A commonly quoted test to know if a child will go on to be successful is if they pass the marshmallow test. The test basically goes like this: put a marshmallow in front of a child and tell them they can eat it whenever they want, but, if they wait 15 minutes and do not eat the marshmallow, they will receive a second marshmallow to eat. The children that eat the marshmallow, instead of waiting the 15 minutes for the second marshmallow, are then recorded to go on and make less income in the future.
The logic and reasoning most frequently used to explain this is that future success requires delayed gratification and that being able to wait for the second marshmallow is an early indication of that character quality and the impulsive child who eats the marshmallow immediately is destined to be less successful.
The key definition here that I think is important to look at is the term “successful.” The study reflects success as higher income and consistency of employment. This definition makes parents feel good about their children’s potential and that they will have raised them with a good chance to do well and provide for themselves. This definition caters to the current leadership of most organizations who have enjoyed one of the only times in history where being able to work at one company for your entire career based on what you learned in school and university is possible. That definition of success works well for the leadership of universities who pride themselves on alumni employment rates and hope for contributions from those loyal former students.
For anyone that depends on things staying exactly as they are and having a steady stream of young people coming through their doors that are willingly indoctrinated into sitting still, not expecting more, and trusting that some stranger is going to follow through on their promise to provide the future incentive, and that nothing is going to change between now and then — the marshmallow test confirms their biases and gives them the results that they want and need to hear in order to keep their industrialized education systems and cubicle farm full of dutiful workers full.
- What if the kid didn’t like marshmallows?
- What if the kid didn’t value two marshmallows as much as they valued getting out of the strange room with double sided mirrors?
- What if the kid didn’t trust that the stranger who told them the deal and said to themselves they were going to get what they could and move on?
- What if the kid thought to himself that this is a pretty dumb system and not one worth participating in and just decided to get out of it sooner rather than later?
- What if the kid figured that he might be able to earn the second marshmallow faster by eating the first, asking to speak to the person in charge, explaining that it was a waste of everyone’s time and that he’d just like the second marshmallow now and sweet talked his way into it?
- What if the kid decided that sitting around waiting wasn’t actually worthy of the reward and tried to instead earn it through singing or drawing or reciting a poem?
- What if the kid didn’t know whether he liked that kind of marshmallow and decided to try the first one to see if it was at all worth waiting around for the second one.
- What if the kid was destined to become an unreasonable person like George Bernard Shaw who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The future of work and the future definition of success will not benefit the kids that can pass the marshmallow test. The predictability of the past few decades of corporate America is over. Celebrating your twenty year anniversary somewhere will be a sign that you haven’t evolved your career or dared to leave your comfort zone. That you were willing to wait for someone else to deem you worthy of a promotion a few years from now as long as you behaved.
Planning a retirement based on the current incentives listed in your 401K packet won’t take into account for the massive shifts in work and employment or the fact that your company likely won’t be here 30 years from now. But if you want to impressive that asshole uncle who’s a partner at one of the big four accounting firms or that former professor who used to be in the military and doesn’t understand why people don’t still respond to his requests with “Sir, yes sir.” feel free to tow the line and selling your time until you turn 65 in hopes of the promise that the myth of a second marshmallow comes true.