The Key to Success in Life (This one and, most likely, the Next)

What if the key to success is just as simple and basic as self-control and delayed gratification? Of course, that may seem simple and basic, but in a world that generally promotes the immediate gratification of every desire and impulse, those qualities are increasingly rare. Consider the following story.

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a researcher at Stanford University, conducted studies with preschoolers to see if these young children had developed any ability to delay gratification. In what has come to be known as “The Marshmallow Experiment,” several four-year-olds were seated in a room with a table and an adult interviewer. The adult told each child that he or she could eat one marshmallow now or wait fifteen minutes until the adult returned and receive a second marshmallows. About one-third of the children waited to get the extra prize. Following these preschoolers into adolescence, researchers found that those who had demonstrated delayed gratification and waited for the extra marshmallow were better adjusted and more socially competent, self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable, and academically successful. In fact, the kids who had successfully waited to get two marshmallows scored, on average, 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a perfect score on the SAT was 1600) than students who had eaten one marshmallow right away. “The Marshmallow Test” was twice as accurate a predictor of SAT scores as IQ tests.5

Individuals who are willing to delay gratification don’t do so out of some bizarre streak of self-denial. They do so because there is a reason, and the reason is always along the same lines: I can satisfy my appetite right now, but if I deny myself this immediate pleasure, I will end up with something better. Reason supersedes appetites to convince us that it is worth a measure of immediate self-denial or discomfort to obtain something of greater value.

So a successful student may skip a party to study for an important test because she realizes good grades will be of greater benefit to her future life than one night of recreation. The successful dieter gives up a second serving of a high-calorie dessert because he knows a healthy body is more satisfying in the long run than the quick-passing pleasure of eating the treat. The successful wage-earner sets up a savings plan for retirement because she sees that future security will be more valuable than extra spending money right now. Our feelings might lean strongly toward the party, the dessert, or the extra spending money, but rationally, logically, sacrificing now for important future benefits makes more sense.

So how much self control and delayed, or deferred, gratification do we have? How much do our children have? The good news is that we and our children can increase our self-control and our deferred gratification if we work at it. Success is waiting.

(You may be interested in reading more about self-control and deferred gratification and their impact on our lives and relationships. This subject is discussed at length in my new book, Choosing Glory, available on my website:

Check out one of the videos of kids and marshmallows below:

Or look at what could happen if your kid DOESN’T learn deferred gratification.

5 Yuichi Shoda, Walter Mischel, and Philip K. Peake, “Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions,” Developmental Psychology 26, no. 6, (1990): 978-986.

  1. Suzy says:

    Fascinating experiment and frankly I wonder if some of my kids would make the decision to wait for the additional marshmallows. Which makes me ask myself — is that just the way some kids are — how can you teach this? How can you teach a somewhat reckless and very impulsive child to defer gratification?

  2. Lili says:

    Some kids are definitely more inclined toward this kind of self-control than others. HOWEVER, every child can learn self-control and delayed gratification. How to do that is such an important question that I think I’ll write another post just on that subject. A quick answer for now: Gently require the child to wait for things, explaining why waiting can be a good thing.

  3. Stan says:

    What was interesting was how even some of those who waited were still nibbling just a bit, trying to stay within the rules, and yet still looking for a bit of instant gratification.

    I’ve found that watching my children is probably the best mirror for my *true* behaviour that I’ve ever had.

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