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Delayed gratification: the common feature of all success stories

Just to be clear, this article is about what I consider the most inescapable feature of success: delayed gratification. But first, let me start with a story.
The man I am going to talk about was not born into poverty. He had chosen it. From his family, among other things, he had inherited two houses and a Mercedes, but he decided to sell the houses and smashed the car to smithereens. Still not satisfied, he stripped off his clothes (“tore them off his body,” to use the words of those who knew him) and, last but not least, set fire to the doors and windows of his home.
At the time of the events, he was still in his twenties. He lived to the age of 70, in the conditions of total destitution that he created himself, covered only by a piece of fabric as a skirt.
This tale is neither invented nor taken from a true story.

This tale is a true story.

The man was named Alessandro Egidio Gori, although, in documentaries and articles made about, you will find him as “Vannino.”

If you want to know more about Vannino’s story, I hereby link here a beautiful video by THE PILLOW

Now, we all have a voice inside our heads asking, from time to time, the actual usefulness of our lifestyle.
Few listen to it all the way. Some do so because they simply go out of their mind. Others, because they suffer too much from the sense of conformity of modern society, and decide to escape, living isolated from the world, taking refuge in forests or hermitages.

Vannino, neither of the two.

After burning the doors and windows of his house, a forced hospitalization and an examination were arranged. The psychiatrist who examined him reported the following words, “He is completely sane” Nonetheless, Vannino never became a hermit; on the contrary, the uniqueness of his story, lies precisely in the fact that he continued to live in the village where he was born, perfectly integrated with the locals who, in turn, learned to accept his customs and usages, even coming to be attached to him.

Vannino’s history is fascinating because it generates contrast in your head: on the one hand, superstructures cry out to repudiate such an individual outright. On the other, his behaviors force you to notice that there is no reason to do so.
Vannino was not crazy, nor did he resent anyone. He did not act for a higher purpose, as St. Francis did, giving away his possessions to the poor.
There was also no sort of haughtiness in his conduct, the feeling of being exceptional compared to others. He respected them and remained integrated. So in the end, despite his primitive appearance, they did the same for him1.

Immediate VS Delayed Gratification

Vannino’s story is the most perfect representation of the instant gratification concept.

He practiced the cult of returning to the origins, which is not at all a figure of speech: this is exactly how it was when our species was in its infancy.
Man has evolved to satisfy his needs at the very moment they arise. In Darwinian terms, this represents an important advantage. It prompts you to act immediately. Take the example of hunger: waiting, for primitive man, would have meant a possible escape of prey, or risking it being caught by other animals.
Thus, for tens of thousands of years, society was based on a system of hunting and gathering.

In such a context, the immediate satisfaction of all needs wallows like a fish in the ocean.
There is no reason to wait.

Then, one fine day, someone came up with the idea of planting the seeds of the fruits they ate, and noticed that this, by waiting long enough, enabled them to earn lots and lots of fruits, without even having to look for them. All this, of course, required staying in the same place, and resisting the temptation to run after the first herbivore that passed by.
The discovery of agriculture brings with it an equally impactful innovation: the transition to a delayed gratification society.

Man retained the primordial genetics, the instinct to seek immediate action driven by a need.
That is still there today, and when you think phrases like “I’m working so hard; why am I not getting what I want?” he is the one who suggests it. However, he also learned that by suppressing that instinct in the immediate, he could get more convenient results.
Although the discovery of agriculture is 12’000 years old2, this dualism has reigned supreme ever since: the human being has remained an animal bent on immediate gratification in an environment increasingly rich in delayed-return activities.

Discovery of agriculture (image): the onset of delayed gratification
The discovery of agriculture defined the passage from an instant to a delayed gratification society

The indispensable characteristic of every success story

As long as agriculture is involved, waiting is not that much of a sacrifice; in fact, it can even be enjoyable. Even before the birth of Christ, Greek and Latin poets, including Virgil, idealized with their poetry the beauty of bucolic life.

“If next to the library you have the vegetable garden, you will lack nothing.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

The cultivation of the fields, was only the first in a series of discoveries and inventions that have since followed one another at an increasingly dizzying pace, shifting the scales toward an ever-delayed return of pleasure.

If we work well in the office, we will receive our salary in a few weeks. If we spend a year arriving on time and not making serious mistakes, we may go on vacation for two weeks. If we work 40 years straight, we acquire the right to retire.
As if that were not enough, the environment has also changed. While it is increasingly important to postpone gratification, doing so is increasingly difficult.
Every new thing results in a new temptation to resist. Just a short while ago, we were all phenomena in avoiding compulsively scrolling through our smartphones. That’s because the smartphone did not yet exist. We are talking about no more than about 20 years ago, but it seems like prehistory.

It is way much easier to take a good puff of nicotine, which immediately lowers stress levels, than to worry about lung health in 10 years. Or maybe I’ll resist that, but what a struggle! I deserved at least an ice cream as a reward. Or maybe not, thinking about cholesterol. I might then throw myself into video games, or social media, shopping…the temptations we are daily exposed to are virtually incalculable.

That’s why it’s so difficult to succeed.

Excellence, in whatever area you want to achieve it, involves a series of repeated actions over time. And that would be hard enough as it is. But that’s not enough: to carve out the time to devote to those actions, you have to give up something else. Since most of the less pleasant activities are mandatory (going to school and work, just to name two), you have to, playfully, derive that time by subtracting it from the pleasant ones.

This is where postponing satisfaction comes in: I give up the two hours at the gym after work, to study something that will come in handy for my career. I take away the weekend walk in the mountains to start my online business. The better you are at postponing gratification, the more likely you are to succeed.
Otherwise, in the best-case scenario, I may know how to forgo drinks with friends, but it will have been to watch TV series on the couch, rather than to do something constructive.

How much does delaying gratification really matter: The Marshmallow Experiment

Of course, delayed gratification is not the only ingredient of success. There can be no one-size-fits-all formula: depending on the area in which you want to excel, there will be more or less important factors.
The matter, if anything, should be seen in reverse. If you are not willing to put off gratification, you might as well not even start. Regardless of the desired goal.
Professor Walter Mischel demonstrated this with an experiment that has gone down in history as “The marshmallow experiment”.

Simplifying this experimental design as much as possible, we can state the following: it is a series of experiments, conducted by Mischel beginning in 1970. On that date, with the approval of the host school, he entered a primary school classroom, and told them that they could have a marshmallow right away, or two marshmallows if they waited for him to return to the classroom, without knowing when this would have happened. He monitored those children, at regular intervals, until they reached adolescence. Subsequent experiments showed that the children who had waited, became more proficient adolescents in virtually everything.
And “everything” should be understood literally: even in skills that, on the surface, have little to do with delayed gratification. It would be quite fair, for example, to expect that they had better scores in drug use (in the sense that they were harder to use drugs, not that they were better at assuming them), and in emotional intelligence. But Mischel found a better correlation, just to name a few, even in seemingly disconnected areas, such as vocabulary skills, or, even, body fat index.

Is that all there is to it?

So, if I had eaten the marshmallow right away, would my life have been a colossal failure?

No.

In its decades-long history, the marshmallow experiment has not been without criticism.
What matters for the purposes of this article is that it allows us to state with certainty the following:

1) If you want to succeed, you will have to deal with the delay of gratification.
2) Contrary to the collective imagination, delaying gratification is not the result of innate abilities, but of mental strategies that can be learned

Let us focus on this second point.
In the original 1970 experiment, Mischel did not want to monitor the impact of delayed gratification on the development of other qualities. He was aware that, for that, a series of follow-up surveys would be needed.
Instead, he measured another factor: how the ability to wait for the best reward was affected by the attention children paid on it.
In other words, the less children thought about the reward, the longer they were willing to wait.
The willingness to wait was due to both the experimental design and the behavior of the children themselves.
In fact, some were asked to think about positive things, some about negative things, and some about the reward. Those who thought about positive things waited an average of 12 minutes, compared with one minute’s time for the other two groups (yes: thinking about negative things and the reward dictated the same results).

Within the groups, moreover, some schoolchildren enacted strategies that were neither explicitly required nor forbidden. Some began to drum their feet on the ground. Others took the marshmallow and began to play with it. One, a little genius, laid her head on the counter, closed her eyes, and fell asleep (I’d love to know what she became once grown up!).
These behaviors were associated with increased waiting time.
By Mischel’s own admission, the experiment was not able to measure the ability to delay gratification based on sheer willpower. If anything, the experiment was aimed at demonstrating the mechanisms by which the instinct for immediate gratification can be managed.

Building alternative scenarios: the winning strategy for delayed gratification

The children who endured to the end were not superhumans. They had, exactly on par with the others, the instinct to take that damn prize right away, but simply, and perhaps without even knowing it, made better use of their inner resources.

Once and for all: delaying gratification has nothing to do with willpower.

Forcing oneself above one’s strengths to avoid a behavior may be the exception, not the rule.
To succeed consistently, one must focus on what they can control.
The children who waited could not, like their more impatient peers, get out of their chairs, leave the classroom, or get two candies without waiting. They had, and this is exactly what happens to each of us with our lives, no way to govern the context.
I
nstead, what they did was create mental representations that would allow them to transform it from negative (I have to wait and so I struggle) to positive (in the meantime, there are other things I can do).

The attitude of changing the interpretation we give to context, to a large extent, can be learned. It is part of a series of associations that our brains make from an early age.
When we come into the world, our only form of communication is crying. If we want to have something, all we have to do is let out a big pair of tears and everything works out. As we grow up, unfortunately, we understand that we cannot have everything right away. Thus, we develop intercessions of will between our desire and its fulfillment. If I insistently ask for something while my parents are talking to other people, I will most likely be scolded: if, instead, I wait until they have finished talking, I will be more likely to be satisfied. Before going out to play, I have to finish my homework. Before eating, wash your hands. And so on.

We don’t like waiting anyway; but since we have a good reason for it, we get used to it. Sooner or later, we realize that the best way to do it is to draw a big smile on the face of that waiting so that it seems more pleasant.
Of course, this does not necessarily happen. Some people never interrupt their inner childhood. They can be easily recognized: either things go their way or nothing happens. They are the ones who force the group to go to sushi when everyone else would rather the restaurant, those who need striking gestures to always be the center of attention, including offending and treating others with contempt. “The ball is mine, I decide who plays.”
They have an innate talent for arousing dislike. After years of painstakingly polishing our primal instincts, we still have to deal with people who have never done that effort, and perhaps they may even be recognized to have a certain charisma.

However, the point is that, in their brains, intermediate thinking between need and satisfaction is missing. It is missing because it has never developed. If they have to wait, they become irritable. It is precisely this double-wire connection between alternative thinking and delayed gratification: they both rely on the brain’s ability to generate new interpretations of reality.

A further demonstration is provided by cannabis. It is a drug and, as such, its intake generates pleasure. In one study, it was shown how chronic cannabis users lose the ability to imagine themselves in new situations. If they need to experience a pleasurable state, it is enough for them to light up a joint. Thus, their imagination muscle atrophies. The same muscle that, as we have already seen, underlies the delay of pleasure. Pleasure that they do not know how to delay, because it is enough for them to light up a joint. And here, the circle comes full circle.

What is commonly considered sacrifice, is not always actually so. Postponing gratification is a creative process. At the point that, in its best form, it becomes pleasure itself. Thus, magically, “I have to wait or I won’t get the marshmallow,” becomes:

“That’s so cool! Not only can I fall asleep at school without being suspended, but when I wake up, I’ll even get two marshmallows!”

In conclusion

Unlike most of the others, this article is poor in practical examples. This choice is not accidental: I wanted to stress that the concept is general, which applies to every field of life.
If you are reading this, you may wish to change some parameters that do not suit you. This is human: self-improvement is the top of the pyramid of needs, the ultimate goal of our species.
Regardless of what it is that you want to change, however, you will first have to learn to postpone gratification.
Otherwise, you’d better do what Vannino did. You know what’s great about doing like Vannino? The fact it works. Delaying gratification is difficult because it goes against the instincts for which we evolved. Those instincts dictate instant gratification. He built a life of instant gratification. So when asked what happiness was for him, he could be truthful in answering:

“Since I made this choice, every moment has been happy.”

If, on the other hand, your ambition is different, sooner or later you will have to admit that success requires a long series of repeated actions. Repeating the same thing over and over again is about as far from the very concept of gratification as you can get.
Therefore, do not go down the path of instant gratification. You would find yourself in a kind of limbo, where your expectations will always exceed your results. Either lower your expectations, as Vannino did, or change your behaviors.

How? I have no idea. But, for sure, by learning to appreciate pleasures in the right measure, and not an ounce more.

Footnotes

  1. Returning to Vannino, he also underwent a judicial process to maintain the house, which had been declared uninhabitable. The judge did not want to believe what he saw, and asked questions to better understand who he was dealing with. One of them was, “How do you do with food?” (he meant economically). “Look, when I’m hungry I eat.”
    I don’t think we need to add more about the concept of instant gratification. ↩︎
  2. Wikipedia, history of agriculture ↩︎

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