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Looking at the dynamics of failure in three different areas, science, entrepreneurship and terrorism, data scientists from Northwestern University (NU) and the University of Chicago (UChicago) found that the way one fails matters.

Conventional explanations of success tend to center around luck or assumptions about the individual’s work ethic, but the researchers found that it is not so simple. With each successive iteration, individuals and organizations may take past experiences into account in order to refine future attempts, a pattern that can help predict divergent outcomes.

The key insight, according to the researchers, is that there is a critical threshold for the number of past attempts that should be considered. If individuals incorporate more lessons beyond that threshold, the efficiency and quality of subsequent attempts improve, leading to eventual success. If individuals incorporate lessons from too few failed attempts, they will find themselves on the path to permanent failure.

Small variations near the threshold make a huge difference.

It’s similar to the transition between water and ice at 0 degree Celsius, said Lead author Yian Yin. “Increasing or decreasing the temperature by just a small amount near this threshold leads to fundamental changes.”

“The findings fit with conventional wisdom that failure can teach you lessons,” said co-author Yang Wang at NU. “You learn from your mistakes and correct them in the next attempt, constantly iterating rather than starting each attempt from scratch. This helps you fail faster and smarter, improving with each attempt.”

According to the researchers, this model could help individuals and organizations make better use of their past failed experience to achieve success. It also could aid managers and policy makers in making decisions about promotions, project leadership roles and more.

“In a world of intense competition, failure is an essential ingredient for success,” said co-author James Evans, professor of sociology at UChicago. “Our results provide some of the first evidence that how you fail matters.”

The study was published Wednesday in Nature. Enditem

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