Thursday, July 9, 2009

How's Your Self Control?

An experiment conducted in the 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel tested children’s ability to delay gratification. A child was left alone in a room with a plate of marshmallows, cookies and pretzels. She was told that she could either eat one treat right away or wait until after the adult left the room for a few minutes. When he returned, she could eat two.

Most kids snagged one the minute he was out of sight.

The interesting part of the study is that Mischel followed the kids after the initial experiment and found that those who had been able to delay gratification became the more successful adults. The “high delayers” were willing and able to invest the time and patience it takes to, say, get a PhD. (See The New Yorker article Don’t! by Jonah Lehrer)

I am infamous for my ability to delay gratification. If anyone would let me, I’d open my birthday presents the day after my birthday. I presume I was a high delaying child (mom?). I graduated sixth in my high school class, magna cum laude from college.

But at a certain point, I started to question what I was delaying for. Sure, I had the fortitude to get through law school, but did I want to be a lawyer? (An emphatic no). What had good-girl weekends in college to become magna cum laude earned me? When I hit the job-hunting streets after graduation, I found that the answer was the opportunity to rock the world with an $8.75/hour job working the night shift in a home for troubled girls (along with the four million other psychology grads, not a one of us whom was asked our class standing).

That’s the problem. Two marshmallows are only a great reward if you love marshmallows (I think they are yucky).

Instead of the starter job or grad school, I started waitressing. Waitressing is all about instant gratification. Work five hours and receive a fistful of cold hard cash and a free beer. It’s even fun. Imagine that.

But eventually my natural inclination kicked back in. Powerfully. Is there any career more dependent on delayed gratification that writing? After ten years in this business, I say no. You spend months or years writing, wait a possible eternity for someone to publish you, don’t get paid until they do. One recently published essay of mine took eight years to get published (Fame vs. Fortune). And we aren’t going to talk about my book right now, ok: we just aren’t (Book Burning Take Two).

Is it true, then, that the treat of publishing (maybe it’s the pretzel) is still worth it for me?

I can see my name on a book jacket and it looks far more fabulous than a law degree or 1000 marshmallows. But I am also increasingly aware that there is much more to living than succeeding.

And thank goodness for that.


  1. I love your parting words, "There is much more to living than succeeding." That is so true! Thanks for the inspiration today!

  2. Thanks, Elana! Nice to see you here. :)