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Success tip: Defer gratification to succeed in life

Children as young as four differ in their ability to defer gratification. Those who can are far more likely to succeed in life. It is an ability you can teach yourself by taking it seriously.

Posted 31 December 2017

My poor and uneducated parents taught me about the importance of education and of saving money for the future.

One personal story shows how well they taught me. Aged 26, I was at home preparing for my accountancy exams, and had a study timetable for each day. During a scheduled break, on TV I was watching the most exciting tennis match I have ever seen in my life, the 1977 Wimbledon semi-final between Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis. (The highlights video is lower down on this page.) I left the match unfinished to go back to studying when my break time ended, because passing my exams meant far more to me than watching the rest of the match.

From the time I first learned about Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiments, I have been sharing the story. This morning I made it the theme of my 38th "Thought for the Week" on BBC Radio Manchester. You can read it below.

Thought for the Week

What can you learn about the future of a four-year-old child in 15 minutes? Actually, quite a lot.

In 1960, the psychologist Walter Mischel experimented on some nursery school children. It was painless!

In a quiet room, Walter put a marshmallow in front of a child. He told the child that he was leaving the room for 15 minutes. If the marshmallow was still there when Walter returned, he would give the child a second marshmallow. The child could then eat both.

Some children managed to avoid eating the first marshmallow for the whole 15 minutes. Others ate it immediately! Some held out for a few minutes, then gave in, and ate the marshmallow in front of them.

Walter Mischel followed these children through their lives for the next 50 years.

On average, the children who held out for the whole 15 minutes did far better in school, their careers, and their lives generally. Without even thinking about it, they had the ability to defer gratification.

This ability matters to so many aspects of our lives. Do I spend time studying to get better qualifications, or do I go and hang out with friends? Do I save money, so I will have more in the future, or do I spend it now?

We have one big advantage over the children Walter Mischel was studying. If we want to, we can learn to think differently. We can teach ourselves to defer gratification.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. Many of us will be making resolutions. Will your resolutions involve deferring gratification or be all about “having it now?”

Meanwhile, Happy New Year.

Borg v Gerulaitis highlights video


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