An interesting experiment on the nature of success was started by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s. He decided to test the self-discipline of children at an early age, then trace their relative success as their lives went on.
The experiment began when the children were aged four, Mischel devised a game involving a treat that pretty much all children like - marshmallows. He'd place one marshmallow in front of each child and told them they could eat it right away if they wanted to. However, if they could wait several minutes before eating it, they'd receive a second marshmallow as a reward.
You can imagine how difficult this test was for such young children!
Some ate the first marshmallow straight away without a second thought, while others managed to last up to fifteen minutes waiting for a second one. Even the children with more self-control found this experiment very difficult, one even licked the table around the marshmallow.
Mischel carefully recorded each child's result and then progressed their success throughout their later lives. The correlation between self-control in the marshmallow test and later success was amazing, according to the reported results.
At the age of eighteen, those who ate the first marshmallow immediately were found to have low self-esteem, be stubborn, have envy problems, become bullies, and be easily frustrated. They also had more challenging adulthoods, including a higher likelihood of suffering drug problems by age thirty-two.
Those who managed to wait for their marshmallow had much better life outcomes. They were better at coping, being assertive, trustworthiness, and academic challenges. They apparently averaged SAT scores 210 points higher than their less controlled peers.
This is strong evidence that what many of us already suspect is true - that self-discipline plays a big role in success.
This is good news in that it defines the problem for us. By being able to delay gratification when it's sensible to do so, we're more likely to lead good lives.
Almost everything lasting that's good in life is difficult to achieve and requires enduring situations we'd rather not have to. Getting a good education involves doing study that's sometimes boring. Creating a successful business involves hard work, uncomfortable sales-calls, and financial discipline. Having a good marriage involves resisting the lures of lust and selfishness.
Like the children sitting waiting for a marshmallow, the ability to resist the temptation to do what would provide us with the greatest short-term reward can often lead to better long-term outcomes.
However, there's also bad news in these results for those who already suffer from self-control problems.
If you can determine who's going to be successful as early as age four, this suggests that we're in less control of our outcomes than we may like to believe. The fact that those who have drug problems by age thirty-two also suffered self-control problems at four, suggests that our life path is mapped out at a very early age.
The extent that a four-year-old child has determined his own personality traits rather than having them determined for him is arguable. But any sensible analysis would suggest that there's not much conscious self-determination going on there. Most people would say a young child's behavior is influenced much more by his genes, environment and parenting, than by his own choices.
Unless you're some kind of super-genius, I'm guessing that everyone reading this is over the age of four. It's an uncomfortable conclusion to come to - believing that important parts of your life were already mapped out all those years ago.
I've written before that people don't tend to change much, but also that it's possible for them to change if they really want to. I guess the lesson to take from this is that if you did have poor self-control at an early age, it will be much more difficult to succeed. But here's the key point - it's not impossible.
You may be interested in reading my previous article on how to improve your self-discipline. With practice, I think even those who are at a natural disadvantage can still improve themselves to above-average levels in most fields. Self-discipline is one of those areas.