Trying to succeed in life is not just about patience. Equally as important is how you act while being patient.
Life used to require patience. Remember when waiting was a thing? I recall that when practice was over, I’d call my mom from a payphone outside of the gym and if she didn’t respond, I waited. Then I tried again a few minutes later.
Once she picked me up, I'd grab takeout for dinner. But guess what? I actually had to walk in, order from the counter, sit down, and wait. Or — if you're old enough for this to ring a bell — remember when you had to send a fax? First you had to wait for the phone line to be free, then wait for it to go through, and then wait until someone on the other end actually walked by the fax machine and read it.
All of this waiting has now been erased by apps on your phone that send a car in minutes to your pick-up spot, food delivery companies that have fresh hand-tossed pizza at your door in under 15 minutes, and social messaging machines that make nearly anyone accessible at any time. A lot of people argue that all of these things are making our lives easier. I disagree. It might be making life feel easier, but it’s really making it more difficult for us to actually engage in simple acts of self-control, patience, delayed gratification, and resisting temptation.
One of My Favorite Experiments: The Marshmallow Test
I talk about the Marshmallow Test more than almost anything (except burpees, of course). Last week, I read an article about a cuttlefish that passed a replica of my favorite experiment. A cephalopod was smart enough to choose waiting over impulse and score a more delicious meal as a result! This blew my mind. If the relative of an octopus can learn how to wait for something excellent in the future, instead of something mediocre right now, why can’t we do the same thing?
We can! We just have to be willing to focus on these two things:
1. How delaying gratification promotes self-control
2. How waiting helps shape our WHY
Because we live in a get-it-now, eat-it-now, buy-it-now society, it’s hard to resist impulse. But just because we can have something doesn’t mean we should. When we resist impulse, we grow our ability to control our behavior. You see this all the time in kids who get everything but learn nothing. When parents pander to their child's impulses and give the kid everything he or she wants, that child never builds the skill of self-control. They are always the one at the soccer game that falls into a pile of sobs when the ball doesn’t come their way. It’s sad to watch, because you know that kid is going to have a much harder time later in life.
Learning self-control translates into all areas of life. Spartan's sponsor partnerships are the perfect example. When a potential sponsor calls us and offers us gobs of money to plaster their name on our website, my first impulse is, “F*** yeah, get them up and running.”
But a better business model is to actually slow down, understand the partnership, evaluate whether their brand is aligned with ours, consider if we can actually stand behind their brand with integrity, and then make an informed choice. This can take weeks! The initial reaction is to pull the trigger faster because the shiny red object — more revenue — feels so good. But it’s better for the business to wait and evaluate. It consistently teaches both me and my team self-control.
Shaping Your Why
When you're forced to wait for something, there is an incredible thing that happens: You begin to evaluate WHY you are waiting in the first place. It’s an opportunity to shape your True North. In 2020, the Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed due to COVID. This meant that athletes who had been training perfectly up to that point were going to slap on another year of hard work, grit, and commitment. For some, this was welcomed — another year to get fitter, stronger, and more resilient. For others, it was too much. Their training up to that point had been precisely orchestrated for that year, and another year would put them in a danger zone both physically and mentally.
From my perspective, 2020 was an incredible opportunity. Athletes had the perfect chance to evaluate WHY they were doing this in the first place. I am positive that people, throughout the past year, have decided that perhaps Olympic Gold wasn’t what they wanted after all. So they bailed, and might even be happier because of it. Others probably became more dialed in than ever — really refining and understanding why this mattered to them, and elevating their interest even more. When we wait, we are given a whole chunk of time to really ask ourselves: Why do I want this in the first place? Whether we’re talking about a bowl of ice cream or a shot at the Olympic team, it all matters because our choices dictate our lives.
I’m never going to stop telling people about the Marshmallow Test (or burpees, for that matter). I realize that I’m up against technology, our brain’s desire to be comfortable, and a whole society of quick fixes and hacks. But if a squid can figure out how to delay gratification and wait for something better, can’t we?