The Startup
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The Startup

What Everyone Ought To Know About Delayed Gratification

The science behind getting what you want out of life.

Photo by Form on Unsplash

I've had countless nights where I've stayed up into the wee hours that approach dawn.

My mind would race and I would toss and turn. Earlier in the day, I had perhaps run 3.5 miles or did an hour of HIIT workouts in the gym. My body was physically exhausted yet her I found myself pacing back and forth in my bed.

I knew where the anxiety was coming from —

a crippling fear of second guessing my future success as a writer, blogger and creative.

In the past year, I have definitely made strides that offer some type of reassurance that I'm headed down the right path:

  • I have been able to build a community on my blog and sites like Medium and Quora.
  • I have built an email subscriber list of over 1,100 followers.
  • I have sold multiple copies of my ebook to these followers that offer up a guide on how to grow your audience, build a following and leverage that for financial gain.
  • I have made friends with various people over this digital space that helped me learn, develop and create things that I wouldn't have been able to before (my pre-Medium self is laughing).

I've thought a lot about how I've been able to develop this [modest] level of success in this sphere.

I've always considered myself a hard worker. This is something my father instilled in my brother, sister and me when we were youngsters. He always told us that great things in life require rolling up your sleeves and making something of yourself.

So there are times when I'm lying wide awake in my bed and I think to myself, "I've been putting in the hard work — why don't I have everything that I've dreamed of?"

Of course that thought is childish and foolish.

Great things take time.

Great things are also never guaranteed.

With creative work and the entrepreneurial endeavors, you are betting on yourself. That bet is never a for sure thing. Shit, the bet is drastically favored against you.

So considering that the odds are against you in this quest, what indicators, if any, can one turn to in order to justify their entrepreneurial pursuit?

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash

In searching for answers to the above question, I came across this famous experiment that took place in the 1960’s at Stanford University. Conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, the experiment focused on the prevalence of delayed gratification and how it can be an indicator of future success in one's life .

In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (marshmallow) provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

The purpose of the original study (conducted in 1960) was to discover when delayed gratification developed in youngsters (median age of the first experiment was 4 and a half years old).

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

The experiments were followed up with a some 30 years later in the 1990’s and beyond to measure how and if there were any indicators on the delayed gratification metrics the subjects had as youngsters would play into the realized successes of the individuals as contributing adults.

The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.”

A 2011 brain imaging study of a sample from the original Stanford participants when they reached mid-life showed key differences between those with high delay times and those with low delay times in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum, (more active in low delayers) when they were trying to control their responses to alluring temptations.

Further interpretation of the experiment from famous astrophysicist

So all of this is great, right?

But you weren't part of the experiment. Furthermore, you can't recall how well you were able to bargain with the future when you were an adolescent.

In researching this experiment, I came across a profound interview between Tom Bilyeu, entrepreneur and co-founder of Quest Nutrition — the second fastest growing company in 2014 (Inc 5000) and Michio Kaku, American theoretical physicist, futurist, popularizer of science and professor of theoretical physics in the City College of New York.

In the interview, Bilyeu asks Kaku of his thoughts on indicators of future success in individuals. Kaku responds citing the marshmallow study described above.

Kaku takes the study a step further. He isn't necessarily interested in when the delayed gratification arises in youth. He is more interested in what the significance of the delayed gratification tells us when we extrapolate the findings out in our own lives.

Transcript taken from the interview:

What is this marshmallow test?

Well, when you look at children, and you look at all the different theories about what makes successful kids, you realize that almost all the theories are wrong, because they haven’t been verified.

Like, for example, high IQ. You have a lot of high IQ people who become marginal members of society, and so what is the one psychological test that correlates with success in life? And I found out that it’s the marshmallow test.

If you can show people that there’s a pot of gold out there, that yes, you hold out, you go to college, you learn a discipline, there’s a pot of gold out there. You can learn to appreciate that fact.

What we have in the brain that is different from animals is we understand time. We understand the future.

And that’s what I think intelligence is. Intelligence is being able to map the future, simulate the future. So if you get an experiment of people with low IQ, and high IQ, put them in the same room, and you give them the same job. Rob a bank. You’ll find out that the low IQ people probably do a much better job of robbing a bank, plotting the bank robbery, than high IQ people, who get all messed up with legal implications and stuff like that.

The point is that you can have some very smart robbers, because they see the future, and that’s what we humans do that animals cannot. We constantly daydream. We constantly create worlds that don’t exist. And to me, that’s what intelligence is.

Some people ask me, well what is the meaning of life, then? And I say to myself that is somebody gives you, from up high, the meaning of life, it’s too easy. I mean, is that all? My attitude is that it’s self discovery. We have to reinvent ourselves. That we have to recreate ourselves, that the meaning of life is rediscovery.

How this idea reflects your own life and work

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

At this point, you may be asking yourself how this applies to your own life.

Well think for a moment and take inventory of the choices you've made.

  • When it comes to a job, did you take the first thing out of school that paid well or did you listen to the muse in your head?
  • When it comes to a lover, did you match with someone due to proximity or did you really develop yourself first in order to pair with a great complement?
  • When it comes to your physical health, did you take the expedient choice in nutrition i.e. fast food or did you consciously watch what you put in your body and exercised regularly in order to preserve your body?

I think about this in my own life.

When I was younger, I had a great paying job with a startup company. I was making money hand over fist. I was aimless, however.

I wasn't doing the work that was consistent with my soul. I wasn't listening to the muses.

I came to the conclusion that early on in my professional life, I was taking the 1 marshmallow immediately rather than waiting for 2 or more years down the road.

I was doing this with relationships and I was doing this with my health as well. Everything I was doing in life was about who I was right now rather than who I could be in the future.

Action you can take right now

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

What expedient marshmallows have you been taking in your life?

Where have you been satiating yourself with the immediate reward over the delayed gratification?

What is your creative pursuit and what actions have you made in progressing towards it?

I know for the longest time, I would only read the articles that were up on Medium. I was consuming all the content I could in hopes that the thousands of words that entered my brain would unlock some type of neurogenesis that would get me to do the work.

Of course no amount of consuming the work of others would result in my own achievement (though valuable nonetheless).

  • So in my own life, over a year ago, I began to write. I wrote one article that turned into two articles that turned into over 150 articles.
  • I decided to build an email list that started with one subscriber that turned into two subscribers that turned into 1,100 subscribers.
  • I wrote one ebook and tried to sell it. I couldn't find any buyers and thought it was a failure. I reworked the book and re-marketed the project. This turned into sales.

With all of this, I know I'm far from where I want to be.

However, there is a mountain of marshmallows waiting for me if I can keep my head down, do the work, and resist the immediate reward of taking a job that makes me a lot of money but doesn't align with the dreams and goals I have deep within my soul.

So what goals and dreams do you have?

What marshmallow do you need to delay now so you can reap a reward 100X in the future?

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Jon Brosio

Jon Brosio

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