Imagine you’re 4 years old again. You’re squirming in your seat as the sweetness of a marshmallow fills the air. You’ve been told if you wait and don’t eat the marshmallow, you will be given a 2nd marshmallow.  Remember you’re only 4 and your patience is the equivalent of your adult self holding bread and milk in the “20 items or less” line behind a customer planning what appears to be a block party.  Now, if you eat the first one, then that’s all you will get.  You’re told this and then left alone- just you and the marshmallow.  Your palms sweat and your mouth waters as you either wait an uncertain number of minutes for the experimenter to return with your second marshmallow or eat the one currently right in front of you.  This is exactly what Walter Mischel did at Stanford University with The Marshmallow Experiment.

This study looked at delayed gratification- the ability to resist a smaller instant reward and wait for a larger future reward.  They followed the children from preschool and found that later in life those that were able to wait for the marshmallow were rated with higher competency in life skills, achieved higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, and maintained healthier weights.

Many of us are a few weeks into our resolutions with the novelty beginning to wear off. The initial burst of energy lessens and the gyms begin to empty, shopping carts contain a few more sugary snacks (maybe even literal marshmallows), and ATMs are visited slightly more.

We can watch any show with the click of a button, buy what we want instantly online, get a date on tinder with a single swipe, and have a meal with a quick turn down the drive through lane.

Everything can be immediate BUT not everything worth it will be.

We live in a world where so much can be instant that we expect everything to be this way.  True success with long term goals takes time to build.  Yet, so often when set out on a long-term goal, we give in to the first, single marshmallow along the way. Instant gratification is obvious and well defined, while delayed gratification is more ambiguous and less certain.  It is difficult to leave the single, available marshmallow for just the idea of more in the future.  Who even knows when the experimenter will return or in the case of our goal, when it will be achieved?

When we were all applying to jobs during our last semester of PT school, one of my friends was offered a high paying position working with athletes (her dream job on the surface).  However, she ended up turning it down.  Everyone was shocked, myself included.  When asked about why, she calmly said, “I would be the only PT with no one to learn from.”  I understood without her needing to elaborate.  She valued mentoring more than the job itself.  

Many of us would take the “dream job” for fear that we may miss out on an opportunity.  But, if your career brings you one marshmallow, it will undoubtedly bring you to another if you continue working and pushing for it.  It is not waiting that brings you to the next marshmallow, but rather the ability to wait and persevere past the appealing short term rewards. Early rewards may divert our efforts from our long-term aspirations if they do not align with our highest values. If my friend had taken the initial “dream job”, she would not have grown nearly as much, would have struggled clinically, and may have lost confidence and motivation as a result.  

Great careers develop over time and can be stunted or detoured by eating a marshmallow too soon.  Eventually you will arrive at the first marshmallow in your career and you will have to decide if one is enough or you want more.

The “future you” may want more marshmallows and not get them because you were too busy chasing the immediate ones instead of working for the delayed ones.  Leave the marshmallow and do the hard things in the meantime.  Take less money, but get more mentoring.  Give up some free time, but read more.  Go on less vacations, but invest in more continuing education.  Being good enough is eating the present marshmallow, being better than good enough requires waiting and persevering for the future marshmallows.

How often are you eating the first marshmallow?

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