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Do We Tell Our Kids 'Work Hard' Or 'Work Smart' To Get High Grades?
  • In the past few years, we’ve seen child experts place emphasis on failure as the key to success. Their advice is to allow our children to fail and let them learn from it. And eventually, they develop that strength and grace to see that failure doesn’t mean the end of the world but a necessary bridge to success.

    It is usually followed by another nugget of wisdom that places emphasis on persistence. ‘If it doesn’t work the first time, try again.’ If you consider yourself a parent who subscribes to these, then you just might be on the right track according to a new study that confirms that failure is a ‘prerequisite to success.’ However, there is a caveat when it comes to ‘persistence.’

    According to an article published in Scientific American, the study showed that persistence is NOT what ultimately separates the winners from the losers.

    “One of the more intriguing findings in the paper...is that the people who eventually succeeded and the people who eventually failed tried basically the same number of times to achieve their goals...It turns out that trying again and again only works if you learn from your previous failures. The idea is to work smart, not hard,” it reads.

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    Dashun Wang, associate professor at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management who conceived and led the study, together with his team, used massive data in an “effort to create a mathematical model that can reliably predict the success or failure of an undertaking.”


    The data set they looked into was a total of 776,721 grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health from 1985 to 2015; 46 years’ worth of venture capital start-up investments; and — hold your breaths — 170,350 terrorist attacks carried out between 1970 and 2017. The data on terrorist attacks is the “least conventional,” Wang admits but he stresses it is nevertheless an important data set.

    Success for NIH was measured by approved grants, and for the start-ups, it was an IPO, business acquisition, or merger. (For terrorist groups, it does not need to be said.) The researchers found out that the average number of failures for those who failed at least once before success was 2.03 for NIH, 1.5 for start-ups, and 3.90 for terrorist groups.

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    Wang is suggesting that ‘every winner begins as a loser’ and that not every failure leads to success. “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.”

    A key indicator used to measure success is the time between consecutive failed attempts, which should decrease steadily, reads the article. “In other words, the faster you fail, the better your chances of success, and the more time between attempts, the more likely you are to fail again.”

    Wang says, “If someone has applied for a grant, and they are three failures in. If we just look at the timing between the failures, we will be able to predict whether they will eventually succeed or not.”

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    According to the article, the study identified a critical point common to each of the hundreds of thousands of undertakings they analyzed: “A fork in the road where one path leads to a progression region and one leads to a stagnation region.”

    Wang elaborates that this diverging pattern of performance increases with each new attempt, although in some cases, it is apparent which region a person is in as early as the second attempt. This ‘tipping point’ cuts against the traditional explanations for failure or success, such as luck or a person’s work habits.

    Wang says, “What we’re showing here is that even in the absence of such differences, you can still have very different outcomes. What matters is how people fail, how they respond to failure, and where those failures lead.”

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