This week we’re looking into one of my favourite subjects, and we’re going to do it from a couple of different angles.
We’ll start with some psychological research done at Stanford University about five decades ago, and we’ll end with a real life example from my own experience.
The subject is delayed gratification, and I have long maintained that it is the secret to success for most people.
I Want It Now
The average attention span of people has been shrinking for decades, and this has only added to many people’s expectation that everything be there for them the second they want it.
I will not get into any debates about young people these days being worse than we were at their age.
I believe that every generation has people from across the spectrum and I have no desire to kick any of these proverbial hornets’ nests.
Walter Mischel was a psychologist at Stanford who came up with the “Marshmallow Test” back in the 1960’s.
Mischel passed away a few weeks ago, which has resulted in renewed interest in his work, so if you Google his name and the word “marshmallow”, you will surely come across lots of interesting things to pursue (once you’ve finished this blog, of course).
His subjects were children around 5 years old. The “test” was constructed this way:
Children were brought into a room and given one marshmallow and told that they could eat it now.
Or, if they could wait 15 minutes while the experimenter left the room, and NOT eat it, then they would receive a second marshmallow as a reward.
Not As Easy As It Sounds
Apparently only about 200 of the 600 subjects managed to hold off on consuming the treat for the 15 minutes (which surely seemed like an eternity for those who succeeded).
There are lots of interesting videos you can find showing how the kids struggled with the temptation while alone in the room, mostly from more recent versions of the experiment, conducted to replicate the initial results.
The Take-Home Message
If you’ve understood that delayed gratification is not easy, that’s great, but you’d still be missing out on the larger message of the research.
You see, they followed up on the kids over the years and tracked their success in life, and they discovered something that I hope you’ll really get out of this story.
The kids who were able to restrain themselved for those agonizing 15 minutes also happened to live much more successful lives, on just about every dimension they measured.
If you can delay your need for immediate gratification, that will help you for your whole life.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
So where do you think that those young subjects got that ability to be patient and resist temptation?
I won’t get into the specifics because I’m not a social scientist and so much of this ground has been covered by those much more capable than I am in this area, but I have a very short answer of my own.
Now I can’t say if it’s in their DNA or if they learned from observing the behaviours that their parents modeled for them, (or both) but they got it from their parents, one way or another.
Here’s my real world example.
Years ago, my Dad had retired to a small farm where he raised breeding cattle. He hired some of the locals to do much of the work.
He paid his employees nicely and also got into the habit of giving them an annual bonus, paid in meat.
Every year, a couple of animals would “fall into the freezer” as he liked to put it.
Did You Try the Meat Yet?
My Dad and I were very much on the same page with many things, but our viewpoints were also quite different.
But when he was making a point, I could usually see him coming a mile away.
One day he relayed this story, about an exchange with one of his workers, the day after they had picked up their side of beef from the butcher.
The Look of Dismay
Dad asked if they had a chance to try the meat.
“Oh, yeah, it was great. We had the filet mignon”.
I can still see the look of dismay, and Dad shaking his head in disbelief.