Delayed Gratification: A Key to Success

The title of this blog is important. Delayed gratification is “a” key to success, not “the” key to success. However, it’s a very important key and one of those can’t miss deals that seem too good to be true. But in reality, it is a good deal but is also very true. So, what do we know?

In the 1960’s an experiment was done at Stanford University and has become known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Google it and you will find a very cool thing. It was very simple. The researcher took 4 and 5 year olds, put them in a room and had them fight. No, not really. I just made that up to see if you were paying attention. What really happened was a 4 or 5 year old child was taken to a room. They had a seat and a marshmallow was put in front of them. The kid was then told, that the adult was going to leave the room for a while. The child could eat the marshmallow while the adult was gone, but if they waited until the adult got back to eat it, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Video of the kids proved to be highly entertaining as some scarfed down the treat almost before the door closed on the man walking out. Others struggled with their desire until finally giving in and eating the marshmallow. Then there were some who waited it out and got the second marshmallow. The premise here was to see which kids could delay gratifying their sweet tooth long enough to reap the rewards of even more goodies.

Now the real value of the experiment came in the years that followed. The kids involved were tracked over the years to see how they did in life. Those that showed an early ability to delay gratification were generally more successful in almost every aspect of their lives. Can you delay stopping your run before you intended to get the benefit of that last mile? Can you put off eating that extra piece of cake until you have accomplished your goal?

What about the little greedy kids who couldn’t wait? Are they doomed forever to a life of misery, squalor and slow 10k times? A later experiment done at the University of Rochester showed that delayed gratification can be learned. In this one researchers again tormented poor little kids. It does not pay to be a little kid whose parents allow them to be the subjects of psychological experiments. Anyway, in this experiment, they re-did the marshmallow experiment but with a twist. It was preceded by the researcher giving some of the kids a small box of crayons with the promise of a larger box to come. For some of the kids, the larger box never arrived, and for some it did. Other kids were given a puny little sticker with the promise of bigger and better, far cooler stickers to come. Again, for some of the kids the better stickers came as promised and for others they didn’t. To be on the safe side this young fellow just decided to eat the crayons he already had before they could be taken away.

So, what do you think happened when these two groups of kids were tested with the marshmallows? Those who had been subjected to the unreliableness of the not getting the reward as expected were far more likely to grab the marshmallow while they had it than to hope for a marshmallow they weren’t sure they would get. This tells us that delayed gratification can be a learned trait. Even grubby little sticky fingered kids can learn to tough it out and reap the rewards of putting in the time in hopes that those rewards will come. For some kids it comes naturally, but for those who don’t have it naturally, it can be learned.

Where does this bring us? If you have a goal, such as a healthier better looking body, or a new 5k PR or want to complete that half marathon you’ve been secretly wanting to try, or for the younger crowd a varsity track letter or even a state championship, you have to put in the work. Make the sacrifice. Run that extra mile, do those extra pushups, forgo that second helping of apple pie (notice I said second helping, there are some sacrifices that I won’t make, such as the first helping). Sometimes the sacrifice is waiting for an injury to heal instead of coming back too early and keeping yourself injured. Then, once you have made the sacrifices, done the work, put in the time, and you start to see the rewards, they will make it all worth it. They won’t come overnight but they will come. That’s why the key word in delayed gratification is “delayed”. It’s not easy but it is most definitely worth it in the end.

Keep running my friends!



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