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In a new paper published in the 150th anniversary issue of Nature, Wang and colleagues developed a mathematical model to pinpoint what separates those who succeed from those who merely try, try again. Along with PhD student Yian Yin and postdoctoral researcher Yang Wang at CSSI, and James A. Evans of the University of Chicago, Wang found that success comes down to learning from one’s prior mistakes—for instance, continuing to improve the parts of an invention that aren’t working rather than scrapping them, or recognizing which sections of a denied application to keep and which to rewrite.

But it’s not simply that those who learn more as they go have better odds of victory. Rather, there’s a critical tipping point. If your ability to build on your earlier attempts is above a certain threshold, you’ll likely succeed in the end. But if it’s even a hair below that threshold, you may be doomed to keep churning out failure after failure forever.