Take 5: The Upside of Failure
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Careers Strategy Feb 10, 2020

Take 5: The Upside of Failure

A look at the surprising benefits of striking out, and how to make the most of your mistakes.

Scientists who experienced an early-career setback succeeded more in the long run, new research shows.

Lisa Röper

No one sets out to design an unsuccessful product or get turned down for a big promotion. Yet there’s a growing awareness that failing actually has its upsides.

“The idea that one gets stronger through failure is the kind of stiff advice that people may tell themselves in difficult times,” says Kellogg strategy professor Benjamin Jones. Indeed, this idea has taken on new life in the “fail fast, fail often” mentality of startups, where it’s accepted that striking out is not just something to be endured, but a critical step on the path to success.

But how true is this widely held belief? And when, exactly, can failure be a boon?

Kellogg faculty weigh in on the surprising benefits of failing and how you can own—and even profit from—your mistakes.

1. You Probably Mess Up More Often Than You Think

Any honest discussion of failure should begin with some earnest stocktaking.

Many of us like to believe that we miss the mark less than the average person, even when it comes to ethical lapses. Indeed, research from professor Maryam Kouchaki suggests that people tend to experience what she calls “unethical amnesia,” wherein they recall their own unethical behaviors with less-than-perfect clarity.

In a series of experiments, Kouchaki and a colleague showed that people who were prompted to write about unethical behavior reported remembering the event less vividly than groups who were prompted to write about an ethical behavior, or who wrote about a positive or negative experience.

Moreover, the more time that passed between an unethical incident and the moment of recall, the lower were the odds that they would recall much about the incident. “Basically, people limit the retrieval of this information, and that leads to amnesia over time,” Kouchaki says.

This selective memory could make us more likely to take similar unethical actions again in the future. So how can we come to terms with our past failings in order to avoid repeating them?

“A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive,” Kouchaki explains. “This is what I teach in my MBA classes—that being a good leader is to take time to reflect, to learn from one’s success and failures.”

2. But, Thankfully, Failure Really Can Benefit Your Career

You may be glad to forget failures from early in your career, like the coveted internship you failed to nab, or that huge sale that you flubbed at your first job. (Sorry to remind you.)

But there’s evidence that those setbacks might help you out in the long run. In a study, professors Dashun Wang and Benjamin Jones and postdoctoral researcher Yang Wang found that early failure can in fact breed later success.

“Failure is devastating, and it can also fuel people.”

— Prof. Dashun Wang

The researchers compared scientists who narrowly missed out on a prestigious federal grant with scientists who narrowly qualified for the grant. It turned out, ten years down the line, those who didn’t get the grant ended up publishing more successful papers than those who did.

In the long run, “the losers ended up being better,” Wang says.

Why? The researchers tested several possible explanations—for instance, that failing to get the grant “weeded out” the weakest scientists, leading only the higher performers to keep writing papers. But even when they accounted for that (by artificially weeding out a similar number of scientists who did get the grant), the losers still outperformed the winners.

That left the researchers to conclude that adversity itself was what pushed the rejected scientists to succeed. “Failure is devastating,” says Wang, “and it can also fuel people.”

3. At the Very Least, You Get a Good Story Out of It

Of course, not all failures have a positive effect on your career output. Sometimes what looks like a setback really is just a setback. So how can you make lemonade out of the sour lemons of your past?

By weaving them into your personal story, says Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship. Convincing potential colleagues that you would be a great collaborator and partner requires you to tell a coherent, powerful story that encapsulates your strengths—and tales of your failures can help you do just that.

When deployed correctly, Wortmann says, your failure anecdotes can show character, reveal your skills as a leader, or demonstrate your drive. So when is the right time to trot out one of your go-to failure stories? Maybe when you’re talking to a potential client, Wortmann says. “By doing this, you show that you’re humble, that you’re a learner, and that you’re good to work with.”

For instance, Wortmann recalls hearing a CEO tell a “funny failure” story that revealed how he learned the value of asking good questions. The CEO described spending an entire summer talking to a contact at a global consumer-packaged-goods company, working to cultivate a relationship he hoped would lead to a major business opportunity. On their fourteenth phone call, he grew impatient and asked his contact when her company would be signing the contract—at which point she informed him that she was an intern.

“She thanked him for all she had learned that summer,” Wortmann says. “It turned out she wasn’t a prospect at all. She was a college student. But he never asked her.”

4. It’s Possible to Foster a Culture Where Failure Is OK

Useful as failure can be, that doesn’t mean that people are eager to take the blame for a mess-up.

Except in the military, that is.

On a visit to the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, professor Ned Smith remembers seeing soldiers of every stripe and rank stepping forward to incriminate themselves in after-action reviews and debriefings. “It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that they are almost competing to take the blame,” he says.

Smith and Col. Brian Halloran, formerly a U.S. Army Chief of Staff senior fellow at Kellogg, considered how the Army cultivates this culture of accountability.

“When a leader knows that what matters are the overall performance of the unit and the improvement of the unit as a whole, they are far more likely to openly discuss what didn’t go right.”

— Col. Brian Halloran, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fellow

One useful quirk: officers compete across the entire army for promotions. Since evaluators on the promotion review board aren’t supervising the officers they are evaluating, those officers have less incentive to save face after they make a bad call.

“When a leader knows that what matters are the overall performance of the unit and the improvement of the unit as a whole, they are far more likely to openly discuss what didn’t go right,” Halloran says.

5. Sometimes What Looks Like a Success Is Actually a Failure in Disguise

Imagine you’ve spent months developing and perfecting a product. You finally run a focus group to get reactions to the product, and the focus group participants are thrilled. Your new product is all but guaranteed to fly off of the shelves—right?

Before you start marketing it as “the next big thing,” it might be worth asking who, exactly, was in that focus group. Professor Eric Anderson found evidence that there’s a class of customers out there who are uncannily attracted to products that will never catch on. Those people who tended to purchase a notorious failed product like Diet Crystal Pepsi were also more likely to purchase other doomed products like Frito Lay Lemonade.

Anderson deems these consumers “harbingers of failure,” and for good reason.

“What seems to be happening is these customers have preferences that might be nonmainstream,” he says. “We know when they really like your product, it shows that your product really appeals to a narrow group of customers.”

Anderson’s research suggests some simple ways that market researchers can weed out niche products before they have a chance to flop. Importantly, firms should ask customers not only whether they would buy the product in question, but also what other products they regularly buy. A customer who buys Swiffer products, for instance, probably has fairly mainstream tastes and should be trusted.

But if the biggest fan of your newest widget is still pining after that unusually flavored beer that was only on shelves for a month, “you may not want to launch this product, because it’s probably not going to have the mainstream appeal that sustains products for the long run,” Anderson says.

Featured Faculty

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations; Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences (Courtesy)

Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship; Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI)

Post Doctoral Fellow

Clinical Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship; Executive Director of the Kellogg Sales Institute

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations; Associate Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)

Hartmarx Professor of Marketing; Director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice

About the Writer

Jake J. Smith is a research editor at Kellogg Insight.

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