What Marshmallows Can Teach Us About Success

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Imagine you're 4 years old and I put in front of you a big, white, juicy marshmallow.

I then tell you this:-

"Here, in front of you is a marshmallow.  

I'm going to go away but I'll be back in around 15 minutes.  If, when I come back, you haven't touched the marshmallow then I'll give you another marshmallow and you can eat them both.  

However, if you eat the marshmallow before I get back then I won't give you the second one."

What would you have done in this situation?  

Me?  I'm pretty sure I would have gobbled that marshmallow up the second the guy left the room.  Unfortunately, that wouldn't have bode well for my future.

Allow me to explain...

This scenario above is one of the most popular experiments that's ever been done. Researchers were testing to see which children could wait for a bigger reward and which would go for the immediate reward.

The actual term that's used to describe the ability to favor a long term reward over a short term one is delayed gratification.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Researchers followed these children over the following forty years to see how their lives unfolded.

And the results?

Those children that were able to resist the marshmallow (delay gratification) tended to do way better in their life.

Specifically, they had:-

  • lower body mass indexes
  • performed better in exams (had higher SAT scores)
  • were less likely to engage in substance abuse
  • better social skills.

In short:- you can predict the likelihood of success in children by their ability to wait for a reward rather than take the immediate payoff.

The Longer Term Reward vs the Short Term Payoff

What does this study tell you?

It means that when it comes to getting results, patience really is a virtue.  

If you can train yourself to resist immediate temptation in favor of a bigger reward in the future, then you'll likely be very successful.

Examples of how this might play out in real life:-

  • Fitness - When you get home from work and you're tired, you are able to make yourself hit the gym because you want to have that rock hard body in a few months, rather than slouch around on the couch in front of the television.
  • Entrepreneurship - When you're three months into starting a new business and you don't have any results to show for your hard work, you persist and grind it out until the results start coming in, rather than quitting.
  • Finances - When you receive your salary each month you tuck away 10% into a savings account because you know that the money will accumulate and allow you to invest further down the line, rather than buying things right now.
  • Health - When it comes time to eat lunch at work, you eat the healthy salad that you've prepared in advance at home, rather than eating the unhealthier options at the staff cantine. 

Of course making yourself do this stuff on a regular basis is difficult, but this is equally a blessing and a curse.

If you can get good at doing what is difficult to most people, then you'll stand out from the crowd.  

The key thing is that just trying hard won't work.  Instead, create habits and manage your willpower carefully.

Can Delayed Gratification Be Learned?

Going back to the marshmallow experiment...

Were the children that resisted the marshmallow able to do so because they had some kind of gene or natural ability?  Or, is this trait something that can be learned?

This particular question peaked the interest of the researchers and so they repeated the experiment with a new set of kids but with a subtle change.  

Before offering the marshmallow, they separated the kids into two groups.

They preconditioned the first group to wait for a reward by promising a bigger box of crayons in ten minutes.  After the ten minutes was up, the promised was fulfilled; they received the crayons.

They did the same with the second group with one key difference: they didn't fulfill their promise.  The kids didn't receive the crayons.  These children were preconditioned that waiting for a reward wasn't worth it.

And the results of this experiment?

The kids that were preconditioned to wait resisted the marshmallow, on average, for four times as long as the children in the other group.

So what's the significance of this?  

It means that one of the most critical life success factors of delayed gratification is something that can be learned.  

What Does this Mean for You?

Your chances of having a happy and successful life can be measured by your ability to favor a bigger reward in the distant future to the immediate payoff.  

Of course, the devil is in the detail.  How do you actually do this?

I'm still trying to figure all of this stuff out myself, but here's what I have so far:-

  1. Form positive habits (includes details on optimizing your environment, small immediate rewards, why habits are so powerful, tracking your successes, minimum commitments... all of which is pertinent to helping you take the path of delayed gratification)
  2. See things through
  3. Manage your willpower
  4. Take decisions out of the equation

Aside from these practical elements, I believe that there are a few stages you need to go through to really implement this type of thinking into your life.

  1. Sell yourself the benefits of delayed gratification - you really have to be sold on the idea that delaying gratification will have a huge payoff.  

    The marshmallow experiment is a great start, but if you really pay attention you can see a ton of evidence in the real world that the bigger results come from a commitment over a sustained period of time.  

    Read autobiographies of successful people, look at how successful companies were built, read about deliberate practice and the 10,000 hour rule ask people who are ahead of you in the field you're trying to pursue.   In all these instances you'll see firm examples of delayed gratification and how it was critical to success.
  2. Make this trait one of your values - once you've been sold on the idea and you're under no illusion that this trait is critical for your happiness and success, make a conscious decision to have it as one of your personal values.  Bring this new consciousness to your daily decision making.
  3. Start small - rather than jumping in all at once, getting overwhelmed and failing, choose one area of your life where you will display this virtue and build up over time.
  4. Set up a system to support you - don't fall for the trap of just trying harder. Design your life so it's as easy as possible to do the things that you need to do and as hard as possible to fail.  

So, in summary, marshmallows teach us that if we want to increase our chances of having a happier and fulfilled life, then we need to develop the skill of favoring a reward in the longer term future over an immediate pleasure.  

How is your ability to resist the marshmallows of life?  

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Paul

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