Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Management Message from a Marshmallow

"Good things come to he who waits” is an old adage, but one that contains within its words more truth than meets the eye. 

I am reminded of this adage as I look back on my own career, and when I observe younger talent in business today, as they are reaching for a plum.  The conclusions of the “Marshmallow Story” I relate below should communicate some key principles about how we communicate to and evaluate talent.  The “story” appeared in The New Yorker on May 18, 2009.

It involved a couple of kids, a brother and sister, ages 4 and 5, who had a tray of marshmallows put in front of them and were told by a Stanford researcher that they were welcome to eat one marshmallow now; but if they waited a while until the researcher returned, they could have two marshmallows. 

Each also had the option to ring a bell immediately after the researcher left, notifying the researcher of the decision to eat the marshmallow and not wait further.  The little girl waited.  The little boy did not.  The experiment, testing delayed satisfaction, was carried out with many kids.  Seventy percent were like the little boy; they struggled to delay eating the marshmallow by covering their eyes and kicking the chair, but ultimately gave in.  Thirty percent were like the little girl.  “They successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned some 15 minutes later.  These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.”

The thrust of the research was not about willpower or self-control.  It was about some kids who figure out how to make a situation work for them.  “They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it?  We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it,” the study points out.  So, what made waiting possible for those who waited?  Kids start out unable to wait for anything.

The researcher– based on hundreds of hours of observations– finally figured out the answer to the conundrum.  It was the “strategic allocation of attention.”  In other words, how you train your mind to think or not think is the solution.  The patient children made themselves forget about the marshmallow by covering their eyes, singing songs or getting underneath the desk.   If you think about how delicious the marshmallow is, you will eat it.  “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”  Take your mind off that which you can’t have now for a better prize later.  Don’t stare at it.

The psychologist found that among 8th graders the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of academic performance than IQ.  She found that while intelligence is important, it is still not as important as self-control.  Although some toddlers come by these traits naturally, parents are critical in teaching children that waiting is worthwhile.  Even teaching children not to snack before dinner or to save at least part of their allowance, are subtle ways of teaching this skill.  As an adult, learning to put away money for retirement would be an example.


I recall a point in my career where I had to wait a year to be appointed a vice president on the heels of a rival being appointed immediately.  It was tough, but I eventually surpassed my nearest rival.  The ability to wait and figure out the situation confronting you is often the ability to be smart, as the tiny marshmallow test so informs.

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