photo of Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Our myopic focus on satisfying short-term needs and desires is killing us – both individuals and organizations. We simply are not good at understanding the beauty of delayed gratification, hard work, patience, and smart risk taking.

The research suggests that those who do understand delayed gratification benefit in signification ways.

At the individual level, people who can’t say no to dessert gain weight. Those who can’t say no to every single little league game their kids play fail to do the extra work required for promotion. Those who can’t say no to new things all the time rack up ridiculous debts. Even worse, they seem so unaware of how they got where they are, they still complain:  there’s not enough money, there’s not enough time, I have bad luck, the boss doesn’t like me!  Boo hoo.

Companies do the same thing. They hire too quickly to avoid the pain of an unfilled spot and then get stuck for years with someone other than the ideal candidate. They use band-aids to fix problems instead of finding the root cause. They make safe incremental decisions for next quarter while avoiding needed riskier decisions that will benefit the company three years out.

Listen up! Delayed gratification and long-term thinking are the hallmarks of success. The most famous example might be the experiments performed by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University. Dr. Mischel focused on young children and presented them with an interesting dilemma. He offered each child one big marshmallow and then told them that he would be leaving the room for a few minutes. They were informed that if they wanted to, they could eat the marshmallow. Or, if they decided to wait until he returned, they would receive another marshmallow. One now, or two later.

There are videos of this online. Watch, learn, and laugh. The kids stare at the marshmallow. They poke it. They smell it. The temptation is maddening! Inevitably, lots of kids eat the first marshmallow.  What’s far more interesting are the follow up studies. Years later, the data suggest that the kids able to think long-term and resist immediate gratification are living better lives. The kids who earned two marshmallows grew up to have better college entrance exam scores, better health, and better jobs.

Examples pertinent to your life are all around you. Think about graduate school. Short term-pain, long-term gain.  You make a choice to work many extra hours beyond your job. You choose to spend many nights in class.  You choose to spend lots of money on the degree. You choose to spend less time with your children.  Why?  Because in a few short years, you expect a better job, a better pay, and a better life for you and your family.

Or how about filling a less than desirable role at work? If you wish to climb, at some point you will be asked to fill a role you don’t want.  You have to take one for the team. For six months or two years, you have to love working in a geography you don’t love or a functional area you can’t stand. It’s an investment that will pay off later when you receive preferential treatment because you paid your dues.

Anything truly worth having, takes significant time to earn. Based on the marshmallow experiment, too few children understand this concept. If you overindulge in immediate gratification, inevitably this will lead to simple uninteresting incremental goals. Don’t do that. Dig deep and focus – go for both marshmallows.

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