Most of us have heard of the Marshmallow Test, a series of studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s led by Walter Mischel on delayed gratification.
The marshmallow test and follow-up studies aimed to discover whether children who could exert self-control and resist eating the marshmallow enjoyed greater success than those who quickly gave in to their desires.
In the follow-up studies, researchers found that the children who delayed their desire to eat the marshmallow did indeed go on to have better results in terms of education attainment, healthy living and other measures.
Exerting self-control came in a number of ways. Some children turned away from the marshmallow, possibly thinking about being rewarded with a second treat if they could hold off eating the first for a short period of time.
Other children sang to themselves, played games in their heads or distracted themselves by other means.
A different perspective
Recently, a colleague of mine pointed my attention to an interesting article, The Marshmallow Myth, which counters the long-held misconception suggested by Mischel’s studies that the way to succeed was to deny ourselves pleasure in the present in order to reap future rewards.
Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that immediate rewards can help keep us motivated along the way to achieve our goals.
For example, if we want to start our own business, small things such as printing a new business card, making contact with potential clients or getting our hands on the first batch of our products serve to sustain our commitment to the vision of owning office space and running a small, successful team.
What doesn’t work is having an idea of starting our own business, and then doing little more than thinking about how great being a renowned chief executive officer or an industry thought-leader would be.
In order to make a real go of something, we need to taste small victories along the way to get a sense that what we’re doing is worth something and, just as important, heading in the right direction. This is likely to reduce our motivation precisely because wishes and desires and dreams can become soul-suckers the longer they remain nothing more than wishes, desires and dreams.
Marshmallow test | YouTube
READ: Discipline & Focus?
A changed mindset
The secret to success, then, is to find ways of moving forward in ways that are consistently gratifying.
We really need to rid ourselves of the suffer-now-enjoy-later mindset – it’s unnecessary at best, and rarely leads to success.
To make a real go of something, we need to taste small victories along the way to get a sense that what we’re doing is worth something and, just as important, heading in the right direction.
As the Psychology Today article notes, the children who took part in Mischel’s test didn’t simply stare at the marshmallow in front of them and stoically overcome their desire to eat it.
They found other ways to substitute one kind of gratification for another: in other words, they didn’t subscribe to the suffer-now-enjoy-later mindset.
Instead, they embraced the approach of “enjoy a little now, enjoy more later”.
Small successes lead up to bigger ones
Success is all about making progress.
Which of these two do you think will last the pace? The first guy, of course – he’s making things happen while the other is wishing for things to happen.
Whatever goals you want to set yourself, be it professional or personal, the path to achieving them isn’t one that is free from gratification or pleasures.
On the contrary, it is necessary to feel good about what you’re doing – it’s what helps to sustain your motivation and maintain discipline.
It’s about working hard for what you want without forgetting to enjoy the small rewards.
Too often, we look at our goals in a clinical manner. We believe we should work hard, deny ourselves, never sleep, keep going, maintain focus and achieve perfection.
This approach is suited to machines, not humans. Having said that, even machines get to have some downtime now and again. We have to see our goals within the framework of life, which is something rich and varied to be experienced, learnt from and enjoyed.
If you look at the most successful people, you’ll find that they relish what they do − they gain a lot of pleasure from it. Sure they work hard and deny themselves whenever it’s useful, sensible and necessary to do so, but they never avoid partaking in the pleasures of life because they believe that’s what brings success − they know that approach doesn’t work.
If you truly want to be successful, don’t shirk the small victories and the joyful moments along the way − embrace them.
Nurture whatever drives your progress and use it to propel you closer towards realising your vision.
Most important of all, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Why not immerse yourself in this resounding podcast on the mechanism of delayed gratification: