Don’t Eat The Marshmallow

In the 1960s a series of experiments were conducted on young children, now known as the “marshmallow test”. The young children were each offered a marshmallow and told that if they could wait a few minutes they would be given another marshmallow. The videos of the experiments make for great entertainment and the results have had a large impact on the success of peoples’ lives. For more information on the experiment, read this delightful New Yorker piece by Jonah Lehrer. In brief, the reason why this experiment is able to predict so much of one’s future success is because it conveys whether one has the ability to delay gratification, the ability to focus on greater future gains at the expense of immediate gratification.

I never took the “marshmallow test” when I was young so I am not sure whether I have an in-built nature to delay gratification, but now having the conscious knowledge of the importance of delayed gratification I plan to further cultivate this ability and to apply the concept to my life.

In the real world, the test is not of delaying the eating of delicious desserts(1) but of ignoring the abundant distractions that surround all of us so that we can focus and accomplish meaningful work. Paul graham describes how distractions have evolved and have become more addictive then ever. The challenge is to overcome these distractions and in the words of Mark Suster, to JFDI.

I am not advising one to never goof off or relax, focusing on enjoying the present is important too. Though if you want to accomplish great things, it is important to on some level to sacrifice the present for the future. Or sacrifice may not be the right word because that word signifies giving something up and in a way, it is more of an exchange. I have experienced the fulfillment of accomplishing good work and the state of flow while doing so and I have also experienced the hedonistic enjoyment of lounging by a tropical beach during the day and partying at night. Both are enjoyable in their own way, but I prefer to focus more on the former. Of course hard work is not just a state of flow and a feeling of accomplishment. It is hard work. It is struggle. It is finding ways to continue when you may not feel like it. But in the end, I think it is well worth it.

For a while I was focused on living the 4HWW ideally designed lifestyle(2). I tried out living abroad briefly and backpacking around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and plan on doing a lot of traveling throughout my life, I want my work to more than finding out how to spend the minimum amount of time to bankroll my lifestyle. I want my work to be meaningful and engaging to me. I want to swing for the fences and to repeat the Silicon Valley cliche, I want to change the world. Maybe at some point in the future I will change my mind but at the very least, putting in the hard work now is the way to stay upwind and to keep my opportunities open.

So remember, don’t eat the marshmallow.


(1)Though eating healthy is another test of will power

(2) I am still a big fan of many of the concepts in the 4HWW and have applied the work principles to be more productive in learning and at my former jobs. The problem in my view is that it implies that the goal of a “lifestyle business” is to minimize work and in doing so, maximizing free time and then recommending that that time should be used primarily for traveling and living abroad. I think Tim’s own choice of how to spend his time is a better example, working hard to write quality content and engaging in advising innovative startups. THe other problem is that Tim down plays the importance of working hard, especially in the beginning of a business. He worked 80 hour weeks to build BrainQuicken and only afterwards did he find a way to decrease his weekly work load. It may be possible to only spend the mythical four hours a week but it may be better to rather think in the mindset of what you can accomplish with hard work.

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