The Candy-Assing of Academic America-Why It’s Okay to Fail

This post originally appeared at on March 21, 2012.


We are raising a generation of academic candy-asses and it’s our fault. J’accuse! The self-esteem movement, parents, coaches, teachers; all of us. We have created a generation of young people who firmly believe they are entitled to good grades, the best colleges and all the perks of the corner office without paying their dues.

We have confused self-efficacy with self-esteem. Self-efficacy teaches us that we might fail but we will get up. Self-esteem teaches us that it is better not to try than to risk failure. Self-efficacy teaches us that we matter. Self-esteem teaches us that we don’t matter unless someone else tells us we matter. Self-esteem has turned our kids into a bunch of scared little candy-asses.

The candy-assing of America starts young. Each kid that shows up for even one day of AYSO soccer gets a trophy. What happens to the kid who shows up every day, practices on her own, and busts a hump on game day? She gets the same damn trophy. By the time the kids are in high school, we have trained a group of kids to feel entitled to awards for “the throwing of cafeteria trash into waste bins.”

Bullying, we hear, is epidemic in schools. Psychologists used to state that bullies bully others to feel better about themselves. Turns out that bullies have plenty of self-esteem. In fact, according to research cited by Mary Lamia, Ph.D in Psychology Today, they do think they are better than the rest of us. Why do bullies bully? Because they can. They like it. It’s powerful. It’s “fun.”

Ever had a bully for boss or co-worker? I have. How did I know how to handle the bully? I learned by NOT having my parents swoop in and rescue my candy-ass. I learned by talking and negotiating and, sometimes, by taking and throwing a few punches. How did you handle your bullying issues? There’s a comment section at the end.

In some schools, there are now “No-Fail” grading policies. That’s correct. Nobody fails. One can’t have a failing grade-there goes the self-esteem. In one version, if you don’t try, you get an “H” (for held) and you get the opportunity to bail yourself out. Of course, in the Grand Rapids schools where this was implemented, only 16% of the “H” grades became passing grades during the make-up time.

There is also a move afoot to remove all deadlines from classes. Turn in your work whenever you feel like it. I’m going to try that with my mortgage and VISA card payments- “Hey guys! I don’t feel much like paying my bills right now. I’ll let you know when’s a good time for me.” Many of my students will be in college, in the military, the general workforce, in just a few years. Good training for the real world, hmm?

Praising talent is a waste of time (“You are such a natural at math”). Praising effort works (“You really worked hard on that problem set”).  Where did we ever get the idea that failure is so freaking bad? Try, fail. Try again. Try different. Miss Frizzle said it best; “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

I just finished Randy Pausch’s (Pausch wiki) book “The Last Lecture.” Randy was THE guy for virtual reality computer science at Carnegie Mellon and he died from pancreatic cancer at 48. When Randy would recommend one of his students for a position, he made it a habit to follow-up with the employer. Nearly all employers said the same thing; these kids have great chops, amazing skills, but they all start acting like vice-presidents after 6 months on the job.

Resiliency is a skill. It’s not in the curriculum. It should be.  No one has ever spoken more eloquently about true resiliency than Rocky Balboa.

You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow.

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.

But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody!

Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life.

Self-esteem? I spit in your general direction.

Self-efficacy? I will preach your song from the pulpit of my classroom until I am hoarse. Self-efficacy teaches us that being a candy-ass is the lazy coward’s way out. Self-efficacy teaches that we can find it inside ourselves to solve any problem.  Self-efficacy teaches you to get knocked down seven times and get up eight.

Self-esteem? Bah. That’s for some candy-ass.

It’s okay to fail. Don’t be a candy-ass.

Feature Image courtesy of Alexis Grant


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at

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  1. I don’t even know where to start here. Did you actually successfully work in a quote from the latest Rocky movie? Amazing feat in of itself.

    When you talk about the way things are changing in our schools with regards to No-Fail policies and “H” (held) = a chance to bail yourself out, I can’t help but think of our Government. In this latest market crash failure was taken out of the equation in the form of bailouts. Is this going to help us avoid the next market crash or just make it worse because entities will assume more risk because of the perceived notion of this bailout safety net? How about the Occupy Wall Street thing where kids basically are acting as you suggest in this article – entitled to their corner office without putting in the work first.

    I’ve always joked that when my son gets his first “everybody gets a trophy” trophy that isn’t related to hard work and/or a big victory it’s getting tossed out the window on our drive home. I’m not exactly sure that’s a joke anymore… Failure is failure and you HAVE TO learn from it for as your Rocky quote states, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

    Awesome article.

  2. Drew says:

    This year, my sons football team has an “Iron man” trophy. Kids can earn the trophy by making it to every practice and game. If you’re more than 10 minutes late, no trophy… If you miss a practice/game because of a school event, no trophy… death in the family, no trophy… brothers wedding or ANY other reason, NO TROPHY! I have heard so many patents say “that it’s not fair”…. I say, “FINALY”!!! I love it… Life messes things up sometimes… You may not get a trophy even if you work really hard. My son refuses to miss anything… He wants that trophy… He’s working hard for it. He may not get it, but either way, he wins!

  3. Like the piece alot and I agree with your general point.
    On a side note, many of the students at the school I teach seem to expect to fail. They never want to take a test and while they would not admit it, I strongly believe its because they are nervous and afraid to fail.

    • David Stanley says:

      Absolutely true. If you don’t try, then you didn’t really fail. I’ve also noticed learned helplessness is rampant. You, too?

      • Yes, unfortunately. It’s amazing how many kids act shocked on test day. I used to wonder if they really forgot but I think now it is an attempt to cancel the test. Of course, some of them have other things on their mind and think little about school upon leaving.

  4. Great piece,David.

    • David Stanley says:

      Thank-you, Josh.

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