But not every failure leads to success, he adds. And what ultimately separates the winners from the losers, the research shows, certainly is not persistence. One of the more intriguing findings in the paper, published this week in Nature 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. “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,” says Wang. “The people who failed didn’t necessarily work less [than those who succeeded]. They could actually have worked more; it’s just that they made more unnecessary changes.”
As they explored “the mechanisms governing the dynamics of failure” and built their model, Wang’s team identified what they describe as previously unknown statistical signatures that separate successful groups from nonsuccessful groups and make it possible to predict ultimate outcomes.
One such key indicator (besides keeping the stuff that works and focusing on what doesn’t) is the time between consecutive failed attempts, which should decrease steadily. 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.