What can learn from the marshmallow?

photo by bill barber (very sporadic)

I have been watching this fascinating six minute lecture by Joachim De Posada from TED. In it, he describes the famous experiment with kids and marshmallows. They took a group of four year old kids and gave them a marshmallow. Then, they told them that if they will wait for 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, they will get an extra marshmallow. About two thirds of the children ate the marshmallow right away.

15 years later those same kids, now adults, were invited again. This time the researchers surveyed their status in life. It turned out that the kids who did not eat the marshmallow right away were all very successful, had great grades and were doing very good socially. The kids who ate the marshmallow right away, were generally doing much worse, many of them, dropped out of school.

I heard about this experiment a number of times and I find it fascinating, but, I am not sure what the immediate implications of it are. If I am a parent you young children, what should I do to make sure that my child is in the group that waits?

But in this talk, De Posada explains, that this ability to postpone gratification, is predictive of success, because many times in life, if you wait, your success is bigger. He gives the example of a salesman not going for the quick deal, but sitting diligently with the clients to find out their real needs, thus making a more profound and sustainable sale.

I think there is a great lesson here. In a world ruined with havoc because of short term goals and gains the inclination to wait, to think things through, to try one more check, is increasingly important. And it is growing in importance even more, as are world is getting faster and faster. We hear a lot about flexibility of firms, their ability to respond quickly to the markets and the importance of constant change management. I am not saying all of that is wrong. But I am advocating, at least as part of some process, to be more patient. To learn to postpone our immediate gratification.

The problem is that it is extremely hard. Most people have a lot of trouble dealing with the unknown future and taking risk is part of the game. But there is a difference between taking a calculated risk and just taking a risk. So, how can me incorporate flexibility and risk taking and still think things through.

As usual, I think the answer lies in creating a better process, which will enable quick decisions within a more general framework, which keeps some kind of boundaries and keeps evaluating and re-evaluating decisions. This is, off course, easier said than done. I have a thought. Maybe, firms fail because they try to be both risky and prudent? What if we would allow our employees to be risky and flexible, but will create a better debriefing process. Create a process that checks every decision with milestones, ignoring sunk costs. Maybe, because we know the problems, the solution should be different?


2 Responses to “What can learn from the marshmallow?”

  1. Live long and prosper in horse manure « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] short-term thinking is to be blamed for a lot of the problems this world is facing.  Actually, my last post was about this subject. I also mentioned, a couple of times, that I believe the most important […]

  2. Lessons learned through a discussion of the Amazon-Zappos deal « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] This is not something we should celebrate. This something we should avoid. I think mentioning the famous marshmallow experiment is enough to make my point. Patience and perseverance, in the business world are essential. The […]

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