Photo Credit: Daily Mail
Delayed gratification is key to success in life.
In the 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the now famous “Marshmallow Test” on a group of about 600 four year olds at the nursery school on Stanford’s campus. These kids were left in an empty room with one marshmallow (or cookie or other treat) and told that they could eat the marshmallow BUT if they waited 15 minutes until the researcher returned they would be given two marshmallows.
2 out of 3 kids ate the marshmallow. I probably would have been one of them. I mean, come on, marshmallows are awesome.
The interesting thing is what they noticed 15 years later when they checked in on those kids: they found that the kids who resisted eating the marshmallow grew up to have better SAT scores, healthier BMI, better jobs, etc. In other words, the kids who were able to delay gratification grew up to be more successful.
The researchers concluded that success is directly related to the ability to delay gratification and therefore related to how much self-discipline you have… that is to say, to be successful you need to be self-disciplined.
But what if it’s not about self-discipline?
I’m not disputing that being able to delay gratification (or put another way: the ability to resist instant gratification) is one key to being successful. That totally makes sense:
- To successfully lose weight, you need to be able to resist the instant gratification of eating the entire box of Girl Scout cookies.
- To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to be able to resist the instant gratification of buying yourself a treat every time you make a buck. You also have to be able to save money and spend it strategically, not just on pretty shiny objects that catch your attention in the moment.
- To be a successful musician, athlete, scientist, writer, artist, or whatever, you need to be able to “keep you eye on the prize” which may not come your way until after many months or years of practice.
The part that I’m questioning is whether it’s a result of self-discipline?
self–dis·ci·pline noun \-?di-s?-pl?n\
: the ability to make yourself do things that should be done
There is nothing wrong with self-discipline, per se. But as someone who struggles with making myself do the things that should be done, I’ve had to find my own to resist eating the marshmallow.
What if it’s about wanting something else MORE?
Like what if the 1 out of 3 kids who didn’t eat the one marshmallow didn’t eat it because they just really wanted TWO marshmallows?
You know, if self-discipline is your thing, that’s awesome. But if you (like me) struggle with sustaining self-discipline for the long haul, maybe it’s time to look at your desires… what do you want more? What will make you happier at the end of the day? One marshmallow or two? A cookie now or fitting into your skinny jeans later? A cool new computer that you can sort of afford now or peace of mind and a fat business bank account later?
For me, finding the thing that I want more has been key to delaying gratification and building success.
- I want a sustainable business more than I want shiny cool stuff to fill my office, so I’m waiting to buy a new computer until after I’ve made more money and established a stable foundation for my business.
- I want to feel good in my body more than I want to taste the delicious smelling beignets in New Orleans, so I didn’t eat the beignets when I was there last weekend (travesty, I know… but I felt good while I was there).
- I want to write and publish a book more than I want to watch all 7 seasons of Psych for a second time, so I turn the TV off and stare at the blank computer screen instead.
I’m not giving up TV, beignets, or buying cool stuff. I’m just waiting to do it after I do the thing that needs to be done in order to achieve what it is I want to achieve. But I’m not “making myself do what I should”, I’m wanting something more.
I’ve tried naked self-discipline… making myself eat the foods that I should eat, meditate the amount I should meditate, run the miles I should run. But it only works for so long before I give up and go back to eating cookies and watching TV. But by focusing on my greater desires, the shoulds become wants.
Let me say that again:
By focusing on your greater desires, the shoulds become wants.
The key to success is focusing on your greater desires.
So eat the marshmallow if you want to eat the marshmallow, just be sure you’re taking care of the things you want most first.
Would you eat the marshmallow now or wait for 2? Let me know in the comments below.