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Kelly & Marshall Goldsmith: When Do You Eat The Marshmallow?

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CEOs are often experts at delayed gratification, but they can get so busy making sacrifices for the future, they forget to enjoy life.

Almost 50 years ago, Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel, conducted his famous “marshmallow studies” with young children. The children were shown one marshmallow and told they could choose to eat it whenever they wanted. They were also told that, if they only waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. They were given a choice between immediate gratification—eat one marshmallow now—versus delayed gratification—wait and get two marshmallows later.

Years later the achievement levels of these children were studied. What was the initial conclusion?

When they became older, children who waited for the two marshmallows were shown to have higher SAT scores, more educational achievement and lower body mass index. These findings led to Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success.

Later studies found that parental affluence and education were also correlated with the child’s likelihood of delaying gratification and waiting for the extra marshmallow.

Broadly defined, delayed gratification means resisting smaller, pleasurable awards now for larger, more significant awards later.

Mishel’s implied learning was clear and simple: delayed gratification is good.

Self-help literature glorifies delayed gratification. Sacrificing for tomorrow is almost always linked with what we broadly define as “success.”

Another Way to Look at the Marshmallow Study

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!

Compared to almost any sample of human beings in the world, you, the CEO who is reading this article—would be defined as an eminently “successful” person. You are probably gifted in delaying gratification, and do not need anyone to lecture you on how important it is to sacrifice for the future. You may be a master in delaying your consumption of marshmallows!

Yet high achievers like you can get so busy making sacrifices for the future, that they forget to enjoy life now. They can forget to appreciate all that they have achieved in the past. They can even forget to be happy.

At 59, Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, experienced severe chest pains and eventually had triple bypass surgery. This experience caused him to reflect upon life.

Our great friend and co-author, Mark Reiter, was Jack’s literary agent. Mark asked him what he resolved to change after this life-threatening experience. Jack wryly noted that he was no longer going to drink his cheap wine for dinner.

Jack Welch 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.

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 is often wise to delay marshmallow consumption—do not 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 that were never opened—or surrounded by marshmallows that were never eaten.


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