marshmallow test

In the late 1960s, Stanford researchers developed a longitudinal, delayed gratification test (the Marshmallow test) that claimed to predict a person’s long-term success at three years old (see video here).

For the test, an administrator brings a three year old into a room and gives her a marshmallow.  He tells her that he is going to leave the room for two minutes and if she doesn’t eat the marshmallow by the time he returns, he’ll give her two marshmallows.  They then tracked the three year olds success over the next few decades and concluded that the ones who were able to resist the marshmallow at three years old were more successful in life than the ones who gave in and ate the marshmallow.

In an excellent Ted Talk, Professor Conor Neil from IESE Business School shares the top qualities that Warren Buffett looks for in a partner (integrity, energy, intelligence) and notes that willpower is a necessary component of each:

  1. integrity 
    • to have the willpower to keep alignment with values and time spent
    • how much time goes into the things you mean to do?
  2. energy
    • to have the energy to accomplish a difficult challenge or multi-year goal, you need the willpower to focus on the present and not let one’s mind get too far ahead of the now
    • focus on the next marshmallow
  3. adaptive intelligence 
    • in order to gain adaptive intelligence, one needs the willpower to regularly document the things you read, experience, learn
    • if you take the time to regularly reflect on what you’ve learned (e.g. through use of a daily journal), over time you’ll gain intelligence as you’ll become the accumulation of your experiences
    • write about the marshmallow and how you felt when resisting it (both immediately and an hour or day later)

He concludes with the following advice,

“A successful life is the accumulation of the right decision over and over again, day after day.  We so often underestimate what we can achieve in a year and overestimate what we can achieve in a day.  Rule #1 for success, when you have a marshmallow don’t stare at it. The diet doesn’t fail because of weakness of will, the diet fails because the chocolate is there.  It’s small decisions done repeatedly that makes the difference.”


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