Standford university pyschology researcher Michael Mischel began a study in the 1960’s known as ‘The Marshmallow Studies’. Mischel wanted to try and understand what effect our impulsive behaviours at a young age had on our future success. In one example the researcher sat a 4 year old boy in a room with one marshmallow on a plate in front of him. The researcher explained that he would leave the room and the boy could eat the marshmallow while he was gone but if he could wait until the researcher returned he would give him a second marshmallow. This put the little boy in a quandary. “Do I eat it now or do I wait?”. Around a third of the children ate the marshmallow before the researcher returned.
The researcher conducted many such experiments and tracked these children throughout their life into adult hood to discover whether there was a link between resisting the first marshmallow in exchange for two marshmallows and their general success in life. What the researchers found was that those children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow had a dramatically different outcome in life.
The children who waited were generally more positive, self-motivating and were able to delay gratification in the pursuit of their goals whereas the children who ate the first marshmallow were generally in poor health, had low job satisfaction and troubled marriages.
Humans in effect have two brains operating. Let’s call them the short-term and long-term brains. The short-term brain is the one that causes you to overeat at a buffet or to put off studying for an important exam in exchange for a night out with friends. The long-term brain is the one that thinks carefully about what is best between two or more choices. These two brains are often competing and the research shows there is an obvious link between the ability to consult the long-term brain over the short-term brain and success.
The researchers noted the difference between the children came down to the way they dealt with the challenge of eating now or waiting. What they found was the short-term brain operators focused on the marshmallow in front of them and how delicious it was whereas the long-term brain operators would shift their focus. E.g. they would cover their eyes and imagine playing with their favourite toys or being in a completely different place so as to forget about the marshmallow in front of them althogether. In other words they were distracting themselves.
Distracting oneself is a skill that anyone can learn. Understanding strategies for success will also help you to succeed on guitar. Let us say for example that at six o’clock each night you plan to sit down to do 30 minutes of guitar practice. You have had a long hard day at school all work in your short-term brain just wants to sit on the lounge with a drink and watch TV. If you were to consult your long-term brain it would tell you skipping guitar practice in favor of watching TV is a poor choice and certainly will not help you to reach your goal of playing guitar. Use a distraction like taking a shower or going for a short walk all the while focusing on the guitar practice you are about to do and the long-term rewards for doing the practice. Another good distraction is to make a play list of songs that inspire you to practice and have it ready when you are feeling unmotivated or impulsive. This almost always works for me.
In summary your success in life is determined by your ability to consult your long-term brain on important matters. This doesn’t mean you shut down and ignore your short-term brain because it also plays an important role but just don’t let it sabotage your long term plans.
David Hart – Program Director
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