There’s Less Virtue in Delaying Gratification Than You Think
Or, Why Failing the Marshmallow Test May Have Been The Right Move
You’ve probably heard of the Marshmallow Test.
It’s a challenge given to young children to test their ability to delay immediate gratification now for a greater gratification later. Children are given the opportunity to eat one marshmallow now or to wait and eat a few marshmallows later. The idea is that children who either naturally or are trained to withhold gratification until later are more likely to be successful later in life. It’s a popular idea especially among academics, who themselves had to withhold gratification for 8+ years after graduating high school to land their first real jobs in their fields.
The implication from the Marshmallow Test is clear: if you are impatient and want to seize your gratification now, you are going to be less successful than those who will wait. The idea is applied to schooling, careers, marriages and relationships, and even to childrearing. The virtue is patience — delaying gratification will result in stronger results down the road and impatience will result in lower yields now.
Before you stop reading and write this off as another one of those, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost!” or “Live like today is your last day!” posts that you would expect to see on a college sorority website, don’t worry. It’s not. True — you could die later today, and that should weigh on some of your ways of prioritizing your life. It’s not a blank check to act recklessly, though. Delaying gratification is only virtuous when it results in the right kind of tradeoff between time and gratification. There are too many stories of unhappy retirees and unfulfilled burnouts to say you should just throw caution to the wind or that you should just put every penny you have in a multi-decade, tax-deferred IRA or 401k.
If you’ve ever thought, “I want to start my own business someday, but I need to get more experience first,” or “I want to jump into my career right now, but everybody says I need to delay until after I finish college,” or “I want to start a non-conventional career, but I feel like I need to put in my time at a conventional workplace first,” then keep reading. This is for you.
What Even Is Gratification?
“Gratification” is a really big, unwieldy term.
The Marshmallow Test is only so useful. Marshmallows or sweets are an easy tool to use to test one’s ability to delay gratification when you are younger, but once you expand the ways in which gratification can come into physical, intellectual, spiritual, and professional and you draw out the timeline from 20 minutes to several years, the implications start to break down.
If we take gratification to simply mean job security, then it may make more sense to delay your gratification. Launching your own company or taking control of your career without a credential can be a risky business that isn’t for everybody.
But if we take gratification to mean fulfillment in the sense of feeling like you are in control of your life and that you are an autonomous person, then delaying gratification may not be the best course of action for you. If you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a professor, you may have to play by the rules of the game — but if you want to be an entrepreneur, a freelancer, or a young professional, chances are you can write your own rules.
If we mean gratification to mean living without regrets, then the analogy breaks down even further. I’ve spoken to too many parents, professionals, and intellectuals who tell me they wish they could turn the clock back and do things a little differently — usually with more risk. If you can see yourself feeling this way later in life and your tradeoff is between “gratification” in a security sense and living without regrets on the other side of the spectrum, then you have to pick one or the other.
The scary thing about encouraging young adults and children to “delay gratification” is that they rarely even know what “gratification” means to them. Very few young people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and locking them into a matrix of “gratification or risk” sets up a false dichotomy for them. It is better to let them try a few things first, even if that means experiencing some forms of “gratification” before others. Some people like security over control; others like control of security; even others prefer physical or spiritual gratifications over professional or intellectual. Only through experience can a young adult get an idea of what they want.
Inefficiency Is Not a Virtue
Even if we have an idea of what “gratification” means to us — a successful career, an established business, an exit from a startup, a happy family, closeness to God — it doesn’t immediately follow that you have to go through years of drudgery to reach that gratification. As James noted earlier this year, there’s a popular notion that you have to pay your dues before you can experience any semblance of success. The core of this idea is true: you should earn your keep. Nothing is handed to you. Expecting things to come your way without a lot of hard work is entitlement, not success.
But what that hard work looks like is very different for different people. For the academic or the corporate-ladder-climber, it’s going to require years of schooling, graduate school, drudgery-filled work, and then an opportunity to hit that goal. But for the entrepreneur, it’s likely a much more open path. The work will still be hard, under-compensated, and include a high risk of failure, but it will be different than that of the established path in other careers.
If you want to be a doctor, spending years learning how to become a welder is a waste of time and inefficient. If you want to be an accountant, going to medical school is inefficient. If you want to be an academic, going to flight training school is inefficient. These things might be valuable for other reasons — but for the goal of the career, they’re just a waste of time.
If what you want to do with your career or how you want your life to look doesn’t require a credential, getting that credential is just inefficient. It’s not paying your dues. It’s not delaying gratification. It’s wasting valuable time and resources that could be spent getting you closer to your goals.
You can still get the benefits of a lot of these longer processes without the time and resources. If you want to improve yourself intellectually while building your career, audit classes at a local university, get an intellectual mentor, and read voraciously. If you want to learn how to fly, take classes on the weekends at a flight school, you don’t need to enroll at Embry-Riddle University full-time. Inefficiency is not virtuous.
The Gratification <> Freedom Tradeoff
You are freer now as a young person than you are likely to ever be when you are older.
How is this possible?
You probably don’t have money. (Potentially an asset.)
You probably don’t have strong credentials. (Not as big a problem as you think.)
You also probably don’t have that much debt, a family dependent on your paycheck, strong local connections keeping you from moving away, a contract with a major company, golden handcuffs, or any number of things holding you back from taking risks. This is a particularly powerful asset if you are unsure what “gratification” means to you.
As you get further along the delayed gratification timeline — your first job, your first car payment, your first house, your first child — you slowly chip away at your ability to try new things. You may be increasing your bottom line (or piling on debt with a house, student loans, a car payment, and more), but you are probably decreasing your freedom line.
This is especially pertinent if you want to launch your own business someday. Launching a new venture with a family and with regular, hefty bills is really, really hard. Jumping down a few levels on the hedonic treadmill is really, really hard.
Locking yourself into commitments that run contrary to or do not help you achieve your idea of gratification is not wise, virtuous, or somehow showing merit — it’s self-destructive and self-sacrificing to ideas of happiness and gratification that are not your own.
Ignore the Marshmallows
I always performed well at the Marshmallow Test as a child, but because I knew that it was intended to reflect positively on me. I found the waiting around to get to college and going through all the motions in class in high school laborious. The SAT was a miserable experience, despite performing well. I did this because I thought college and the world beyond high school would finally allow me to be in control of my career and my education. But college wasn’t really any different. I had more choice, but still felt the absurd pressures of established careers and academia weighing on me. Any time I felt like dropping out, starting an ambitious project, and learning what I wanted to learn would treat me best, I felt guilty, as if I had failed some kind of Adult Marshmallow Test.
Choosing to ignore the Marshmallow Test and understanding the complexities of what we call “gratification” and delaying gratification freed up a lot of mental energy for me. Don’t let it weigh on you. Maybe failing the Adult Marshmallow Test is how you’ll really find success.