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May 24, 2009


When I was a kid, my sister and I would go trick-or-treating on Halloween. This wasn't wimpy run-through-the-halls-of-Microsoft-grabbing-giant-chocolate-bars-from-inattentive-engineers trick-or-treating like my kids enjoy today; this was incorporate-a-coat-into-your-costume-and-trudge-from-house-to-house-for-a-single-caramel trick-or-treating. Despite the difficulty of acquiring the sugar, I could not resist snarfing it down in a few days. Unlike my sister, who hoarded hers for who knows how long (there's probably still some left in the closet of her old room).

I was thinking of this when I read the New Yorker article Don't! by Jonah Lehrer. It's a Gladwellian piece about children who are presented with a choice: eat one marshmallow right now, or wait a few minutes (with the marshmallow near at hand) and get two marshmallows. Many children can't delay their gratification and eat the marshmallow right away. The article goes on to explain that the researchers noticed that the "low delayers", who ate the marshmallow right away, didn't do as well in school, and ultimately in life. Typical sentence: "The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds."

I am sure that I would have eaten the marshmallow right away. I'm also sure that nobody scored 210 points higher on the SAT than I did, I'm pretty sure that I didn't have behavioral problems in school, and I'm reasonably sure that I've been successful in life (ignore the part about blogging).

Actually I think I'm a pretty good delayer, I just like candy. There's one situation in particular where I can recall delaying a lot; in elementary school, when the teacher would ask "Does anybody know the answer?", I generally would, but lots of times I wouldn't raise my hand. The reason I didn't do this was because other kids would get annoyed at me for answering too often; I do recall being frustrated at having to wait while they botched the answers, but I was able to keep my hand down.

So, what does this all have to do with itself? Well, it turns out that business coaches will tell you that one of the key was you can get better at working with people is getting feedback from others. And one of the key ways you can get feedback from others is by waiting to hear from them, rather then offering them an opinion for them to agree/disagree with. For example, rather than ask "Do you think this presentation is good or should we change it so it starts with the charts, or should we just do a one-page handout?", you should just ask "What do you think of this presentation?" I have a tendency to do this (offer a choice of solutions instead of just asking for feedback), and I realize that it is because I want to demonstrate that I have thought through some of the choices--I want to get "credit" for that. I thought that keeping quiet in school was just playing dumb, and I suppose in that context it is, but it's good preparation for a world where problems don't have a single right answer.

What I am basically doing is going for the immediate one marshmallow of showing off my skillz, as opposed to waiting for the two marshmallows of more useful feedback that I will receive if I can just delay for a while. So, now the relationship between delay skills and success makes more sense. The people who can't delay turn into the stereotypical loner geniuses who can't tolerate anybody they view as less intelligent than them; as a result they rarely benefit from the wisdom of others. Did those kids raise their hands all the time in school? I bet they did...and we won't even talk about what they did to their Halloween candy. Meanwhile if you can improve your delaying skills you'll get more marshmallows, you Halloween candy will last longer, you won't annoy your classmates, and the answers to all your problems will be delivered to you by others.

Posted by AdamBa at May 24, 2009 08:56 PM


You may not remember this, but when you and your sister got giant Toblerone bars at Chanukah, you would glom yours in a day or two, while your sister made hers last eight days. She did outscore you by 10 points in the SAT.

Incidentally, I don't think I could've waited either.

Posted by: marble chair at May 25, 2009 07:14 AM

Is not! (Still candy in the closet, that is.)

Posted by: Becky at May 28, 2009 06:08 PM