How Long Can you Wait?

What if I told you that by doing a simple 5-minute test on a child, I could tell you what their likelihood of success in later life will be? Would you believe it and do you know what I’d test?

In the 1970s Walter Mischel of Stanford performed a series of tests on four-year-olds. The main test consisted of putting the child in a room with two plates, a bell and a nice man. One plate has one marshmallow on it and the other has two.  The child is told that the nice man is going to leave the room and come back. If the child can wait until the nice man returns then that child will get the two marshmallows. If the child doesn’t want to wait for the nice man anymore then the child can ring the bell and get one marshmallow.

After fifteen years Mischel follows up with the parents of those children in his initial study, and it’s amazing what can be predicted (as documented in the Happiness Hypothesis):

Mischel discovers that the number of seconds you waited to  ring the bell in 1970 predicts not only what your parents say about you as a  teenager but also the likelihood that you were admitted to a top university. Children who were able to overcome stimulus control and delay gratification for a few extra minutes in 1970 were better able to resist temptation as  teenagers, to focus on their studies, and to control themselves when things didn’t go the way they wanted.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this in the “real” world. People that try for easy success usually don’t achieve it. Easy success in life is a myth. Sometimes people get lucky and stumble into something big without a lot of work, but that is much more the exception than the rule. To paraphrase Edison, success usually looks like dirty overalls because it’s a lot of hard work, and along the way there are many failures. The key is to be persistent. Time and again that is proven as the path to success. You’ve got to be able to wait and wait and not give up too soon.

How different this idea is from the world we live in. Everything is instant gratification. If I want a book, I can have it immediately on my kindle. If I want to watch a TV show, I can have it up immediately on hulu.com. If I want a song, I can have it immediately on iTunes. Delayed gratification is a tough skill to learn in a world of instant gratification, but it has great benefits.

For example, let’s look at how delayed gratification affects some areas of our life:

  • Financial: Delayed gratification is probably most obvious in this area. Isn’t that what all Financial Planners preach in a nutshell: Put as much away now for your retirement so that you can actually enjoy it later. Don’t spend it all now or live paycheck to paycheck. If you wait, it will be worth so much more later. They even have a fancy phrase for it — the time value of money
  • Marriage: In order to summarize his foundational studies on sex and marriage, Alfred Kinsey stated the most common sign that a marriage will be successful is that both parties have a “willingness for marriage to persist”. Even when times are hard, they don’t just give up because it’s convenient. They are willing to hang on and push through the difficulties. Now there are some marriages that should be given up on because they were based on false premises or there is abuse, but the vast majority give up too early because it’s not as fun as it was in the beginning.
  • Business: Most businesses start out under-funded and overworked. They’re typically not thriving for the first five years. Often times, the owner of a new business plans to have a loss for the first few years in the hopes that down the road they will start making a profit. In fact, Walt Disney sold his car to make payroll in the early years. Even if you are not starting a business and are just starting a new job, there is a period in the beginning where everything is bad. You don’t know how their processes work; You don’t know who to talk to about what; Heck, you may not even be able to find your way back to your desk if you get too far away. The people that succeed in business are those that push through the lean and hard times.
  • Health: If you haven’t work out for a while and you start a new workout routine, it’s not fun. In fact, it’s painful. But if you can push through the pain long enough, you can get to a point where you actually enjoy it and begin to look forward to the workouts. That’s been my experience with running. If you are training for an athletic goal, you know that you are going to go through a lot of hard practices, maybe for years, before finally reaching that goal.

Bloggers have to deal with delayed gratification. Most people do not start a blog and then immediately have a million readers. They write and write and write for many years often without anyone noticing. Then slowly but surely they begin to build up traffic based on the quality content they’ve been providing.

So it’s clear that being able to delay gratification is important for success in many areas of your life. The only problem is I’m not sure if it can be taught or if people are just born one way or the other. I imagine like most things it’s a combination of both. Even if it’s something that people are born with, everyone can still learn to enjoy the journey rather than getting too fixated on the end goal. Research has shown, that alone will make you happier.

I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. -Edison

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

21 thoughts on “How Long Can you Wait?

  1. Morgana – Thanks! I thought the marshmallow study was pretty amazing as well.

    natrummur – Good point. I always used to think it was about knowing more than anyone else, but as his book explains it’s more about how you relate to and communicate with people than what you know. I’m planning to do a post about Coleman’s book soon because it has some great points to discuss.

  2. Loved this article. Fascinating, but also makes a ton of sense. I also like how you touched on how successful blogging really is about patience, not instant gratification. That’s why you see so many blogs out here abandoned, just floating around on the search engines, not posted on in years. Everyone thinks they’re going to become famous overnight! Doesn’t happen, my friend, unless you’ve got buku advertising bucks! lol

    Great post

  3. Thanks!

    It is so true for blogging. I’ve read the stories of some of my favorite bloggers and it’s amazing how they labored for years in obscurity before hitting it big.

    Even for those who have yet to hit it big (or may never), I’m glad they continue because it’s great to have so many unique voices out there sharing ideas!

  4. i saw the marshmallow test on a tv show! the did the test with children in grade one. Only one child ended up passing out of , i think, 30 kids. all the others just ate the single marshmallow instead of waiting 😛

  5. The kid who didn’t wait but just grabbed all three marshmallows for himself probably become a wealthy CEO.

  6. Seriously, I would have just eaten all three and left. Those who are truely successful don’t get that way by following arbitrary rules, but by thinking outside the box.

  7. Great post, instant gratification is one the biggest problems facing our society today.

    Every wants it now, and has no desire to earn anything.

    If they have to work at something, they just quit.

    This is exactly why we have such an obese society; i keep telling people you can help choose you future health buy your actions today.

    We all have to age, but you don’t have to get old!

  8. Great post. I originally came across the marshmallow story when reading the book Influencer. I also wrote a an article I agree with Keifer that the US has a large problem with instant gratification. The problem is that no one teaches these principles to the younger generations.

  9. @Kiefer, @nick – Right on. You only have to look at the front page of the financial papers to realize that all of this need for instant gratification is finally catching up with us….

  10. To delay a gratification is oftentimes a good investment, but it also can be misguided. Consider for example people who are believing in an afterlife or are awaiting the revolution of the proletariat. To lead a good life, one has to balance long-term goals with rational short-term pleasures.

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