Many prospective innovators turn back in the face of misery and hardship not realizing how close they were to a breakthrough. One of the benefits of a strong entrepreneurial mindset is the capacity to delay gratification long enough to achieve something meaningful. One of the costs of the same mindset is to forget to enjoy the journey.
My father picked up my mother for their first date in a new suit and a rented Cadillac Eldorado, with a bouquet of fresh red roses for his future bride. At the start of his life, he had been dumped by his parents into a back channel adoption and then tossed from there into a series of foster homes when his adopted mother was discovered by the police to be insane. He had to pee on his bag of Christmas jelly beans so the older foster kids would not steal them. He led a hardscrabble life as a youth and learned to fight for every scrap. He rose up and made a success of himself, but fought with demons like alcohol abuse and infidelity. My father was a one marshmallow kid.
The original and now famous experiment was done in 1970 at Stanford University by Walter Mischel and Ebbe Ebbesen. They gave young children a plate with a single marshmallow and told them that they were free to eat the marshmallow, but if they decided to wait for a period of time, they would get a second marshmallow. About a third of the children waited. Not surprisingly they grew up doing better in school and other pursuits. It's a lesson in delayed gratification–a marker for the capacity of someone to invest time, energy and money in a pursuit where the rewards would be sometime in the future. The world is thus filled with one and two marshmallow kids.
The ability to delay gratification leads to greater levels of enduring success.
When my father was learning to survive his harsh "initial conditions", he had to eat the metaphorical marshmallow or someone else would have taken it. His character was forged in an unsafe, unnurturing environment with no one with any integrity to guide him. His early childhood socialization and addictive brain chemistry did not set him up well for the disciplined pursuit of worthy goals. He was gifted with considerable talents and he did surprisingly well given his adverse start in life but I wonder how well he might have done if he had the love and support of good teachers and loving parents.
I coach quite a few very successful, high networth entrepreneurs. Most of these people I suspect were two marshmallow kids. Not only would they have waited for the second marshmallow, they would have doubled down and doubled down after that, converting the two marshmallows into four and then eight and then sixteen, and so on. The two marshmallowers tend to put it off gratification indefinitely as if they were never going to die. I'm helping them learn to eat some of the marshmallows from their massive stockpile. And they are my inspiration for the opposite challenge. I have been working hard this past two years to consciously transform myself into a two marshmallower going forward. It hasn't been easy. I've come by mine honestly. I generally eat the marshmallow immediately, just in case I was going to die before the next one came..
High levels of self-discipline can make it harder to experience joy.
I think it's tempting to draw a moral conclusion that the kids who waited for the second marshmallow are somehow superior; but there is more to the story. Many are indeed brilliant people with considerable natural gifts who have worked hard and made numerous sacrifices to get where they are. And many would concede that they started with favorable initial conditions.
The one thing my father most definitely learned to do was to live in the moment and enjoy life to the fullest. This is perhaps the advantage of being a one marshmallow kid. The two marshmallow kids have the advantage of having the net worth and income to sustain it. I think the one and two marshmallow kids have much to teach each other about joy and affluence and living a good life full of both happiness and success.
A great life is a product of self-discipline and strategic self-indulgence.