When I was about 8 years old, my family and I went over to our next-door neighbour’s house for dinner. After dinner, their daughter offered me a sweetie. So, she led me into her room and opened up her “sweetie draw.”
What she had done was save up her sweets over months and months to fill this draw with all of her favourite goodies. It was a big draw. Skittles, liquorice allsorts, gummy bears, gobstoppers… you name it, she had it. The thought of it now makes me salivate.
It made such an impression, I decided to build my own. So, while we were out shopping for groceries the next day, I pleaded with my mum to buy me some sweets. I remember getting a packet of chewy fruit mentos. I vowed not to eat it but to save it for my very own sweetie draw.
On the way home, however, I couldn’t help myself. I bargained, “It’s ok if I just eat a few. I can save the rest for my sweetie draw.” By the car ride home, I’d eaten most of it.
After we got home, I placed this mostly eaten mentos packet in my bedside drawer. Of course, it didn’t last long. The thought of it continued to eat away at me. Eventually, I gave in and consumed the rest.
But, do you know what? Do you know how I felt after this crushing defeat? Well, nothing really. I didn’t care. I simply gave up on the idea and moved on with my life.
The Marshmallow Kids
Now, I’m sure you’ve most of you have heard of the famous marshmallow experiment. For those who haven’t, it was a study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, where children were offered a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they waited for a period of time.
Years later, researchers found that the 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.”
I bring it up because every time I read about it, it always made me feel, well, kinda bad. Because I know I would have been one of the kids who “failed” that experiment. Just like I failed to build that sweetie draw all those years ago.
Still, I realize something is up because, by most of those metrics, I am “successful.” Not as successful as some, but I could have done much worse. Now, how much of this “success” has to do with my skin colour, sex, or other advantages I take for granted, is up for debate. I feel it would be remiss not to mention that. Either way, I know I’m still that kid inside.
My wife has no problem eating in moderation. On the other hand, given half the chance, I will consume an entire box of Oreos in one sitting. This is why I always ask my wife not to buy treaty things when she shops. She once asked, “What if I hide them?” I told her in my best Liam Neeson impression, “That I will find them, and I will eat them.”
None of this is to say I haven’t learned to delay gratification. I believe I have. My finances are in good order. I eat a balanced diet (at home). I’m fit and healthy. It’s just, I don’t know how much of this is really achieved through willpower? It’s not like I’m sitting on my hands trying to distract myself from eating the marshmallow in front of me.
I’ve learned that designing my environment is a FAR more effective way to control my impulsivity. I’m better off with no marshmallows than I am trying to get two. And this is something else I’ve figured out. My superpower isn’t the ability to delay gratification so I can get what I want.
It’s not wanting it in the first place.
The Secret to Self-Discipline
I can’t help but wonder, what if, many of those kids – the ones who weren’t “capable” of delaying gratification – were misunderstood. What if they were simply the type of person who was happy living for the moment? What if they were that the type that didn’t feel the need for a second marshmallow?
What if they were happy being who they were until society placed a spotlight on the “successful” people of this world and told them this is who you should be and what you should have? Until society showed them the sweetie draw and said, “look at this!”
Of course, that same society also teaches us that our wants and desire “are the root of all evil.” That may be true, but what happens when you hate on your own wants and desires? What happens when you hate yourself for being human? What happens when you resist or hate anything? Of course, you give those parts of yourself control. You give those things strength. (This applies to the political party and leader you hate too btw!)
But I’m not convinced people build sweetie draws because of their ability to delay gratification. I believe they find the act of building a sweetie draw gratifying. They love collecting. They love saving up! Similarly, people don’t get up at 5 am to exercise because of their incredible willpower. People obsessed with health and fitness are simply obsessed with health and wellness.
They have made those things part of their identity. It’s who they are.
Of course, we can learn to make those things part of our identity too. We can put the habits in place that reinforce the identity we wish to build. We can learn to visualise our goals and “surf the urge” whenever we find ourselves tempted to dig into the packet of mentos. These things are worth working on.
But if you’re going about it to make up for the fact that you don’t currently have a sweetie draw. If you’re trying to make up for feelings of inadequacy, it’s going to be hard, if not impossible. That’s because self-discipline is an illusion. The real secret to self-improvement is self-acceptance. It’s when you learn to understand, love and work with the person you are, that things become easier.
And you should take the time to really ask yourself who that person is and what that person really wants. Maybe you want that second marshmallow, or, maybe you don’t one at all?
Personally, I love going with the flow. I don’t care so much for stuff. I much prefer spending my money on experiences like travel. I tend to think that security is overrated. If I’m being brutally honest, I’ve found having three mortgages, keeping up with several different investment portfolios, etc., somewhat imprisoning. I’m looking to drastically simplify my finances over the next couple of years for that reason. The older I get, the more I realise how much happier I am giving away the extra marshmallow than trying to save for it.
I realise there will never be a sweetie draw in my household, but do you know what?
I don’t care.
You can find AP2’s personal blog here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot