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Almost fifty years ago, Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel, conducted his famous ‘marshmallow studies’ with pre-school children. In simple terms, children were shown one marshmallow and told they could choose to eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted. One the other hand, they were told that, if they only waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. The children were given a choice between immediate gratification – eat one marshmallow now - versus delayed gratification – wait and eat two marshmallows later.
Years later the achievement levels of these children were studied. What was the initial conclusion?
When they became older, the children who waited for the two marshmallows were shown to have higher SAT scores, more educational achievement, and lower body mass index. These studies eventually led to Mischel’s 1994 book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success. Later studies found that the affluence and education of the child’s parents and the child’s belief that the extra marshmallow would actually be delivered were highly correlated with the child’s likelihood of delaying gratification and waiting for the extra marshmallow.
These later findings make common sense, rich kids - with highly educated parents - were more likely to be brought up in an environment where the rewards from delayed gratification were more obvious than poor kids with less educated parents. They were also more likely to believe that the authority figure – the experimenter – would deliver the rewards.
Broadly defined, delayed gratification means resisting smaller, pleasurable awards now for larger, more significant awards later.Much of the literature in psychology deifies the importance of delayed gratification. It is linked with all we associate with ‘achievement’. Almost every self-help book is written to inspire you in your quest to attain socio-economic success and to increase your ability to reach long-term goals. We are relentlessly bombarded with the virtue of sacrificing immediate pleasure to achieve long-term results.
The classic marshmallow study has a clear conclusion, the research subject either eats one marshmallow now or delays immediate gratification and gets two. The implied learning is simple delayed gratification is good.
Now let us imagine that the study did not stop but was extended. After waiting the required number of minutes, the child was given a second marshmallow but then told, “If you wait a little longer, you will get a third marshmallow!”
Imagine the study keeps going, “If you only wait, you can get a fourth marshmallow… a fifth marshmallow … a hundredth marshmallow.”
The ultimate master of delayed gratification would be an old person - who is facing death - in a room filled with thousands of uneaten marshmallows! I have done research to determine who reads my books. What have I learned? My readers tend to be highly educated (two-thirds have graduate degrees and over 90% are college graduates). My readers also tend to be business leaders, entrepreneurs, human resource professional, consultants, or coaches.
Compared to most human beings in the world, you – the person who is reading this sentence – would probably be defined as a ‘successful’ person. You are probably very good at delayed gratification! You probably don’t need me to lecture you on how important it is to sacrifice for the future. You are probably very good at delaying your consumption of marshmallows!
My personal coaching clients have included many of the most successful leaders in the world. They often have impressive educations. Their level of ‘achievement’ is amazing! They are usually masters in the art of delaying gratification. Yet they, and my guess is, you as well, sometimes get so busy making sacrifices to achieve for the future, that they forget to enjoy life now. They forget to appreciate all that they have achieved in the past. They even sometimes forget to be happy.
Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, was widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders of his time. At age 59, he experienced severe chest pains and eventually had triple bypass surgery due to blockage in his arteries. This experience caused him to reflect upon life. My great friend and co-author, Mark Reiter, was also Jack’s literary agent. Mark asked him what he resolved to change after this life-threatening experience. Jack Welch wryly noted that he was no longer going to drink his cheap wine for dinner. Jack was a fan of great wine and had a very serious wine collection. He was rich. Yet, he was letting the wine in his cellar ‘become even more valuable’ instead of drinking it! He finally asked himself, “What I am waiting for?” He decided to enjoy fantastic wine. In creating a great life for yourself, appreciate the value of delayed gratification. Accept the fact that long-term achievement requires short-term sacrifice. On the other hand, enjoy the journey. As Jack Welch realized, do not wait too long before you drink the great wine. Metaphorically, you will be given the marshmallow test thousands of times in your life. While it can be fine to delay marshmallow consumption – don’t overdo it. Eat some of those tasty marshmallows as you go. You do not want to be that old person with a wine cellar filled with bottles you will never open. You do not want to be surrounded by thousands of marshmallows that were never eaten!
The late, great Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (GE)
Like many young Ph.D. students, while I studied at UCLA, I was deeply impressed with my own intelligence, wisdom and profound insights into the human condition. I consistently amazed myself with my ability to judge others and see what they were doing wrong.
Dr. Fred Case was both my dissertation adviser and boss. My dissertation was connected with a consulting project with that involved the city government of Los Angeles. At the time, Case was not only a professor at UCLA, but also head of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. At this point in my career, he was clearly the most important person in my professional life. He had done amazing work to help the city become a better place, and also was doing a lot to help me.
Although he was generally upbeat, one day Case seemed annoyed. “Marshall, what is the problem with you?” he growled. “I’m getting feedback from some people at City Hall that you are coming across as negative, angry and judgmental. What’s going on?”
“You can’t believe how inefficient the city government is,” I ranted. I then gave several examples of how taxpayers’ money was not being used in the way I thought it should. I was convinced that the city could be a much better place if the leaders would just listen to me.
“What a stunning breakthrough,” Case sarcastically remarked. “You, Marshall Goldsmith, have discovered that our city government is inefficient. I hate to tell you this, Marshall, but my barber down on the corner figured this out several years ago. What else is bothering you?”
Undeterred by this temporary setback, I angrily proceeded to point out several minor examples of behavior that could be classified as favoritism toward rich political benefactors.
Case was now laughing. “Stunning breakthrough number two,” he said. “Your profound investigative skills have led to the discovery that politicians may give more attention to their major campaign contributors than to people who support their opponents. I’m sorry to report that my barber has also known this for years. I’m afraid that we can’t give you a Ph.D. for this level of insight.”
As he looked at me, his face showed the wisdom that can only come from years of experience. “I know that you think that I may be old and behind the times,” he said, “but I’ve been working down there at City Hall for years. Did it ever dawn on you that even though I may be slow, perhaps even I have figured some of this stuff out?”
Then he delivered the advice I will never forget: “Marshall, you are becoming a pain in the butt. You are not helping the people who are supposed to be your clients. You are not helping me, and you are not helping yourself. I am going to give you two options: Option A: Continue to be angry, negative and judgmental. If you chose this option, you will be fired, you probably will never graduate, and you may have wasted the last four years of your life. Option B: Start having some fun. Keep trying to make a constructive difference, but do it in a way that is positive for you and the people around you.
“My advice is this: You are young. Life is short. Start having fun. What option are you going to choose, son?”
I finally laughed and replied, “Dr. Case, I think it is time for me to start having some fun!”
He smiled knowingly and said, “You are a wise young man.”
Most of my life is spent working with leaders in huge organizations. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things are not always as efficient as they could be. Almost every employee has made this discovery. It also doesn’t take a genius to learn that people are occasionally more interested in their own advancement than the welfare of the company. Most employees have already figured this out as well.
I learned a great lesson from Case. Real leaders are not people who can point out what is wrong. Almost anyone can do that. Real leaders are people who can make things better.
Case’s coaching didn’t just help me get a Ph.D. and become a better consultant. He helped me have a better life, and his advice can help you too. First, think about your own behavior at work. Are you communicating a sense of joy and enthusiasm to the people around you, or are you spending too much time in the role of angry, judgmental critic? Second, do you have any co-workers who are acting like I did? Are you just getting annoyed with them, or are you trying to help them in same way that Case helped me? If you haven’t been trying to help them, why not give it a shot? Perhaps they’ll write a story about you someday.
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