The Importance of Delaying Gratification

Many of you have probably heard of or read about the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the experiment, a child was given the choice between a small reward and two small rewards if they waited. Many conclusions (some controversial) have been made about the results of the study, but the basic takeaway is that the children who were able to wait for the second reward did better in life. This should come as no surprise. Life offers many choices and roads, and often the road that is a little more difficult is the reward that leads to better long-term results.

We will make Sacrifices Regardless

Everything in life requires a sacrifice. From the most mundane to the most consequential, life is a series of trade-offs. For example, if you choose the pleasure of smoking, you also choose the likely consequences of smoking. If you choose to take advantage of others, you will reap consequences (eventually) accordingly. If you choose climbing the corporate ladder over playing catch with your son, you sacrifice investing in one of the most meaningful relationships in your life.

So the question isn’t whether we will make sacrifices, the questions is what are we willing to sacrifice for? This is where delaying gratification comes in full force. When we make a decision we should think, what are the long and short term consequences of this decision? For example, if you buy a brand new car outside of your means, the short and perhaps medium-term consequences are pleasure and status. The long term consequence may be added years until retirement. If we can keep long term consequences in the forefront of our minds, we will make better decisions. If instead we buy a modest car and invest what we would have spent, that money would bring us dividends for decades to come. Sometimes you just want the nice car. I get that. Just remember what you are sacrificing in the process.

Success is a Long Game

When you throw out the outliers of the extremely lucky and gifted, the trust fund babies, and the con men and women, success is always a long game. I read an article by Brian Tracy years ago and its lessons have stuck with me and held me in good stead. I don’t think I can say it any better than him, so I will quote directly from his website.

In 1970, sociologist Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University wrote a book entitled The Unheavenly City. He described one of the most profound studies on success and priority setting ever conducted.

Banfield’s goal was to find out how and why some people became financially independent during the course of their working lifetimes. He started off convinced that the answer to this question would be found in factors such as family background, education, intelligence, influential contacts, or some other concrete factor. What he finally discovered was that the major reason for success in life was a particular attitude of mind.

Banfield called this attitude “long time perspective.” He said that men and women who were the most successful in life and the most likely to move up economically were those who took the future into consideration with every decision they made in the present. He found that the longer the period of time a person took into consideration while planning and acting, the more likely it was that he would achieve greatly during his career.

Brian Tracy

Imagine the rewards bestowed upon those with the longest time perspective. Think of those beautiful ornate medieval castles, or the beautiful streets of European towns. They didn’t look for the cheapest material and the fastest building time like we do now. The people who made them (whether well intentioned or not), knew that future generations would marvel at their grandiosity. I have a hard time imagining future generations fondly remembering McMansions. Our forefathers gave their lives in war to afford us the luxuries of our present. A dad with a modest job can set up his family for two or more generations of financial abundance with hard work and intelligent financial planning.

Delaying gratification is a major key in creating the things we want in life. Paradoxically, to enjoy long term comforts, we must overlook present luxuries. How far into the future do you look when you make decisions? Thanks for reading.

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