Nietzsche’s classic line was “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it true? Don’t people who were born with advantages do better in life? Isn’t it better not to suffer setbacks? Why would someone want to experience disadvantages or difficulties?
Those questions were answered in a recent paper published by Cornell University. Researchers looked at RO1 grant application for the National Institutes of Health, focusing on individuals who just missed receiving funding (“near-misses”) and individuals who just succeeded in getting funded (“near-winners”). Comparing the two groups over the ten years following first submission, results found that near-misses produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts than their near-win counterparts. Researchers concluded,
“For those who persevere, early failure should not be taken as a negative signal—but rather the opposite, in line with Shinya Yamanaka’s advice to young scientists, after winning the Nobel prize for the discovery of iPS cells, ‘I can see any failure as a chance.’”
It’s beautiful proof that getting what we want isn’t always what we need. Coming up short, getting stuck, getting passed over—this can be fuel. That’s what Marcus Aurelius was saying when he talked about the impediment to action being an advancement to action, how the obstacle can be the way. There’s another study that shows that college basketball teams down a point or two at half-time were actually more likely to win than the team with the lead. Again, because it made them hungry. The struggles gave them something to prove.
In any endeavor—creative, business, or grant proposals—we rarely achieve the result we hope for on our first go. Many great artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists have all admitted some version of Einstein’s, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” We must adopt and keep that mindset. We cannot let one obstacle, one “near-miss” turn us off the path. Keep at it. Persist. Resistance is futile.
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