The Secret of Success

Yes I can see it (even if I cannot see you), your widened eyes and your breath held back in anticipation. You too crave the key to that door everyone wants to open, and to relish the life that lies beyond.

Of course, the fantasies the life beyond that door are your part of you. Whether it’s clutching an Oscar in your hand and blowing kisses to an applauding horde of famous actors and actresses or getting multi-billion dollar offers for your homegrown app, the definition of success varies from person to person.

However, I can tell you what that key is (psst! don’t tell anybody else, okay? Nah, I’m kidding, spread the word as much as you can). It’s the secret even Rhonda Byrne can’t tell you, and the funny part is, that master-key is same for every lock, no matter who or what you want to be.

Okay, without keeping you waiting further, here’s the secret:  it’s the marshmallows.

Stunned? Confused? Disappointed? Or may be all three?

‘What the hell is this!’ you snarl, feeling cheated at the anticlimactic answer. ‘Is this some sort of gustatory PJ that ends with gunfight over the dinner-table?’

By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Marshmallows – the key to success
And, as usual, I appeal to you – patience, my dear Watson, patience.

There you go, I’ve blatantly laid out the actual secret through a simple phrase abused by Sherlock Holmes. Patience is the key, polished with self-control (something you probably need right now in order to not navigate away and miss all the fun below), apart from all the hard work you have to do with your wits and hands, of course.

‘Blah! Blah! Blah!’ you snap, following it up with a raspberry blow. ‘What’s new to it? Same boring stuff everyone preaches to me! And what was all that marshmallow talk about?’

You may know by now, my dear fellow, that like Holmes, I do not spell out things without reason (and I’m not a sales representative for S’mores or Moonpies, either). The marshmallows I was talking about were part (as always) of an experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University, with a bunch of kids serving as test subjects (don’t worry, nobody poked wires into their heads). Each kid was given a marshmallow, but also told they would get another if they could resist gobbling this one for fifteen minutes. And saying so, the examiner retreated from the room under the pretense of bringing more marshmallows and left the kids alone.

As we know, children aren’t usually patient enough to wait, especially when a reward is dangling right before their eyes; their main concern is satisfaction in the present moment (that’s why you don’t see them running Wall Street, although the current runners aren’t any better either). Naturally, many of them grinded and grated for some time before sinking their teeth into the delicious marshmallows. Few didn’t, and this distinction yielded very interesting outputs in the long run.

When the SAT scores of those kids were later compared, it was found that the scores of those kids who resisted the temptation exceeded the scores of those who didn’t. Don’t think the experimenters stopped simply with the test scores, though; the experiment proceeded well until the researchers’ hair had streaks of gray and the kids had grown into full-fledged adults. Even then, those who had refused to succumb had in general better life than their antsy counterparts. Thus, the moral of the story is that a little self-restraint indeed goes a long way.

But the original study didn’t ask why so? Why the correlation between waiting and success was the way it was? Initially, Mischel was interested only in the strategies improvised and employed by kids to delay gratification. But this profound revelation came to be because Mischel and his team realized the experiment’s full implications and continued their study well past kids’ adolescence.

From a neuroscientific POV (as discovered by researchers of Cornell University in 2011), the adults who delayed gratification in Mischel’s experiments had prefrontal cortex active during the marshmallow test while those who almost instantly grabbed the marshmallow had ventral striatum active. While you may not understand the neuro-gobbledygook, just know that the prefrontal cortex is the region of brain associated with strategy and rationalizing, while ventral striatum is commonly seen as reward center of the brain. In even simpler terms, it means people who wait and delay gratification have greater rationalizing and organizing capacity than those who don’t.

Now, before you start thinking that these capacities must be hardwired into selected few from birth, you might want to check out findings from a recent variation of the marshmallow test. In a creative twist to the original experiment, the researchers at Rochester university split the group of kids into two. The rest of the experiment remained the same, except for one alteration: before handing out the marshmallows to the kids, the experimenters had both groups draw as an exercise. To both they promised crayons and other art supplies, but kept their word only to one group. After this little stunt, marshmallows were served, and the experimenters noticed that the kids of the group whose covenant wasn’t respected barely showed any self-restraint; they waited even less than the original test before wolfing down the marshmallows, perhaps with common sense that they probably won’t be offered any more marshmallows despite being promised so. In contrast to them, the other group fared significantly better.

How does this observation translate into real life?

First of all, kids aren’t that stupid. In case of an unstable environment where promised incentives weren’t delivered, they knew the most rational thing to do was eat the marshmallow instead of waiting for a bigger yet uncertain reward (so, in a way, they’re eligible to run the Wall Street).

Secondly, although self-control is still an important parameter of success and depends on an individual’s intrinsic willpower, but that willpower can be curbed by external factors. If the chances of your success appear low to you, then you most certainly will give up rather than continue on the foolhardy path. Thus, success is an upshot of self-discipline, but the latter also requires consistent motivation (or perhaps overdose of fervor) to carry on.

Small dose of humor, courtesy of Randall Munroe, http://xkcd.com, CC-BY-2.5,

To make long story short – it takes self-restraint and patience to succeed, but it also is a very tricky route. Not everyone will persevere if they feel that the bell of opportunities won’t be ringing on their door anytime soon. Yet, we don’t know which footfall will take us from rocky asphalt to red carpet (I don’t think I need to allude to Thomas Edison’s enterprising list of failures here). Those who do succeed perhaps have this mantra written in all capitals opposite their beds. In a world that celebrates and cherishes human achievements, that’s definitely something to be remembered.

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