People face choices daily. As we grow older, the number of choices we are required to make increases along with the ramifications of each choice. So, the question for me, a 21-year-old college student, becomes how do I make the best choices? Why do so many people choose so poorly? Can we credit or blame our parents? What contributes to making people, such as Bill Gates, successful?
In the late 1960’s, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University conducted a test that he called “The Marshmallow Experiment.” In his experiment, he placed children between the ages of four and six in a room with no distractions. He then offered them a treat of their choices such as a marshmallow or Oreo. He told the children he would be back in 15 minutes with another treat of their choice if they waited and did not eat their treat until he returned. The sample size was 653 children. At the end of the test, the majority ate the marshmallow within the 15 minutes. Roughly a third waited for the second reward. These results, nonetheless, are not the most interesting part of the test. The most interesting part of the experiment came from the data collected after reconnecting years later with these test participants. Mischel, along with some help, was able to collect data on 185 of the original test participants. Ninety-four of them provided their S.A.T scores. Professor Mischel found that the people who deferred the immediate treat scored on average 210 points higher on the S.A.T than those who ate the treat in the original experiment. He also found correlations to obesity, response to stress and career success as a whole.
These results should not be surprising. Delaying immediate gratification with the future in sight results in long term benefits. Setting down the video game controller and preparing for the S.A.T. will result in higher scores. Choosing to sacrifice eating desert and exercising instead results in weight loss. Saving a portion of your pay check for retirement rather than buying the latest new gadget will create a larger “nest egg” for retirement.
Making the appropriate choice, however, is just part of the overall key to success. Furthermore, how a person is raised, the wealth of their family, their ethnicity, and other similar factors play an only a small role in being successful. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. As Gladwell began to study violinist; he found that the elite violinist emerged around the age of 20 after 10,000 hours of practice. The average violinist only had roughly 4,000 hours of practice. One would expect those “naturally gifted” rise to the top faster. Yet none of the statistical data gathered supported this view. Gladwell then began to study the lives of successful people such as Bill Gates, the Beetles, and Tiger Woods. In the case of Bill Gates, he was a college drop-out who most people would probably credit his success to his natural “smarts.” Yet, Gladwell found evidence pointing to another conclusion. Gates was able to acquire 10,000 hours of programming practice at a younger age than nearly anyone in the world. By the time he and his friend Paul Allen were ready to launch Microsoft, they both were experts in the field. Granted, there were outlying factors. Mainly, Paul Allen and Bill Gates had access to a computer terminal at their school, which was extremely rare in 1960’s. However, both young men made the choice to pursue their interest in computers and to spend their time working with computers and programming. Gates would even sneak out of his house after bedtime to spend more time on the computer at school.
The bottom line is there is no substitute for hard work and no short cuts. It should actually be comforting to know that natural ability, as well as other factors, play only a minor role in determining career success. The individual does have a great deal of control over his or her future. Robert Cook, the founder of this blog and successful CEO of multiple billion dollar corporations wrote this in an email in response to a discussion we had, “I wish it were more complicated sometimes, but it’s not. Decide what you want to do, then get in position to do it, spend time on task, and develop a habit of improvement.” Success starts with a choice. Whether it is a college decision or simply deciding to study for a test, we must act in a time consistence manner. In order to achieve success in the future, often we have to sacrifice our own immediate gratification. I truly believe that a life time of putting yourself in position, spending time on task, and developing a habit of improvement will lead you to places that we never dreamed were possible. It is choice, not chance that determines our destiny. Therefore, we must daily choose to pursue excellence.