I recently bought a home. Many people buy homes, so the act of buying a home might seem unremarkable. But as my advisor put it, buying a home is “the biggest financial decision of your life”. You take out a 30-year loan, suddenly own real estate, and commit to monthly mortgage payments.
It’s a long-term decision.
Which, as numerous psychologists have found, human beings are notoriously bad at.
But we make long-term decisions all the time. Which home to buy, how to invest our money, which career to choose. Even the moment to moment decision of how to spend our time and energy is a long-term decision, although it doesn’t feel like it.
Too often we succumb to short-term pleasures over long-term benefit – we smoke, we indulge, we procrastinate, we spend. It’s not like we don’t know what’s bad for us, we just seem to prize the present much more than the future.
But in so doing we sell our future selves short to gratify our current selves. Which leads to all kinds of problems – health issues, unhappiness, mid-life crises, lack of fulfilment, and so on.
Can we reverse this?
Don’t eat the marshmallow
In a famous experiment, researchers at Stanford University gave children the choice between one marshmallow they could eat immediately, and two marshmallows they could eat if they waited for up to 20 minutes.
Years later, the research team found that children who had waited for the second marshmallow generally fared better in life. A child’s ability to delay eating the first marshmallow predicted higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index 30 years later.
Those able to delay their marshmallow-eating became known as the “high delayers”, while the others were called the “instant gratifiers”. It seemed that some children just had the ability to delay gratification, while others did not.
From Stanford to New York City
At 27, Angela Duckworth left her demanding job in management consulting to teach 7th grade math in New York City public schools. Like any teacher, she made quizzes, gave out homework assignments, and calculated grades. What struck her was that IQ was not the only difference between her best and worst students.
What if doing well in life came down to more than just IQ?
To uncover the differentiating factor, Angela went to graduate school to become a psychologist. In all her research, the question she sought to answer was, “Who is successful, and why?” She studied rookie teachers, military cadets, spelling bee candidates, and salespeople.
What it came down to was grit.
Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. – Angela Duckworth
Other psychologists call it willpower. Or, as the Stanford study calls it, the ability to delay eating marshmallows.
Do you have what it takes?
So if grit, or delayed gratification, is the psychological panacea for success, how do we develop it? Before that – is it even possible to develop it? Or is the quality something inborn – either you have it or you don’t?
Psychologist Angela Duckworth argues that grit can be learned. She’s identified 4 traits gritty people have in common – interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
Gritty people are deeply interested in something. They cultivate something which grabs their attention, become familiar enough, knowledgeable enough such that they wake up the next day, month, or year still interested in that thing. In other words, they have to be passionate.
A side note on passion:
Passion is an elusive concept experts still don’t have a handle on. Sure, they can recognise passion when it exists. But if you don’t have passion, how do you find your passion? Does everyone have a passion? Follow your passion or not? Jury’s still out on that one.
Apparently, passion is either uncovered or fostered . If you’re not one of those lucky people born already knowing your passion, you have to search, explore, quit, switch, and keep going until you find The Thing You’re Passionate About.
Seems like I need grit to find my passion so that I can be gritty? Hmm.
Then there’s practice. Specifically, deliberate practice, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in Outliers. That means labouring in a methodical and unfun way to get better at the thing you’re interested in. To be willing to put in the hours and hard work, you have to be passionate about the thing.
The connection of your work to something bigger than yourself.
Do we all have purpose? Why do some people find meaning in their work while others don’t? How do I find my purpose?
Optimism and faith. You have to believe that you can get there.
Because you’re worth it
If delayed gratification is indeed the key to developing all these wonderful traits like passion, purpose, practice, and hope, why do some people have it while others don’t?
While the today’s positive psychology movement doesn’t have a definitive answer, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck offers an explanation.
For children to develop the capacity to delay gratification, it is necessary for them to have self-disciplined role models, a sense of self-worth, and a degree of trust in the safety of their existence. – M Scott Peck
Peck said that the feeling of being valued is a cornerstone of self-discipline. Because when we believe ourselves valuable, we take care of ourselves and value our time. If we value our time, we would want to use it well. For those who feel themselves valuable, “it is almost impossible for the vicissitudes of adulthood to destroy their spirit.”
The great gift of self-worth is gained in childhood:
Self-disciplined role models
For children to learn self-discipline, they must have disciplined role models. If children see their parents acting with discipline, restraint, and dignity, the child would come to believe deeply that this was the way to live. Instilling proper discipline requires great effort from the parents. The parent would have to first spend time with the child, monitoring his development, and steward the child’s growth. Discipline must be meted out deliberately, not out of anger. The parent must be willing to give their time, attention, and care to the child, and suffer along with the child as the child grows up. When a child sees his parent suffer, he will also learn to suffer. That is the beginning of self-discipline.
Trust and safety
The more a child feels safe, the more he is able to delay gratification, for he knows that the opportunity for gratification is always there when needed. A child naturally feels unsafe in the world, totally dependent on his parents for survival. He is terrified of abandonment, for abandonment means death. If the parents are there for the child, offering both material and emotional support when needed, the child would feel safe and protected. If such assurance is not received, the child grows to fear the world and the future. With no trust in the future, the child would then not be able to delay gratification.
If a child feels loved, cared for, well-disciplined, and safe, he then develops a deep and abiding sense of self-worth. This self-worth is the foundation for self-discipline, also known as delayed gratification and grit.
So we must build our sense of self-worth.
For if we do not know and feel our lives are valuable, we have no reason to find our passions, pursue our passions, and hold a sense of purpose.
But if we truly believe that our lives are worthwhile, then we will be willing to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term gain. We know that delayed gratification is placing a bet on our futures and ourselves.