The Delayed Gratification Cost of an Earned Life

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

By Marshall Goldsmith

To make smarter choices about when to pay the price and when to pass, we first have to resolve the omnipresent dichotomy of delayed gratification versus instant gratification. 

In my dictionary, paying the price may as well be a synonym for delayed gratification (and not paying the price is a synonym for instant gratification). 

They’re both about self-control. It’s a dilemma you face each day and all day, from the moment you wake up. 

For example, you want to get up early to exercise before heading off to work. When the alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m., you pause for a moment, tempted by the instant gratification of staying in bed for another half hour of sleep, weighing it against the benefit of your fitness routine as well as the psychic pain of starting your day with an episode of defeated intention, a galling failure of will and purpose. 

Whether or not the workout triumphs over sleep, this is just the first of many times you’ll have to resolve the delayed versus instant gratification dichotomy today. It continues at breakfast. Will it be the usual healthful oatmeal and fruit, or the tempting eggs, bacon, and toast with a double latte chaser? 

Then there’s your first hour at work. Will you spend it tackling the toughest item on your to-do list, or shooting the breeze with your office neighbors? It never stops. 

As I see it, there are only two times in your adult life when instant gratification isn’t a choice that tortures the soul. 

The first is in early adulthood, when you have no sense of disappearing time. You can be extravagant with your time and resources because you have time to make up lost ground. Paying the price is something you can delay till some time “later” (whatever that means). 

The other time is late in life, when the gap between the “now you” and the “future you” narrows. At a certain age, you become who you always thought you wanted to be or, if not, you  accept who you have actually become. It’s time to cash in your chips. 

So you book the expensive trip. You volunteer your time freely. You consume that quart of ice cream without guilt. 

In the many years between, you are constantly tested by delayed gratification. It’s why your ability to experience delayed gratification is such a decisive factor in living an earned life, perhaps an even more reliable predictor than intelligence. 

In the end, the most persuasive reason for paying the price is that anytime you sacrifice something for something, you are compelled to value it more. Adding value to your life is a goal worth earning. Then again, paying the price also feels good, whether or not your heroic effort delivered the reward. There’s no shame in falling short if you gave it your best shot. 

There’s no regret either. Regret is the price you pay for not paying the price. 

But there are times in our lives when we can legitimately feel we’ve paid enough—and should luxuriate, however briefly, in easing up on ourselves. A marshmallow is calling us. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

In the late 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted his famous “marshmallow studies” with preschool children at the university’s Bing Nursery School. 

Children were shown one marshmallow and told they could choose to eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted. They were also told that a larger reward of two marshmallows would be theirs if they waited for up to 20 minutes without eating the marshmallow. It was a vivid choice between immediate gratification and delayed gratification. 

The child would sit alone at a table facing one marshmallow and a desk bell that could be rung at any time to call back the researcher and eat the marshmallow. Or the child could wait for the researcher to return and, if the marshmallow remained uneaten, receive two marshmallows. 

Follow-up research on the children years later led Mischel to conclude that the subjects who waited for the two marshmallows had higher SAT scores, better 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, establishing the test as one of the rare laboratory studies about human behavior that has become a cultural touchstone.

Later studies questioned the soundness of the original test. Affluent kids with highly educated parents in the Stanford University community were more likely to be brought up in an environment where the rewards from delayed gratification were more obvious than what poor kids with less educated parents were used to. These children were also more likely to believe that the authority figure—the experimenter—would deliver the reward. 

Broadly defined, delayed gratification means resisting smaller, pleasurable rewards now for larger, more significant rewards later. Much of the psychology literature deifies delayed gratification, linking it with all we associate with “achievement.” We are relentlessly bombarded with the virtue of sacrificing immediate pleasure to achieve long-term results. 

But there’s another way to look at the Marshmallow Test. Imagine if the study was extended beyond the second marshmallow. After waiting the required minutes, the child was given a second marshmallow but told, “If you wait a little longer, you will get a third marshmallow!” And a fourth marshmallow . . . a fifth marshmallow . . . a hundredth marshmallow. 

By that logic, the ultimate master of delayed gratification would be an old person near death in a room surrounded by thousands of stale uneaten marshmallows. It’s safe to say that none of us would want to be that person when we’re old and dying. 

I often strike this cautionary note about the marshmallows with my coaching clients. Sometimes they’re so busy making sacrifices to achieve for the future that they forget to enjoy life now. 

My advice to them is my advice to you: There are times when you should eat the marshmallow. Do it today (if only to recover the thrill of instant gratification). Don’t wait for some late-life glimpse-of-mortality event to shake you up. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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