English: Marshmallows

English: Marshmallows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Real Key to Success


Evidence has been accumulating for decades – in fact back in the mists of time when I trained to be a teacher it was already there – the key to long term success is willpower and self control. Self-control is what people use to restrain their desires and impulses. We were taught that middle class kids do well  in education (partly)because of there ability to delay gratification. In other words to resist short term pleasure for long term gain. (Interestingly the classic experiment to demonstrate this  offers kids marshmallows – I have always been able to resist a marsh mallow but there are other things…)

When I trained to be a coach I learned that those with ‘low frustration tolerance’  ie those who can’t put up with a bit of difficulty will not achieve their goals. Now  longer longitudinal studies, online   including those of siblings, have moved beyond just tempting kids with marshmallows,  but looking at what happens to them in life, have shown that kids with high degrees of self control grow into adults who are in better health, lower rates of obesity, fewer STDs, higher paid jobs, more savings, longer lasting relationships higher self-esteem, better interpersonal skills, better emotional responses, and are less likely to end up in prison.  These studies show that self control is a vital strength and the key to success in life. (self control and intelligence are the twin determinants).

But where does self control come from? Is it something that we either have or have not? Can we have it in some  respects and not others , at some times and not others?

Self control seems to come from the way we see the world. People with higher self control, are more likely to look at the results of a behaviour. They focus on the wood not the trees.  They think in terms of high level constructs not minutiae. They are more likely to use abstract reasoning and to think not just of the wood but of the whole topography.  This approach to how we see the world is probably pretty constant and is a trait that is learned  as a child. Possibly some of it is genetic. But overlying this that the amount of self control we are able to exhibit at anyone time is variable. It is finite, we only have so much of it in our ‘tank’.  Exercising our willpower or self control  actually uses up energy. Now I understand why diets are so hard. When we exercise our self control we deplete our stores of glucose, and so the body demands sugar. Diets are doomed to failure unless we stop seeing them as denial and start looking at the bigger picture. It is really difficult to persevere with a difficult or unpleasant task when we have had to exercise self control in some other way.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that self control or will power appears to behave like a muscle. The more you do use it the stronger it will become.  Doing normal activities with your non-dominant hand, like brushing your teeth or opening doors and changing something about your speech (avoiding the words “literally,” “like” and “basically” would be particularly beneficial for humanity). Basically (sorry), anything that involves changing a habit will be effective as a workout for the “willpower muscle.” So when our Victorian school masters made children ‘sit up straight’ or ‘take your hands out of your pockets’ they were actually motivating children to resist the temptation to slump and thus increasing their will power.

So self control is critical to success: so we need to look at things strategically, think abstractly and about consequences  and to build those will power muscles.



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