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