Katalin Karikó: learning from failure
Everyone fails, not everyone reacts the same...
Of all her admirable qualities—persistence, dedication, disinterested pursuit of science—what stands out the most is Karikó’s ability to learn from failure.
A 2019 study of failure which looked at large data sets of science funding applications, startup exits, and terrorist attempts, found that failure tends to happen as much to the people who later succeed as to those that don’t. What matters is not how much failure you experience—everyone experiences plenty; what matters, is how you react to failure. Success is based on incremental improvement after each attempt, and quickly coming back to try again after each failure. That is the dynamic that distinguishes the ultimate successes from the ultimate failures.
Not every failure is valuable. Some people keep failing, without learning from their mistakes. That’s what happened with Karikó’s grant applications. But she did learn from her failures in the lab. Without her collaboration with Weissman, who was able to write grant applications, Karikó may not have succeeded. But she was able to learn from the failures of her experiments and to keep failing, iterating towards the answer. As the MIT Technology Review put it, “a team’s learning process is a good indicator of whether or not it will succeed at some point.”
From my latest essay for Entrepreneur First, about the ways failure can lead to success, illustrated by the story of Katalin Karikó and her work on mRNA.