one expects a baby to skip over this progression, we know each step is the foundation for the next. When we go to school, while we may think otherwise, we don’t know much of anything that we will spend the next 12 to 20 years mastering. We have to learn to add, subtract and multiply, to speak another language, to play an instrument or conduct a science experiment. While we may pass our tests, in the beginning, we step into the class as failures. At some point, this changes and we stop seeing failure as a sign that we’re still learning and begin to see it as something that should be avoided at all costs.

We really shouldn’t.

Last October, a paper was published in the scientific journal, Nature, which sought to predict how successful future attempts would be, based on past efforts. Spoiler alert, success is very seldom possible without previous failure.

The researchers looked at three different areas to find detectable early signals that would allow them to predict ultimate success or failure. The three areas were indeed different: they looked at attempts by investigators to obtain National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants to fund their research; by innovators on the way to a successful exit of their startup and by terrorist organizations to claim casualties in violent attacks. In the end, for those that failed before success, the average number of failures was 2.03 for NIH, 1.5 for startups and 3.90 for terrorist groups (a number I’m glad is higher than the others).


The research garnered some interesting findings. For example, the people who ultimately failed and those who ultimately succeed tried about the same number of times to reach their goals. The key isn’t persistence, it’s about learning from those previous failures. Scientific American interviewed Dashun Wang, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the study’s leader. He said, “You have to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then focus on what needs to be improved instead of thrashing around and changing everything.”

The data also yielded some unexpected findings. One key indicator of ultimate success was the time between failed attempts. The shorter the time between failures, the higher the chance of ultimate success. These people tweaked and changed only what didn’t work, not everything.

Looking at the trove of data — 776,721 grant applications, venture capital startup investments over 46 years and 170,350 terrorist attacks– the researchers were able to identify a critical point, where one path leads to success and the other, stagnation. With each new attempt, these two groups increasingly diverge.

The study found that our traditional explanations for success — hard work and/or luck — really don’t hold up. In the end, it comes down to how a person fails and what they learn from those failures. Failure is a critical part of success, we need to treat it as a step, not the destination.

Tags: Education