The Key to Success in Life (This one and, most likely, the Next)

What if the key to success is just as simple and basic as self-control and delayed gratification? Of course, that may seem simple and basic, but in a world that generally promotes the immediate gratification of every desire and impulse, those qualities are increasingly rare. Consider the following story.

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a researcher at Stanford University, conducted studies with preschoolers to see if these young children had developed any ability to delay gratification. In what has come to be known as “The Marshmallow Experiment,” several four-year-olds were seated in a room with a table and an adult interviewer. The adult told each child that he or she could eat one marshmallow now or wait fifteen minutes until the adult returned and receive a second marshmallows. About one-third of the children waited to get the extra prize. Following these preschoolers into adolescence, researchers found that those who had demonstrated delayed gratification and waited for the extra marshmallow were better adjusted and more socially competent, self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable, and academically successful. In fact, the kids who had successfully waited to get two marshmallows scored, on average, 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a perfect score on the SAT was 1600) than students who had eaten one marshmallow right away. “The Marshmallow Test” was twice as accurate a predictor of SAT scores as IQ tests.5

Individuals who are willing to delay gratification don’t do so out of some bizarre streak of self-denial. They do so because there is a reason, and the reason is always along the same lines: I can satisfy my appetite right now, but if I deny myself this immediate pleasure, I will end up with something better. Reason supersedes appetites to convince us that it is worth a measure of immediate self-denial or discomfort to obtain something of greater value.

So a successful student may skip a party to study for an important test because she realizes good grades will be of greater benefit to her future life than one night of recreation. The successful dieter gives up a second serving of a high-calorie dessert because he knows a healthy body is more satisfying in the long run than the quick-passing pleasure of eating the treat. The successful wage-earner sets up a savings plan for retirement because she sees that future security will be more valuable than extra spending money right now. Our feelings might lean strongly toward the party, the dessert, or the extra spending money, but rationally, logically, sacrificing now for important future benefits makes more sense.

So how much self control and delayed, or deferred, gratification do we have? How much do our children have? The good news is that we and our children can increase our self-control and our deferred gratification if we work at it. Success is waiting.

(You may be interested in reading more about self-control and deferred gratification and their impact on our lives and relationships. This subject is discussed at length in my new book, Choosing Glory, available on my website: lilianderson.com.