In the 1960’s a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began a series of psychological experiments with young children, which ultimately revealed one of the most important factors in later success– the ability to delay gratification. The Marshmallow Experiment involved leading a 4 or 5 year-old child into a private room where there was a marshmallow on the table. Each child was offered a deal: if he or she did not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes while the researcher was gone, there would be a reward of another marshmallow. If the child didn’t wait, there would not be a second marshmallow. The choice was eat one now or wait and eat two later. All the kids in the study were videotaped. Some children ate the treat as soon as the researcher left, some waited a few minutes as they tried to distract themselves and then finally gave in, and some managed to wait the whole 15 minutes.
Even though the study itself was interesting, what was really fascinating was the follow up with these children over forty years. The kids who held off eating the marshmallow had higher SAT scores, were less likely to be obese, had better social skills and a lower level of substance abuse. In all measures of success, the group who showed the ability to delay gratification outperformed those who couldn’t wait. If you think about it, the ability to put an immediate want on hold for a great goal is the key to success. It means you commit to the hard work of being a good student, you hold off on having a baby until you’re married, you don’t succumb to drugs, you don’t eat everything you feel like eating, you get to the gym even though you don’t want to, and you don’t spend money on a car you can’t afford even though it might impress your friends. Instead you hold off, push through the discomfort, and wait until you can make the right choice for yourself.
How many of us are able to delay gratification, however, in every area of our life for a greater goal? It’s not easy. We may be conscientious in our jobs but not careful with our diet. We may make fitness a priority, but overspend so much that we’ve racked up a lot of credit card debt. We may spend a lot of time with our kids, but don’t spend much time on our own self-care. The reality is that it’s impossible to do all things perfectly and full out, since we only have so much energy and so many hours per day. Most educated people I know agree that being a good student and working hard in your career are not optional for success, but we may let other things slide, like fitness and exercise, thinking that they aren’t as important, when in fact they are.
I’m currently taking an interesting online fitness program for entrepreneurs called the Entrepreneur Fitness Academy. Before we even get to learning more about diet and exercise, we need to spend two weeks getting in to a champion mindset and then setting goals that are specific and measurable so that we know where we’re headed. But most importantly, we need to have a WHY for our goal. Why is that important? If it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t happen. I’m just guessing that for the kids with the marshmallows, those with the strongest why for waiting may have been able to hold off the longest. Maybe those kids who held off focused on the fact that they were going to get two instead of one, or maybe they wanted to please the researcher, so their parents would be happy. For those who didn’t wait, maybe they focused on the joy of eating what was in front of them, or maybe they didn’t trust that they really would get a second one. That can kind of thinking, that life is short so why not have fun now while you can, can be a dangerous trap leading to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors, from drug and alcohol addiction to bankruptcy to crime.
To find your world stage, find what delights you and be aware of the importance of delaying gratification to get where you want to go. The fact is that being uncomfortable is often a necessary part of creating success. Change is scary, whereas going with what is known and safe feels good in the moment. In the end, however, it just keeps you stuck. The key is to find every way you can to hold off on what is easy and right in front of you, knowing that there is a greater reward coming. Hold off on the marshmallow, since there are better things waiting for you.