Work, Life and Delayed Gratification: The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment


I just finished 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans after a blogger told me it is a great template for my book.

She said, “Laurie, it’s positive. It makes people feel good. And it’s one of the best career books in 2013. You can do this.”

Hm. Okay. Have you talked to your grandparents lately? Old people are unreliable narrators. But I read the book on a flight to Orlando. I will say this:

  • It was sweet and charming.
  • If you feel down about your life, it will pick you up.
  • It is definitely meant to inspire you.

But there is no real data behind the advice from old people — especially when it comes to careers.

And that bugs me a little.


I remember when my grandmother was dying. She rewrote much of her personal history to make sense of what she experienced on this planet. I just nodded. I wasn’t about to say, “Hey, this sounds great but my Mom and aunts have a different version of the story, yo.”

No way. I just let it go. I knew that my Gramma wanted her life to matter. She wanted to be heard. And she had already given me excellent advice long before she died.

  • Go to college. Have a career. Don’t have a baby before you’re married.

Gramma knew firsthand that an education was the only way for a young woman to move up in America. And she felt that passion is for fools. Passion is for lazy people. Passion gets your pregnant.

What she really believed in — not for herself, but for me — was the theory of delayed gratification as demonstrated by the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment refers to a series of studies on deferred gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel, etc.) provided immediately or two small rewards if he or she waited until the experimenter returned (after an absence of approximately 15 minutes). In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.

The lesson of the Stanford marshmallow experiment is simple: if you say no to the easy things in life, especially when good things are promised to you in exchange for your sacrifice, life get better. Rewards get bigger. Your patience pays off.

And the lesson from my grandmother is simple: Don’t throw yourself at the first guy who loves you. Work hard and learn something. Build a good life for yourself as a woman. Save your money in a sensible bank account so you can be 81 and live somewhere other than the nursing home you saw on 60 Minutes.

(That’s almost verbatim.)

This is easier said than done, of course. Men are charmers. College is hard. And putting up with a crappy career — and all the complexities of a white-collar job with neurotic coworkers and stupid bosses — can be hard on the soul. Boredom and complacency can creep into your life. Depression can follow.

The good news is that delayed gratification can be taught and learned. You can make better choices today to set yourself up for success tomorrow. And while making seemingly “tough” choices, you can be passionate and have fun. You can enjoy your job. You can eventually follow your dreams.

But a little struggle never hurt anyone.

That’s not a very fun or romantic message. And that book won’t be written any time soon. Especially by me.

Now get off my lawn.

Previous post:

Next post: