The Stigmatization of Early “Failure”

College professors are faced with a new generation of students, one filled with students termed “teacups,” students who literally break or go to pieces when faced with failure of any sort.  They’ve been protected, nurtured, and coddled from their first pre-school until they’ve sent off to college.  Their upbringing has been so carefully managed that all too many of them have never faced major disappointments or setbacks. Their parents have successfully terrorized public school teachers into massive grade inflation and a lack of rigor – except at select schools and some advanced placement classes where the pressure is so great that many of the graduates of those schools come to college as jaded products of early forced success, also known as “crispies” – already burned out.

Neither “regime” of “success” is good for young people. As I’ve noted before, the world is a competitive place, and getting more so.  Not everyone can be President, or CEO, or a Nobel Prize-winning author or scientist.  Some do not have the abilities even for the few middle management jobs available, and many who do have the abilities will not achieve their potential because there are more people with ability than places for them.

Even more important is the fact that most successful individuals have had more failures in life than is ever widely known, at least until after they’ve been successful. Before he became President Abraham Lincoln had a most mixed record. Among other things, he failed as a storekeeper, as a farmer, in his first attempt to obtain political office, his first attempt to go to Congress, in trying to get an appointment to the United States Land Office, in running for the United States Senate, and in seeking the nomination for the vice-presidency in 1856.  Thomas Edison made 1,000 attempts before he created a successful light bulb. Henry Ford went broke five times before he succeeded.

For the most part, people learn more from their failures than their successes.  More often than not, most people who are early successes, without failure somewhere along the line, never really fulfill their potential.  Even Steve Jobs, thought of as an early success, failed several times before he could launch Apple, and then the management of the company that he founded threw him out… before he returned to revitalize Apple.

Yet these young college students are so terrified of failing that many of them will not attempt anything they see as risky or where a possibility of failure exists.  Yet, paradoxically, many will attempt something they have no business trying or something well beyond their ability because they have been told how wonderful they are all their lives – and they become bitter and angry at everyone else when they fail, because they have no experience with failing… and no understanding that everyone fails at something sometime, and that it’s a learning experience.

Instead, they blame the professor for courses that are too difficult or that they were overstressed or overworked… or something else, rather than facing the real reasons why they failed.

Failure is a learning experience, one that teaches one his or her shortcomings and lacks, and sometimes a great deal about other people as well.  The only failure with failure is failing to understand this and to get on with the business of life… and learning where and at what you can succeed.



19 thoughts on “The Stigmatization of Early “Failure””

  1. cremes says:

    “Their parents have successfully terrorized public school teachers into massive grade inflation and a lack of rigor…”

    Is there *any* chance, even a small one, that what you wrote above isn’t true. Or at worst, that this statement doesn’t tell the whole story?

    Is there any chance that teachers could share a tiny portion of the blame?

    You are a treat to read lately.

    1. Some teachers do share the blame, and, in a sense, all of them do for not fighting back against this insanity — except that every teacher who does fight back risks his or her job. I was recently informed of a teacher who protested a school district’s “no zero” policy [even for students who answer no questions and turn in no papers]; he was suspended, pending termination. My own cousin left a public school system to teach as a substitute in another for similar reasons.

      For all that, in general, teachers are no better and no worse than they were two generations ago. What’s changed is that teachers are still held accountable to parents, and students are accountable to no one, and especially not held to equal responsibility for their learning.

    2. Ryan Jackson says:

      Just have to say, Creme, that it is largely on the parents and on our society’s stance of never putting blame on the kids or the parents.

      Both my parents are teachers. Both work in the same district (different schools). Both have outright failed students who did not meet the standards they expected. Want to know what happened? The parents yelled, the Principle took the parent’s side, the kids’ grades were altered to D’s for no reason other than to not fail them.

      After about four years of this, despite tenure in the case of my mother, they’ve both just moved onto focusing on the students who want to learn or can be taught and let the others get their D’s and move on. The end result is the same for the students who don’t want to work, plus the teachers can suffer less stress and give more attention to the kids who want to improve.

      Some teachers are bad, just like some people are. But the problem has very little to do with them at the moment.

  2. Frank says:

    For a quick introduction to, and education in, failure: how to react to it, learn from it, and overcome it…I suggest a traditional martial arts school. Any style, any art, as long as it is traditional (more emphasis on sweat, technique and respect; less on trophies).

    Students learn about failure (and humility) from “masters” if the school is a good one.

  3. Joe says:

    Parents reflect society. Society sees failure as bad. How many times would those parents get to fail in a job before they were dismissed as incompetent? People are expected to “hit the ground running”, and deliver “on time”, “under budget”, “professionally”. Hence the search for “talent”, “rock-stars”, and other silver bullets.

    It may be irrational to ignore how people learn and grow, but then we’re doing quite well at ignoring reality on most other fronts. If a Martian were to visit, if he thought we pay for what we value most, he would conclude that we value Hedge Fund managers more than anything else, including our planet.

  4. cremes says:

    “If a Martian were to visit, if he thought we pay for what we value most, he would conclude that we value Hedge Fund managers more than anything else, including our planet.”


    The Martian would look at where all the money goes and conclude we value energy, war, banking and politics. I think hedge fund managers would be pretty far down the list.

  5. In macro-economic terms, you’re right. In micro-economic terms, Joe is, since the top hedge fund managers are the highest-paid professionals.

  6. Wine GuyI says:

    Personal excellence is now valued less than fame and personal aggrandizement at any cost. I hold up YouTube and the Yahoo splash page as examples.

    When martial arts schools were mentioned above, I agree but only up to a point: many have become ‘black belt mills’ churning out 12-15 year old ‘black belts’ who have only the very thinnest idea of what their skills are and how to actually use them. Many of these ‘schools’ promise a black belt in 3-4 years as long as the tuition is paid and the attendance is regular.

    Traditional schools remain easy to find… and difficult to master.

  7. Matthew Runyon says:

    The failure thing goes a bit deeper than that. When I started high school (~10 years ago) it was made very clear that to get full scholarships (that would actually pay for all the tuition), you had to get all A’s. One failing grade on one project in one class would jeopardize that. Getting under a 4.0 in any year would jeopardize your chances of getting into the best schools. Some of the applications I had to fill out for college required explanations of any non-A grades, and if you had a C you were advised to stop filling the application out immediately as you had no chance.

    My first actual experience with failure was in Organic Chemistry in my second year of college, and indeed, most of my class fell into the “teacup” mold, myself included. But is that any surprise when we were all told in no uncertain terms that even the slightest failure could severely damage the rest of our lives?

  8. cremes says:

    “In macro-economic terms, you’re right. In micro-economic terms, Joe is, since the top hedge fund managers are the highest-paid professionals.”

    Do we *both* get a trophy for being right? Heh, how ridiculous.

  9. Joe says:

    Perhaps part of the problem is also the expectation that people should attend a University. This has good sides, such as not being pigeonholed at an early age. But it also means some skills (mental skills) are elevated above others (such as dexterity). Having taught at university, it seems clear that not everyone can keep up.

    Germany does things differently: not everyone is expected to have a University education. At age 10 Germans are already split into those better suited for mental work and those better suited for more practical work. They go to different schools with different teaching styles, and different curricula. The system obviously works in that Germany is a successful economy, Germans seem happy, and blue collar workers are valued: Companies compete for workers with manufacturing skills and even keep employing people during downturns (Kurtzarbeit) when companies in the US would lay people off.

  10. Tim says:

    Joe is spot on. The UK has the same problem and so people with degrees now do jobs which previously would have been taken by people who went via the vocational route.

    So our (and your) degree system has been devalued. The UK used to have the same model as the Germans. However I believe such a transition is a one-way trip an the ‘I am as go, as anybody at anything’ mentality has taken hold.

    The UK govt has just upped the standard on a standard English exam, and you should have heard the howl as the teachers, schools and parents cried ‘unfair’.

  11. Kathryn says:

    I think, though, this anti-failure “culture” is just one aspect of a wider issue. As Joe said above, in the UK (at least) there’s a lot of pressure to go to university, and it seems like the entry barriers are quite high.

    The way it seems to me is less that we’re anti-failure and more we’re not teaching people to live. We teach children how to open the gate, but not to look beyond it or to even figure it out for themselves. We give them the knowledge to pass an exam, but not the skills to use that knowledge in the wider world.

    How can we expect people to understand failure if we don’t teach them to adapt to the world or to work things out for themselves?

    P.S. I don’t buy this implied “in my day” kind of thinking from any generation. My managers at work are all at least twice my age (so between 30 and 40, maybe 50 at a stretch) and half of them at least are either useless or break under the slightest bit of stress. And also have no concept of doing things ‘properly’. So it’s not just a “young people” problem as some may imply. It affects anyone and everyone.

  12. Wine GuyI says:

    Part of the problem is also an intolerance of failure by higher-ups. Don’t get a project done on time? Fired – no matter what the circumstances were. Can’t land the account? Laid off. Client wanted someone older/younger/more credentialed/less ‘regimented’/(pick your descriptor) : you’re out. Few people are willing to let a learning process actually take place.

  13. That’s because almost everyone is focused on “instant” results… regardless of the long-term costs, of which there are all too many.

  14. Sabine says:

    In Holland grades go from 1 to 10 and 10 is rarely given it is the exception. It comes from a a calvenistic world view that perfection is suspect. A friend of my daugther went from being a bit about average in Holland to being a straight A student in the states and being in the gifted program. Perhaps US system was better equipped to motivate her but I suspect somewhat lower standards.

  15. Ryan Jackson says:

    While our demand for instant is clearly part of the issue, I’d also say a large part of it comes from our lifting a degree up on a pedestal when we shouldn’t.

    There’s a gentleman in my company who has been here for twenty years. He has been a supervisor in several departments, a Fraud investigator, and is currently part of our organized crime unit acting as a liason to Federal authorities as well as writing the rules we use to try and prevent fraud. He is amazingly knowledgable, nice, a good boss, able to teach well and able to get work done quickly and accurately. His only “flaw” is that he isn’t college educated, he started here as a kid and worked his way up and earned his knowledge in the field.

    He has so far been turned down three times in the last four years for major promotions that instead went to kids barely out of college holding shiny MBA’s.

    It’s kind of a chain of events. We decided a degree and high grades are important, so we demand everyone get them, so we bash down any teacher who tries to be objective and fair, so the degrees become far less meaningful, but because we spend so much time building them up we then let them over-ride other, more qualified, concerns. Because if we didnt then we might have to admit that we’ve let these degrees turn to nothing and have to rethink our approach.

  16. M says:

    As a teacher who had a run-in with a parent who DEFINITELY was used to “successfully terrorized public school teachers into massive grade inflation and a lack of rigor” and even was used to successfully terrorizing the principal… I fully agree. Kids- and grown-ups- need to learn that failing is OK, and normal, and trying again is success. But yes, teachers are sometimes guilty as well. Harbouring a “genius” now, not all teachers realize that the best they can do for this kid, and this kid’s classmates, is NOT to hail it in awe as any saviour, but to challenge its points of view and encourage its underdeveloped qualities (i.e., in this case- sense of humour and self-distance) as well as encouraging any kid’s underdeveloped qualities. We aren’t only here to help them to flourish in their intelligence and knowledge, but also to help their whole life- social and individual life as well- flourish and be as well-functioning and as happy as possible too…

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